Thinking Like a Writer

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We all know this story, or some variation of it.

Will Geer teaches Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson

Back in the wilderness days, a mountain man pulls fish out of a creek bed, one after the other with seemingly little effort.  He’s made a bunch of traps out of brush and twigs and has set them in a prime fish-feeding hole. And now he’s reaping the harvest.

A starving homesteader comes upon the mountain man and begs him for help. The mountain man notices that that homesteader has on a nice winter coat, one in far better condition than his own.

The mountain man now faces a bunch of choices. He can:

  1. Refuse to help the homesteader.
  2. Propose a trade—the fish he’s already caught in exchange for the homesteader’s coat.
  3. Pity the man and simply give the homesteader the fish he’s already caught.
  4. Propose a different trade—the homemade fish traps for the homesteader’s winter coat.
  5. Offer the fish traps to the homesteader with the understanding that he’ll require repayment at some distant point in the future. [In honor of The Godfather, I like to call this the Don Corleone option.]
  6. Propose yet another trade—he’ll teach the homesteader how to make the traps in exchange for the homesteader’s winter coat.
  7. Teach the homesteader how to make the traps without charging him anything now or in the future.

What are the pros and cons of each of these decisions? What characterization choices would you have if you were writing this story? Let’s break them down.

For the First Scenario:

If he refuses to help the homesteader, the mountain man will definitely keep his territory to himself.  There’s little chance that the homesteader (or his family camped in the valley below, waiting for their provider to bring home food) will survive the winter.

By ignoring the cry for help, the mountain man will continue to rule his world. But on the flip side, he will have no allies.  If he needs help someday (and his delicate détente with the Crow Nation could fall apart very easily), there will be no homesteader nearby to come to his aid.

In terms of characterization, if we were to look at this scenario from the point of view of an audience, what would they think?  Could we put a positive or negative charge on the two characters in terms of their external and internal well being from the audience’s point of view?  That is, how might an audience interpret the external and internal conditions of these two characters?

The mountain man would have a positive “+” external charge, right?  He’s got his food and he lords over his territory. He’s powerful and self-sufficient.  But with his choice to ignore the homesteader’s plea for help, he’d take on a negative “-“ internal charge for the audience.  Denying help to a fellow human in need is universally frowned upon. So for scenario number one, the mountain man would get a “+” external and a “-“ internal score.

What about the homesteader?

The homesteader’s external and internal states of being are both negative.  Not only is he starving externally, he’s quit on himself.  He’s begging for food from a more capable third party instead of finding his own and/or offering a service in exchange for help.  He’s weak externally and internally. Negative/negative.

So in this first scene scenario the shift of charge for the mountain man moves from unknown/unknown at the beginning to positive external/negative internal after his decision.  And for the homesteader it moves from unknown/unknown to negative external/negative internal after being denied aid.

If we were to keep score (and we should if we are a writer), it would come out like this:

MM                           +/-

H                                -/-

Scenario Two.

If the mountain man trades his fish for the homesteader’s winter coat, he will doubly win externally.  He’ll get a better coat and not have to give up much in return.  So our audience judges his external state “++.” He’s still lord of the mountain and he’s even in better shape at the end of the scene, because he has a better coat.

But this scenario will also make him negative in terms of his internal state of being too, wouldn’t it?  Not only is the mountain man indifferent to the suffering of another, he’s ruthless enough to take advantage of a starving man to improve his own circumstances.  If he chose to just take the coat and not give the homesteader any fish in return, well we’d have a villain, right?

So the mountain man’s unknown/unknown moves to ++/- by scene’s end in the trade for fish scenario.

What about the homesteader?

With one meal’s worth of fish, the homesteader and his family won’t increase their chances of survival all that much.  They will probably end up dying just a little bit later than they would if the mountain man refused the fish.  So the external state of being for the homesteader remains negative. “-“

It is not doubly negative because the fish increases his chances of survival in the short-term, but the loss of the coat decreases his chances of survival.  I’d call that a wash.  But what happens internally for the homesteader if he gives up his coat for the fish?  It moves from negative to positive.  Here’s why.

