The Magic Pill

[Today’s “What It Takes” is from the vault, coming to you via July 24, 2015]

If there is one question that I get asked again and again and again, it’s this:

Until these guys win the inner war for us, we're useless

Is there a resource available that lists all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of each and every genre?

The short answer to this is “not that I’m aware of.”

I have a theory about why we all want such a Story “cheat sheet” which I’ll get into later.

But I can absolutely understand why ambitious writers at the start of their careers (and those who’ve been mining the Micro worlds of writing for their respective 10,000 hours too) would appreciate such a resource.

After all, understanding and applying the Macro principles of writing (part of which are genres conventions and obligatory scenes) is one of the things that Steve Pressfield and I keep harping on. The thing that took him from “doesn’t work” to “works.” That whole Foolscap Method thing.

Figuring out the Macro movements of Story took Steve from polished line-by-line writer with no income (except when he toiled off and on as a Mad Man to fill his coffers) to a published novelist and nonfiction writer capable of earning enough cash to pay his electric bill.

Isn’t that the goal?  Being an artist with a big enough audience to create stuff as a full time job?  Not a million copy audience.  Just one large enough to keep the wolf from the door?

For Story Nerds, that is absolutely the goal.

It’s a destination that gives me a level of focus when darkness descends and the black dogs of doubt howl.

I still have to edit other people’s work and publish other people’s books and agent other people’s projects to keep my household afloat.

Don’t get me wrong. I love doing that too, but come on?  Why do I bang out thousands of words a week at Storygrid and here?

Because it’s important work even if my writing is a red line item on my bank ledger. Especially because I have to “pay” for it.

Huh?  Aren’t I an idiot for writing a bunch of stuff that actually takes currency out of my family’s cookie jar?

Well, that’s the definition of important work.  When you put more into something than it “gives back,” it’s important.

As Steve points out in The War of Art and Turning Pro and Do the Work and in all of his fiction, you need to seek out those places in your life where you are giving more than you seem to be getting.  They’re the places to put your surplus (if not all) of your energy.

You’re here for a reason…that reason is to put more into something than it gives back, right?  It would be cool to leave the earth a better place than when you got here, wouldn’t it?  Well that requires giving more than you get.

So all of you out there who email me pissed off about how you’ve been at it for ten years with double digits of material and claim that you still have bupkis to show for it, spare me.  Send me another email in fifteen years bitching about the same thing and we can have a cup of coffee.

Don’t kid yourself.

Those “wasted years,” those unpublished manuscripts…they are priceless.  Deep down, you know that they are as well as I do.  You don’t write for 3rd Party Validation.  You never have.  You write because you have to.  You’d be in some rehab center or in the ground if you didn’t.

So enough with the “when will Random House bring me into the circle?” and “how do I get people to read my stuff?” questions. You don’t put your ass in the chair every day to get those answers. So stop asking those questions and keep plumbing the mystery.

Think of the poor suckers who have nothing to drive them to such despair…pity them, not yourself.  You’ve got the great universe of Story pushing you.

But what about my theory?  Why do people want the answers to Genre’s big questions all neat and tidy in a single resource?

What a compendium of conventions and obligatory scenes speaks to is the “magic pill” desire in us all.  Hell…I’d love to take a look at that tome myself.  I’d buy the first copy.

But it would do me no good if I don’t know how to use it.

Three years ago I fell in love with a set of bedside tables.  They were of simple design and just perfect.  But the antique dealer (junk shop) wanted like $2000 for the pair.  Crazy, right?

I muttered to myself and left that shop determined to make my own.  But not before taking about fifty photographs of them.  Front/back/side/underneath etc.  Took measurements too.

I then went online and found a great woodworking site that offered to sell me everything I’d need to reproduce those puppies.  I bought the dovetailer.  The precision router.  The micro sander.  I spent far too much money on the tools, but I figured I’d make up for it with all of the great stuff I’d be able to make.

You know how this ends.

I spent a good 300 hours trying to recreate those “simple” nightstands.  And I look at them every day.  They’re in a pile of crap I keep meaning to finish right next to my writing desk.

Weird right? I have the answers to creating the perfect nightstands (the tools and the measurements). But what I don’t have the woodworker’s craft yet. So I can’t use the answers all that well.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting together what everyone is asking for.  Just like there is nothing wrong with created a newfangled dovetailer.  And if I live long enough, I’ll do my best to make as big of a dent as I can in the considerable amount of work it will take to create the resource.  I’ve been working up the conventions for the Redemption/Performance genre over at storygrid the last couple of weeks.

But the answers will only really help those obsessed with the questions—those who’ve put in exponentially more work hours into learning Story’s craft than I have learning how to dovetail.

