Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 22, 2015

A week from now is the official launch of Shawn’s terrific and much-anticipated new book, The Story Grid. I’m gonna use today’s post to describe one way that I employ Shawn’s principles when I work.

"Wanna know what happens to nosy people? Huh? Huh? They lose their noses."

Right now I’m on the sixth draft of a fiction project. (In other words, NOT the first draft, which goes by completely different rules.) When I start to work each morning I open onscreen five files:

1. The actual draft I’m working on.

2. A file I call Scene By Scene.

3. Culls (meaning everything I’ve cut).

4. A file I call MissingMissingMissing.

5. Conventions of the Genre.

I’ll go into these files in detail in subsequent posts, but let’s talk about #5 now because it comes straight out of The Story Grid.

One of Shawn’s inviolable principles (with which I agree completely) is

The Writer Must Know the Genre She’s Working In—and Must Adhere to its Conventions.

Okay. What does that mean for me as I’m working? The genre I’m working in is the Detective Story. So …

In File #5 above, I have written out my own version of the conventions of a detective story. (I’ll include this document at the end of this post, but don’t quote me on it; it’s just my own demented version.)

I’ll keep this file top-of-mind throughout the drafting process. I’ll refer to it all the time. I’ll tweak it. I’ll add stuff as I think of it, etc.

How did I arrive at this list of conventions? As far as I know, there’s no reference work. So I just looked at a bunch of detective stories (Chinatown, The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, The Maltese Falcon) and made my own list.

Shawn goes into great detail about genre in The Story Grid. He believes it’s so important that he named his own management company Genre Management. He talks about internal genres and external genres, all kinds of deep stuff.

It’s key to keep in mind, I’ve found, that you and I in our stories are probably working simultaneously in multiple genres. We’ve probably got a Love Story mixed in with our Historical Fiction or Sci-Fi, possibly a Coming Of Age Story, and so forth. We’re gonna have to keep track of all of ’em, but for now let’s stick with only the Detective Story as an example.

How do I use this list of conventions?

I make it my bible.

For example, in every detective story there’s at least one scene—i.e., a convention—where the private eye (even if he’s “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski) gets the crap beaten out of him by the Bad Guys. Think Jake Gittes getting his nose sliced open in Chinatown, then nearly having his back broken by the farmers in the orange grove, or Harrison Ford getting hammered by replicant Brion Jones in Blade Runner, not to mention the pasting he receives from other replicants Rutger Hauer and even Daryl Hannah.

So …

I tell myself, “Steve, you gotta have at least one Beat-up Scene, and probably more than one.”

And I make sure I have one or more.

Shawn has two maxims for conventions of genres. First, adhere to them. (It’s okay to break the rules but you have to know you’re breaking them and be sure you’re okay with that). And two, when you execute a convention, do it in an original way.

Another two conventions (sometimes called “obligatory scenes”) of cop stories are

1. A foot chase

2. A car chase.

Remember The French Connection? How about the foot chase with Gene Hackman running flat-out in a Santa suit? Was that great or what? And the car-chasing-the-elevated-subway, again with Gene Hackman, was as original a car chase as has ever been filmed.

"You picked your feet in Poughkeepsie, didn't you?"

At the end of this post I will, as promised, affix my file, “Conventions of a Detective Story.” But first lemme offer a couple of thoughts on the mechanics of next week’s publication of The Story Grid. Here’s how the launch will work:

On Monday 4/27, an e-mail will go out to all First Look Access members. [You can sign up. free, above in the right-hand corner of this page.] These members will get alerted first and they’ll get the Super-Primo discounts and most free extras. They’ll also get the full week to respond before the book goes on sale at full price.

On Wednesday 4/29 I’ll announce the book’s publication to all website visitors in this “Writing Wednesdays” space. There’ll still be great discounts and freebies (but not as great as the First Look Access deal). There’ll be three days to respond instead of five.

On Friday 5/1 at one minute to midnight, the discounts and freebies end and The Story Grid goes wide for sale on Amazon.com, B&N.com and all other outlets at full price.

If you’re not signed up for First Look Access, think about doing it. You can always unsubscribe.

Okay, that’s it till next week.

Now, as promised, here’s my hand-made file, Conventions of the Detective Story. Please feel free to correct me in the Comments or add stuff I’ve left out.

CONVENTIONS OF A PRIVATE EYE STORY

1. Hero is hired to investigate something. He is given a bullshit story by the person hiring him. Deceptive pretext.

2. He takes job because he’s desperate—or intrigued. Or both.

3. Hero tails “cheating woman,” discovers stuff that he’s not supposed to discover—specifically existence and/or identity of an Uber-Villain (Noah Cross) of whom he had no or little awareness before.

4. Uber-Villain/Bad Guys beat the crap out of hero.

5. Bad Guys ransack hero’s home.

6. Person that detective was originally hired to follow (usually the dame), partway through the story tries to hire him to tail somebody else.