If the homesteader gives up his coat in order to get food for his family, he’s sacrificing himself for others.  That is a heroic choice.  So our audience now has a different opinion of this guy.  He may be a terrible outdoorsman and wildly irresponsible for bringing his family into this impossible situation, but he isn’t a coward.  He understands that it is his job to get himself and his family out of the mess he’s created, so he’s willing to pay the price necessary to increase the chances of survival of his family.  And that price is the decrease in his personal chances of survival.  So the homesteader now has a negative external and a positive internal state of being.

MM                           ++/-

H                                -/+

Scenario Three:

What if the mountain man just gives the fish to the homesteader without any strings attached?

The mountain man remains positive in his external and now also is positive in his internal too.  Not wildly positive, but positive.  He cares enough about his fellow man to give away some of his food.  The audience will see that as a humane decision.

As for the homesteader who does not have to sacrifice anything to get the fish, he’s pretty much akin to his state of being in the first scenario, negative/negative.

MM                           +/+

H                                -/-

Scenario Four:

What about the fish trap trade for the winter coat?

The mountain man’s external remains positive, but it’s not double positive.  Yes, he gets the new coat, but he will now have to make himself some new traps.  What about his internal state of being?

It’s ambiguous, isn’t it?

Some audience members will see his trade as opportunistic/cynical.  Without the winter coat, the homesteader’s external condition will substantially decrease and some would say that the mountain man is definitely gaining something larger than he’s giving.

But other audience members will view the trade as fair.  Traps/food procurement for the long term is as valuable as a hearty winter coat.  More valuable in my opinion.

What about the homesteader?

If the homesteader won’t give up his coat in exchange for the tools necessary to feed his family (even if he dies, they’ll probably survive), then his internal will be double negative as will his external.

Trade is Agreed                                                                    Trade is Denied

MM         +/?                                                                                 MM         +/?

H              +/+                                                                                H              –/–

Scenario Five:

Selling the traps to the homesteader in exchange for some future service is a very interesting choice for the mountain man (or the writer telling the story).  It’s interesting because it suspends the internal judgment of the mountain man for the audience.

While his external will remain positive (the mountain man knows how to survive), the audience will be in the dark about what the true motivations of the mountain man are.  Is he setting up the homesteader for a serious fall or exploitation?  Or is he a benevolent tyrant of sorts who merely wishes to hold the favor over the homesteader in order to protect his own kingdom?

What about the homesteader?

The homesteader agreeing to this deal moves from a negative external to a positive external and I would say a negative internal to an ambiguous internal.  We don’t know much about the homesteader’s internal state of being either by the end of this scenario.  Will he renege on the promise to do the service if the mountain man is no longer as dominant a force down the road?  Will he sacrifice the good of his family to serve the mountain man?  We just don’t know.

This scenario is a wonderful way to inject narrative drive into your story.  You can’t help but wonder what is going to happen when this favor comes home to roost.  Charles Dickens used this set up famously in Great Expectations.

There is a reason why Mario Puzo began The Godfather with the trading of favors.  If you are like me when I first read the book, I had no idea what Don Corleone would want in the future from the undertaker who comes to him for “justice.” When Puzo pays off that set up later on in the novel, you find yourself completely enthralled by the Don Corleone figure.

So here is the score for the “Corleone” option:

MM                           +/?

H                                +/?

Scenario Six:

In this scenario, we have a trade variation which results in a positive external for the mountain man (he’s still master of his territory, plus he has a new coat that he has arranged as compensation for his taking the time to teach the homesteader) and a positive for his internal, he’s helped his fellow man learn how to fend for himself.

The homesteader now has a positive external.  Despite losing his coat, he’s learned how to feed himself and his family.  All he has to do is survive the winter without his best coat and he should be okay.  He also has a positive internal.  He’s sacrificed himself for the good of his family.