When we’re sick, we want that pill that’s going to make us better as soon as possible. We want the vile microbes in our bodies to be vanquished with one swallow or one shot.

We don’t want to lie in bed for three days sweating out a fever.

It’s uncomfortable and tedious and disorienting to break our day-to-day routines to just lie there headache-y and sniffling, waiting for our good guy antibodies to wipe out the invading microbial hoards.

No matter.  We can bitch and moan all we want, but our insides have to do the hidden work before we can stand up again and face the external world with purpose and vigor.

The inner war must be fought first before we can effectively face the reality of the external world.  Sure we can mask the symptoms with Sudafed and Nyquil, but none of us is worth a damn on that stuff.

There is no magic pill. Just the inner war.

[Join to read more of Shawn’s Stuff]

Posted in


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"


A Man At Arms is
on sale now!

Don't miss out on exclusive bonuses available to early buyers!


  1. John Geraci on July 24, 2015 at 6:35 am

    Another great, insightful post.

    There is a part of the inner war that haunts us all: That secretly we’re like one of those contestants on “America’s Got Talent” who absolutely knows we’re THE ONE. And then we start to sing and it’s so bleepin’ awful that everyone cringes and thinks, wasn’t there one friend who could have told him? Those ghosts come when I get another letter from an agent who “loved the writing, but didn’t connect with the hero.” … “thought you nailed the hero, but I felt you used too much vernacular in his speech..”

    And so on.

    Thanks — it’s right on about writing on.

  2. Mary Doyle on July 24, 2015 at 6:47 am

    A powerful post to remind us of what’s important and why we do this work – I’ll keep this close at hand for when my own dogs of doubt start to howl. Thanks so much Shawn – and good luck with those tables!

  3. Marvin Waschke on July 24, 2015 at 7:28 am

    When I was young, I put in my 10,000 hours becoming a carpenter. I have an official certificate to prove it. The training was mostly hands on with a few classroom sessions a year. Learning was by watching the experienced men: learn what to do first to make the job easier, exactly where to place your hands, how to take just enough tools so you don’t pack a 100 pounds of steel to the far end of the site, or have to go back to the crib for something you forgot. Those things cannot be learned except by doing.
    I also have several university degrees that took each took more than 10,000 hours. My carpentry apprenticeship taught more about my craft than all the book reading I did collecting degrees. After the book-reading, it took years to perfect the execution of what they purported to teach.
    I agree completely with this post.

  4. Alex Cespedes on July 24, 2015 at 8:05 am

    And it’s becoming obvious that those thousands of words over at StoryGrid are really paying off, Shawn. At this pace your own writing won’t be a red line item for too long. Steve, and McKee, and Mamet will have to find themselves a new agent sooner than expected…

  5. tolladay on July 24, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Not to sound ironic, but I am reminded of that sign, “the work will set you free.” Indeed I believe it does. I write everyday because its a part of me, and because I enjoy the work, good and bad. Even if no one but my mom and a few friends will ever read my stories, I still write them. It is what I am. It is a part of my self identity.

    But also, I don’t see why we cannot all work together to a certain extent. Plumb the depths of our chosen genre’s and share with each other on the Story Grid forum the secret sauce, the conventions and obligatory scenes that we found were necessary to make our story’s work.

    Shawn shouldn’t have to do ALL the heavy lifting, should he?

    Just saying.

  6. Tony Levelle on July 24, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Years ago when I was starting a freelance technical writing business, I became obsessed with studying with a celebrated Tai Chi master. Something that had no apparent usefulness to my desperate financial or career situation.

    Every morning I would get up at 4, dress, drive an hour to arrive at 5:30 AM for early class. Before my studies ended ten years later, I had worn out three automobiles making that commute.

    Only decades later did I realize the true purpose of that ‘useless’ study… It was as you said earlier: “You’d be in some rehab center or in the ground if you didn’t.”

    Thanks for the post, and for the StoryGrid. Good stuff.

  7. Robin Young on July 24, 2015 at 9:21 am


    Just wanted to express gratitude for all the hard work you put into this and into The Story Grid. They are invaluable tools and blueprints helping those of us “Story Nerds” (love this!) to hone and understand the inner workings of our craft. I hope no one expects the genre convention and obligation lists to carry them to a “perfect” story. They are blueprints, and the writer still has to cut each word and sand and polish it as close to perfection as their skill allows. Everything they craft will show the lesson learned from everything that has gone before.

    Thank you for pointing out the path and providing the equipment and supply list. I shall not continue to hoist my butt up the trail to the summit.

