Help for Pantsers and Plotters

Morgan Freeman in Se7en

Morgan Freeman reviewing one of seven “discovery of the body scenes” in Se7en

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The one concept I discuss in The Story Grid that captures everyone’s attention is the idea that every single genre has conventions and obligatory scenes. And if you do not deliver those conventions and obligatory scenes to readers, your Story won’t work.

Just the other day I was taping a Podcast with my friend Tim Grahl and Cs and OSs came up yet again. Tim asked me to start up a Story Grid podcast so that he could hammer me with questions about how he could take his idea for a novel and turn it into a first draft.

From first idea to first draft hooked me immediately.

We’ve taped five episodes so far, you can listen to the first one here, iTunes link is here, and we’re having a blast. We both committed to do ten episodes. (If there’s demand for more, i.e. a compelling number of subscribers, we’ll figure out a way to keep it going…)

So of course the question came up “Where should I start?”

In The Story Grid book, I suggest one way to get going…by diligently filling in the entire Foolscap Global Story Grid page before you start writing scenes.

And that’s my ironclad suggestion for all of you “pantsers” out there.

You are the kind of writers who don’t much like planning…those who would rather riff than come up with a global map for your story before setting off to parts unknown. You’ll do anything but plan. That’s your form of Resistance, refusing to map a course for your story keeps you from ever completing a true first draft. You fly by the seat of your pants. So the way to beat Resistance for you is to knuckle down and engage the other side of your brain…before you unleash the creative scribbler.

But what about all of those obsessive “plotters” out there? These are the writers who’ll spend years doing character histories and hundred page outlines that never seem to wrap up to THE END. What ails you is a major Resistance to actual writing. You want to analyze stuff to death and never feel like you have all of your ducks in a row to actually let yourself go and bang something out.

Telling “plotters” to fill in the Foolscap Global Story Grid is not such good advice. The reason? They’ll take years to get it “just right” before they begin…if they ever do.

So where should these people start?

I’ve been thinking about that ever since Black Irish came out with The Story Grid.

Tim Grahl admitted that he was absolutely in the “plotter” camp after I hit him with this idea.   He almost began hyperventilating on the podcast when I told him the first thing he should do to start his novel is to write a scene.  Because he was sure I was going to tell him to fill out his Foolscap…  I mean he was attracted to The Story Grid because of its practical analytical work and here I was telling him to bang out a scene.

But not just any kind of scene.

I suggested that he pick an obligatory scene from his chosen genre…a crucial one that he’d have to really nail to get people interested in his story.  And work on that first before he started filling in his Foolscap.


Obligatory scenes are a great way in to not just practice writing but to flesh out your driving “what if?” idea for your novel. It’s purposeful play.  When you’re done, you’ll have a killer scene that you can use in your actual novel.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that if you get into one of these tasks, take it very seriously and allow yourself the freedom to riff and explore and not settle for the first thing that tumbles out of your cerebral cortex, you’ll probably find a whole slew of ideas that will inspire you well beyond your initial “what if?”

So how do you actually do this?

Take one of the obligatory scenes below, map out a bunch of ways to solve it, and then write it.

Here are three obligatory scenes for three different external genres to get you started.

In every CRIME Story there is a DISCOVERY OF THE BODY/CRIME scene.

A map for this scene could be… A tomcat comes into a typical suburban family kitchen at breakfast time. Dad hears the tell-tale meow of his pet and goes to the refrigerator to get his companion his a.m.milk. Dad pours milk in saucer, and just as he sets it down, he discovers that his cat is drenched in blood.  It’s as if the cat fell into a swimming pool of plasma, found some desperate way out and then made a beeline into the house.  That’s one idea.  Try some others.

In every LOVE Story there is a LOVERS’ BREAK UP scene.

A map for this scene could be… A man and a woman in the middle of being chased. They dodge an oncoming motorcycle.  The woman falls.  The man reaches down to grab her hand.  As they’re dodging bullets from behind, she says to him…”Thanks!… But I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” There’s one idea.  Do ten more.

In every PERFORMANCE Story there is a PROTAGONIST GETS THE GIG scene.

A map for this scene could be… A CEO is standing in front of a board or directors.  It’s the annual meeting and the company is hemorrhaging money.  He sees to the side that his assistant is waving at him furiously.  He excuses himself for a moment, walks over and the assistant whispers “The Comedy Story called…Amy Schumer can’t do her set tonight and they want you to take it…what should I tell them?”

Get it?  Do a few quick sketches and then just bang something out.  Repeat until you’re in love.

Here are some examples of these scenes from popular culture.

In Andrew Kevin Walker’s script SE7EN, he makes the “DISCOVERY OF THE BODY” scenes the narrative engine of his entire story. There’s a serial killer loose. He’s inspired by the seven deadly sins…gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, sloth, pride and lust. Each one of those sins results in a murder and the discovery of the body for each becomes Walker’s writing challenge. He saves the last discovery as the culmination/ending payoff for the entire work.

To say that Walker innovated and raised the bar on DISCOVERY OF THE BODY obligatory scenes is the understatement of my career.

Don’t tell me it’s impossible to create something fresh from what one would think is a run of the mill formulaic scene obligation. Walker did it SEVEN TIMES!

In James L. Brooks’ screenplay based on Larry McMurtry’s novel TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, the LOVERS’ BREAK UP scene is so perfectly constructed and so unsentimental, it’s heartbreaking. It features Aurora Greenway, played by Shirley MacLaine, and Garrett Breedlove, played by Jack Nicholson.