MM                           +/+

H                                +/+

Scenario Seven:

The mountain teaches the homesteader how to fish with no strings attached.

In this case, the mountain man’s internal charge is ambiguous…dependent upon the point of view of the audience member.  The audience could see the mountain man’s choice to teach without compensation as a positive.  He’s chosen to gift the homesteader with the knowledge that he’s painstakingly learned himself.  But the choice would probably elicit just as many suspicions about his motivations by the audience too, thus making it ambiguous.

Now teaching the homesteader without getting anything in return is definitely a negative for the mountain man’s external. With the trap knowledge, the homesteader will be competing with the mountain man for food.  So the mountain man is trusting in the goodness of the homesteader not to take advantage of him and to treat his gift with respect.  Or he’s setting him up for something else.  We just don’t know yet. So the choice to gift the skill sets up additional questions.

The same thing goes for the homesteader.  We really don’t know what this guy will do now that he has the advantage of keeping his winter coat and being able to feed his family.

So with this last scenario we end up like this:

MM                           -/?

H                                +/?

As you can see, the simple set up of a man with fish and a man without fish asking for help has quite a number of dramatic possibilities.

Like a seasoned Game-theorist, the writer must pick apart the choices each of the characters he’s introduced into the scene may or may not take.  Then the writer must make the perfect choice for the particular scene she is writing. An Act Climax scene choice will certainly differ from a scene choice that serves to simply progressively complicate an Act.

The way writers make those perfect choices is hard work.  They detail and analyze how an audience would judge the external and internal charges of a particular scenario. And then they pick the one that best moves their story forward.  The way forward is by making choices that raise as many questions (if not more) than they answer.

This is how to think like a writer.

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  1. Mary Doyle on November 14, 2014 at 5:46 am

    This was really timely for me Shawn! As I read the list of scenarios at the beginning of your post, I recognized that #7 was what I have chosen for my protagonist, but I didn’t really understand what the benefit of that choice was until I read the analysis. Thanks for diagraming each of these scenarios – you’re demystifying the instinct piece for me. Flying by the seat of one’s pants is sometimes necessary, but always an iffy proposition. Between this and the Story Grid, I appreciate you, Steve and Callie keeping me so well-fed – as always, thanks!

  2. Joel D Canfield on November 14, 2014 at 7:09 am


    Not long ago, I was comfortable with my writing.

    Now I feel like when I’d totally nailed down long division and somebody introduced me to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry in the same year.

    I conquered them, and did will with calculus, too.

    Pretty sure I can do this writing thing.

  3. Jack Price on November 14, 2014 at 7:33 am

    In real life, we apprehend our experience emotionally. Over time, we then pick apart the experience rationally. Eventually we integrate the two for a fuller understanding of the +/- values that emerge.

    The writer’s job is to contemplate experience in advance, identify the values, then improvise a text wherein the reader can apprehend the emotional and rational simultaneously through story.

    What a demanding craft. Thanks, Shawn, for walking us through the Boolean algebra behind it.

  4. Sonja on November 14, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Wow! This is crazy good!

    Listening to McKee’s audio version of Story, so I actually get positive/negative charges, which he also tries to clarify in his book.

    Thanks for this, Shawn!

  5. Jeremy on November 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    This is gold going into the first revision of my current project. Thanks Shawn.

  6. Judy Potocki on November 14, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    Shawn, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your expertise. I’m embroiled in a study of thrillers, preparing to rewrite one thriller screenplay and break another. Your insights already have led me to make a key narrative revision … and we’ve only just begun.

    I’m so grateful to learn from a master editor — an entity I never expected to find in my writing life.

  7. Patti on November 15, 2014 at 4:28 am

    You are a master craftsman. I am so grateful you are sharing with us. This blog is the Holy Grail of story telling and I thank you.

  8. bubble shooter on November 24, 2021 at 11:39 pm

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