  8. David Kaufmann on July 24, 2015 at 10:31 am

    The last line is priceless. Indeed, the whole post is a necessary reminder. Thanks.

  9. Sonja on July 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

    What a needed cold water splash to the face! The team here (Steven, Shawn and Callie) are so generous with their time and input!

    I absolutely loved (and agree) with giving more than you get. It seems life’s worthwhile pursuits (such as writing a book or raising children) demand everything from you, with no guarantee of success or the guarantee your kids will turn into well-adjusted adults.

    Thank you so much for this. No more whining, back to work it is!

  10. Mia Sherwood Landau on July 24, 2015 at 11:57 am

    “…a pile of crap I keep meaning to finish…” That’s my favorite part, Shawn. Mine is a pile of fabric and yarn. Wood, fabric, yarn, and words – the raw materials of creativity. Just today I was thinking how much comfort my messy pile of creative materials brings me as I pound out words every day. Just knowing it’s there, defining my hope, my unfulfilled creative aspirations, fills me with possibility. I might just do some sewing this weekend…

  11. Madeleine D'Este on July 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    What? No short cut? I have to do the work myself? Yeah, I have to admit I was one of those people googling “obligatory scenes and genres.”
    Thanks for your wise words. I know I’ve just got to keep reading, writing and revising. Luckily, I love the work, so I must be an official Story Nerd.

  12. Sinakhone on July 24, 2015 at 3:30 pm


    Is this inner war you speak of like doing something like examining your life and slay your inner demons before you can produce anything of value to the world? So, in essence, it’s sort of us writers going on our own Hero’s Journey and bringing back the elixir in the form of our writing to share with the world? Are you talking about getting to know thyself and to thy own self be true kinda thing? Is it questioning why you’re writing in the first place cause you have doubts as to your talents? But, you have to because it’s the only that you’re really good at? Like, it chose you type of feeling. If it is, then I hope I’m winning the war. 🙂

    Great post, btw.

  13. Kim on July 24, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    There’s a pain in my chest, just above my heart, quivering at the truth of this. Hot damn, you’ve inspired me to keep at it another day like no one can in the sunshine of my days. Thank you!

  14. Annamarie on July 24, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    What you believe becomes your truth,
    A very pessimistic blog this week.
    Relabling the “inner war” might help
    Call it problems,problems are here to be solved
    and the whole situation has already changed, with one word.

  15. Erika Viktor on July 24, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    The nightstand story is the best! I can’t tell you how many times I have come across something too expensive and said “I’ll just do it myself!” and end up spending an equivalent amount of time and money trying! Ha!

  16. Adam Thomas on July 25, 2015 at 11:52 am


    In the trenches currently figuring it out. Great post. Keep giving – I consider things like this chocolate in my war rations.

  17. David Ward on July 28, 2015 at 10:07 am

    You are something special. Best post ever.

  18. Jay Cadmus on July 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    It fascinates me seeing how the human always wants the quick and easy formula. I have found myself wanting the quick and easy. But, I know the quick and easy is not character building. I want to be published. However, I don’t think it should happen at the cost of my character – that which I am. Thanks for all you and Mr. Pressfield share about the art of writing.

  19. BING on June 23, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    Total KICK ASS -Thanks

  20. Clayton Luz on June 23, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    “I have the answers to creating the perfect nightstands (the tools and the measurements). But what I don’t have is the woodworker’s craft yet. So I can’t use the answers all that well.”

    Sublime. I come across this issue sometimes when writing a scene. I know in my head how I want the scene to read, but I ain’t got the tools yet to bring it about. Sometimes it can take me a long time to acquire the know-how to write a scene as I imagine it in my conscious. Years, even. Sometimes, only weeks. But it only comes with the knowledge acquired through journeyman practice and an agreeable nod from my unconscious.

    To Shawn, Steve, and Callie, thank you.

  21. Susan on June 23, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    Needed this today!!!!

  22. Sean Crawford on June 23, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    A shock to see a comment by the late David Kaufmann. I always treasured his comments. Good to see him here.

    Thank you Shawn for your message that I periodically like to re-hear in different ways.

  23. York on June 23, 2017 at 7:56 pm


    I haven’t been here in a while. Been too busy in the trenches myself.

    But this is exactly what I needed because I definitely feel like I’ve been putting in way more than I’ve been getting and I wonder if I’m sane at times.

  24. CANCER EDUCATION, PAIN MANAGEMENT, LIQUID OXY on June 28, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    […] From […]

  25. mapquest directions on October 19, 2020 at 2:12 am

    Great blog! I appreciate the efforts you made while writing this article. I hope the best job from you in the future as well. I want to thank you for this site! Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply Cancel Reply