Aurora has just watched her daughter and grandchildren drive away from her, they’re moving to another state, and the guy she loves who lives next door shows up. He asks to speak with her privately. They go back to the little gazebo in Aurora’s backyard and she knows what he’s going to say before he says it. The entire scene dazzles because at no point does he actually say…I don’t want to see you anymore…I’m breaking up with you. It’s all in the subtext.

These two people are so perfect for each other and they understand each other so well, that the necessity of actually saying “we’re over” is not required. Imagine the courage to write a break up scene without having the two people literally break up…to have so much respect for the audience that you spare them that obvious drivel?

In Damien Chazelle’s screenplay for WHIPLASH, the PROTAGONIST GETS THE GIG SCENE is hidden inside what viewers think is a reconciliation scene between the protagonist and his music teacher.

It’s an off-handed invitation that J.K. Simmons’ character Fletcher offers the awkward drummer/protégé Andrew at the end of reconciliation.  “Hey, I’m doing this thing at Carnegie Hall…I need a drummer…you want to sit in?”

The invitation is a set-up and the climax of the movie devastating. Chazelle used the obligatory scene GETTING THE GIG as ammunition to blow up his ending payoff. Masterful.

I used screenplays as examples of obligatory scenes because it’s far easier to Netflix this stuff and get a sense of what these scenes are all about than to have to wade into novels to find them. All Story mediums—screenplay, short story, novel, play—require genre specific obligatory scenes and conventions. Look at them as Godsends, not limitations.

The bottom line here is that a great way to practice writing is to give yourself very specific scene tasks—pull out an obligatory scene from a favorite genre and write one up. Then re-write it in a different way. And again. If you keep doing it, I guarantee you’re going to find something locked inside your brain that will be remarkable.

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  1. Mary Doyle on October 16, 2015 at 6:19 am

    You really nail the way Resistance works its evil with pantsers and plotters alike! I love the idea of starting with “purposeful play” as a way to dodge Resistance while the gears get moving. Great examples too! I’ll look forward to listening to the podcast this weekend – as always, thanks!

  2. @MorgynStar on October 16, 2015 at 6:31 am

    Here’s the thing about ‘obligatory’ scenes within a genre and it’s an ugly word: derivative. Something a reader has seen done thousands of times. No matter how amazing the execution.

    I question whether it is the ‘form’ the reader seeks or the feeling they experience.

    • Joel D Canfield on October 16, 2015 at 7:34 am

      Here’s the answer to what you’re questioning: go find the 10 books or movies you love best in a genre. Specifically look for the most creative, out of the box examples.

      And you will, I absolutely guarantee on Shawn’s life, find a set of Obligatory Scenes and Conventions. This is not a rule set by rulemakers, it’s a fundamental law of story which is hardwired into our heads. The OS&Cs for each genre differ, but their existence, the need for their existence, springs from basic human psychology.

      The great stories, the unique stories we love, don’t become unique by defying convention, they do it by delivering those scenes in new ways.

  3. Kent Faver on October 16, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Mary is spot on regarding Resistance! I have listened to Episode 1 – and highly recommend it. I can hear myself in Tim so frequently. At one point – he essentially asks – what if this doesn’t work? Preach that Resistance. And, of course, Shawn has the answer because he is Shawn.

    • Mary Doyle on October 16, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      I just listened to the podcast and had to weigh in again – wow! You summed up why I write – “to try to tell an elegant story that can change somebody and make them not feel alone” — thanks so much for that, for distilling what really matters.

  4. Joel D Canfield on October 16, 2015 at 7:36 am

    I’ve discovered, as a severely analytical data geek who suprisingly became a wild pantser with zero planning, that even we, the wingers and pantsers, can write That One Scene before we even begin, get it out of our system, and then write the 12 sentences or the Foolscap or whatever babysteps planning tool we use.

  5. Patrick Maher on October 16, 2015 at 9:04 am

    I have always been grateful for all the brilliant stuff you both make so freely available to us (me in particular), but this is quite special in so many ways. It started with gratitude and now I want to have your children.
    Again I find myself saying, ‘thanks’.

  6. Patrick Maher on October 16, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Now where can I find a really well developed map of obligatory scenes for each genre. I have discovered so many tropes for each genre – but I’m not so sure they really fit the job at hand.
    There is a book idea here. It’s free if you want it.

  7. Jeff on October 16, 2015 at 11:43 am

    This is magic. I’ve heard other people say similar things: one writer’s ideal writing process is NOT the ideal for another — you have to tailor your writing process to your own psychological and artistic needs, strengths, and weaknesses. But I’ve never quite made the connection between that and Resistance, or between that and Obligatory Scenes, Genre, and Convention. This is genius!

    And very, very helpful.

    Thanks, Shawn

  8. Sonja on October 16, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Oh my god! This is so awesome I could cry! I’m the classic plotter who keeps re-writing my three act structure, plus my “what if” questions ad nauseum but I never seem to get to the end!

    I need to go back to the drawing board and let my creative juices flowing…

    This also reminds me of Nicholas Sparks who keeps producing the “boy meets girl” love story over and over again with new elements every damn time. A lot of people feel he writes the “same story” (and there’s definitely similar themes) but I always find something new. In fact, I just ordered his latest because I can’t wait to see what he’s cane up with next…

    Thank you so much Shawn! Can’t wait to listen to the podcast. :))

  9. Tina Goodman on October 16, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    I have now rewritten the scene where protag discovers the dogs playing with a human bone. Thank you!

  10. Ahmed Gamil on October 17, 2015 at 7:11 pm
  11. Virlana on October 20, 2015 at 9:16 am

    You’re a doll, Shawn! The Story Grid is brilliant. Even the large format of the print version is super helpful and a great idea. Have yet to come across a better map to help writers reach our destinations. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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