6. Hero becomes romantically involved with female he’s tailing.

7. Hero has to do some serious sleuthing. A scene sneaking into some place? Hero takes risk to do so?

8. Hero has to “put two and two together.” Must show good detective work, like “the Dude” in Big Lebowski.

"That carpet tied the whole room together."

9. Female reveals deeper story underlying original bullshit story. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

10. Hero confronts Big Bad Guy, possibly gets crap beaten out of him again. “Hero at Mercy of Villain” scene?

11. Verbal sparring between Big Villain and detective—and perhaps grudging respect is shown by each side (and even a little affection) toward the other.

12. Sometimes there’s a bond of similarity between the villain and the detective.

13. There’s a character who’s a rival to the detective—a cop usually, that the detective knows from “back in the day,” with whom the detective engages in a battle of wits, trying to solve the murder, e.g. Lou Escobar in CHINATOWN. Often this character is an impediment to the detective, threatening to arrest him.

14. Hero is told by Bad Guy to shut up, otherwise he or people he loves will be hurt.

15. Hero is advised by friend/cop that there’s no point in making a stink, nobody cares. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

16. Foot chase

17. Car chase

18. There’s a Good Girl: the one the Private Eye SHOULD love.

19. There’s a Bad Girl, the one the Private Eye actually falls for.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

29 Responses to “Files I Work With”

  1. April 22, 2015 at 6:35 am

    Thank you for sharing your conventions file. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that we appreciate a glimpse behind the digital curtain of your writing life. I probably speak for just as many in looking forward to The Story Grid’s imminent release too.

  2. Mary Doyle
    April 22, 2015 at 6:44 am

    I echo Blake’s comment – getting a behind-the-scenes look at your writing process is always welcome. Thanks also for the succinct list of the private-eye genre conventions. Looking forward to Story Grid and, down the road, to a Steven Pressfield private-eye novel!

  3. April 22, 2015 at 6:47 am

    Hi Steven,

    Quick question. Is there a meaningful difference between a convention and an obligatory scene? Or is an obligatory scene just a convention that you gotta gotta gotta have?

    Thanks for your generosity in sharing your process. Can’t wait to learn about the Scene by Scene file.

    Jack

    • Tricia
      April 22, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Jack,

      There’s a post over on Shawn’s Story Grid, “Genres have Conventions and Obligatory Scenes” that might help (if you haven’t already read it). There’s a lot more in-depth (and amazing!) information over there, too.

      I’ll hope this link works:

      http://www.storygrid.com/genres-have-conventions-and-obligatory-scenes/

      It’s getting hard to wait for the book!

      Tricia

  4. April 22, 2015 at 6:53 am

    Awesome stuff, Steve! Thanks so much for sharing it. One question that’s sort of both for you and for Shawn:

    How much do you have to ponder the “Why” and the psychological purpose for the Genre Conventions? And is that deeper look going to be included in The Story Grid?

    The reason I’m asking is because if you’re supposed to both include and reinvent the conventions, it seems like it would be a good idea to understand the reason they’re conventions in the first place, which might require knowing the particular, psychic “itch” the overall genre scratches.

    For instance, the detective getting beat up might be required to make the danger he is in — his vulnerability — feel real and present to me reader. And the whole falling for the bad girl might be to show the precarious fate of a man “living in two worlds that blend more easily than the ‘straights’ will ever realize”: the criminal and the lawful.
    These are just guesses and examples, but it seems like knowing the conventions wouldn’t be enough without also delving into this other aspect.

    What do you guys think?

    P.S. It felt like Shawn got a little into this when talking about Westerns (which was awesome) and the Thriller convention for “making it personal,” but I was wondering how much this aspect will be delved into in the book and how much you personally think about this stuff, Steve.

    • April 22, 2015 at 4:16 pm

      Great questions, Jeff. I confess I have never really thought about it, other than my intuitive belief that real life echoes these conventions … or rather that the conventions derive from what really happens (most of the time) in real life. That’s pretty shallow, I know. Maybe this is a topic for a book — by you, by me, by Shawn, or by one of our friends on our various sites. Anybody?

      • David Hauntz
        April 22, 2015 at 8:19 pm

        Hey Steven, you never thought about your characters’ draw on your readers? Phooey! There was never a way I could put your work down.

    • April 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm

      You can drive a car without knowing how it works. Can even change the oil without understanding details.

      But when you move from San Diego to Calgary, knowing which oil to use (or even to wonder) is second nature to the expert, but another session with the Chilton’s manual for the average person.

      I want to know why there is a “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene so I can better reinvent it.

  5. April 22, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Love this topic, Steve. Good stuff.

    And can’t wait for Shawn’s book. Please. This long term tease he’s been on with his blog is maddening. You guys should trademark the process..call it “Tantric Marketing.”

    As for the detective story, I would add this to your list:

    The Bad Guy always has some super power or super asset that the Detective has to solve, unravel figure out, and ultimately use to defeat the Bad Guy, maybe even beat him at his own game.

    Happy Wednesday!

    • April 22, 2015 at 4:17 pm

      Good one, Scott. I will add it to my file.

  6. April 22, 2015 at 7:05 am

    So…..how can I order The Story Grid so can receive it when it is published, thanks.

    • April 22, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      We really should have a Pre-order Button, Tony. Our bad. We’ll fix that next time.

      But for now, if you’re signed up on First Look Access, you’ll get an e-mail first thing Monday with a video, a link, and all you’ll need to order.

      Sorry, we’ll do better next time!

  7. April 22, 2015 at 8:01 am

    Fantastic and helpful! What more could we ask? Thanks so much for sharing this information Steve.

    A question for you and Shawn, and maybe the other readers too: Does anyone know where one might find a list of conventions per genre? I’ve seen some references both on The Story Grid site and in the comments to other resources, but nothing I’ve come across really spelled it out for more than a coupl obvious genres.

    Also, and I guess this is what I’m really getting at: are there genre conventions for “mainstream fiction” that either blends multiple genres or escapes the pigeonholes of genre fiction?

    • Scrivener
      April 22, 2015 at 8:13 am

      Try a simple search on ‘Tropes’ rather than Genre.
      For example, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Tropes

      • Eileen Labrie
        April 22, 2015 at 8:51 am

        Excellent. Thanks for the link.

    • Eileen Labrie
      April 22, 2015 at 8:50 am

      I had the same question.

    • April 23, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Another option (the one Shawn keeps shoving at me) is to analyze 3-5 books in your genre and find the obligatories yourself. Listen, and you’ll forget. Do, and you’ll remember.

  8. April 22, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Steve,

    Thanks for posting this! I am a Private Investigator and these same things happen to me all the time! Fortunately I keep a bottle of scotch in my file cabinet for comfort….

    In all seriousness, though, I recently found your website and have really been enjoying your posts, links and especially the videos on the Foolscap Method (will you expand on this with more videos in the future?).

    Also – thanks for all the writing you do – you’re one of my favorite authors!

    Best regards,

    Andrew

  9. Scrivener
    April 22, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    As I read this I kept thinking, “Raymond Chandler – Raymond Chandler – Raymond Chandler”. The good ol’ stuff!

  10. Ariana Browning
    April 22, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Never thought about having a bunch of files open like those you work with. That’s a good idea, especially the parts you’ve cut. Then you’ll have a running list. Thanks for sharing how you work. I’ll be interested to hear what the “missing” file is about.

    • Ariana Browning
      April 22, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Interesting to note. I have been trying to comment on posts for weeks, never got a comment through, and I just had the brilliant idea (don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier) to remove my website from the URL field. Comment posted. I just wanted to share that because I’m starting to wonder if my own site is missing comments because of that. Yours isn’t the only site I’ve had that problem with.

  11. Scrivener
    April 22, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    If you are looking to Scrivener as a possible solution for each project then it is very well worth your while to look at all the video tutorials. (Forgot to mention that – mea culpa).

  12. April 22, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    Thank you so very much for sharing your file on detective stories. The mutual respect point made me think of Sherlock Holmes and his relationship to the diabolical Dr. Moriarty. In Doyle’s short, The Final Problem Holmes decides that he must destroy Dr. Moriarty for the good of England, even though it costs him his own life. He knew the odds and that Moriarty was so formidable that it would take self sacrifice to rid the world of his evil. Good stuff and I felt that it would be right at home on a ‘detective story’ thread. I look forward to reading more of your creative insight and your new book!

  13. April 23, 2015 at 6:05 am

    Great post, Steve! I’ve been learning the importance of studying and understanding genre conventions lately, as I’m trying to change gears and write something a little outside the norm for myself. Sometimes we understand things–or think we understand them–on an unconscious level. But reading and viewing some of your favorite novels and films in a given genre with a critical eye, in search of conventions and how they get rehashed, or turned upside down, can prove quite eye-opening regarding what you never knew, or never fully articulated, about a genre that intrigues or moves you.

  14. April 25, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Love the conventions file. When I write i never think to keep a “bible” open to cross reference. This could work with almost anything we write- blog bible, comment bible, email bible, biography bible.

    Can’t wait to buy the book – Count my purchase as one :-).

  15. Nan Roberts
    April 25, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    Steve,
    I’m re-reading War of Art. Thank you again for that. You say that conferences are a kind of Resistance. I have to say that right now for me, that isn’t the case. In waking up from a long spell of depression, I’ve been to a few workshops in the last few months. One a weekend long and a couple of two-hour ones. Every time I go, I find I’m waking up more, ideas flow, even for poetry (not big on writing poetry.)I can see how they can be a problem, and your warning has helped me to see that they aren’t always going to be helpful. But right now, I need to be with writers and be given exercises, and read and listen to the work. It’s as if big flakes of rust are peeling off my head, smaller flakes off my pen point. I started reading Shawn’s Story Grid, and it carries actual meaning in the words. (It’s been a long haul in the dark.) I just wanted to tell you.

  16. Donna
    May 10, 2015 at 4:53 am

    This post is gold! I’m finally getting around to reading this as I’m close to completing my first project and all else has had to wait in line. I love the five file system, you should patent.

    Thank you for your generosity of spirit (a plural you).

    Donna