Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE

What It Takes

What It Takes


By Callie Oettinger
Published: August 11, 2017

[Have you ever written something that included numbers and then wondered how those numbers played out? This is one of those for me. This post hit March 25, 2011. Apple is now minus Scott Forstall. Scott Forstall is now plus several Tony Awards. On Twitter, Scott Forstall is plus 8 tweets and still following Conan O’Brien. When this article hit, Conan O’Brien was minus “The Tonight Show” and about six months into being plus “Conan.” He’s now plus the title once held by David Letterman, of being the “the longest tenured late-night host on television.” And he did it in less than 3,500 tweets. Must be the content.]

When I was twelve, counting my age in silverware got me to the end of my unloading the dishwasher chore: five forks, five knives, two serving spoons and a butter knife to grow on.

When I was in college, just over a thousand steps, counting every other time my right foot hit the ground, got me from my dorm near the corner of Mass Ave. and Beacon St., to classes closer to Beacon and Berkley.

When I run, 450 steps, counting every fifth time one of my feet hits the ground, gets me to the one mile mark.

These days, counting followers, friends, likes, and visitors is getting me nowhere.
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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Report from the Trenches #7

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 16, 2017


I said in last week’s post that, watching myself wrestle with this rewrite, I realize I’m attacking the problem on three levels. Level One (which we talked about last week) was about genre—making sure I knew what genre I was working in, and then re-hammering the narrative so that it lined up with the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre.

The second level of this work, what we’re gonna talk about today, is going back in the global sense to Basic Storytelling Principles.

Sylvester Stallone and Butkus from the first "Rocky"

Sylvester Stallone and Butkus from the first “Rocky”


  1. A story must be about something. It must have a theme.
  2. The hero embodies the theme.
  3. The villain embodies the counter-theme.
  4. Every supporting character embodies an aspect of the theme.
  5. In the climax, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.

I have 57 files in the greater folder for this project and 22 for the re-work. Some of the titles of these files are Tuff Middle, Rachel Hunts Instancer, Second Act Belongs to Villain.

If I were working with a partner, the pair of us would talk this stuff out aloud. “What does the Villain want?” But because I’m working alone, I use these files as a way of talking to myself. I just sit down and start spewing.


I have no idea where this section goes, or if we have room for it at all, but the question is, “What has Rachel been doing since Instancer dumped her? Has she hunted him, and if so how, since when, and what happened?”

LETS SAY she first suffered with no proof (only a crazy suspicion) that Instancer was supernatural. Still she thought she might be losing her mind, as any woman might after the “ghosted” end of a passionate affair. Then came the “herem.” Excommunication. Family abandoned Rachel, jobs dried up. Etc.


At this stage I’m not thinking in scenes or dialog.

My thinking is architectural.

If we were building a suspension bridge, we’d first establish the footings and the anchoring points on each shore. Then we’d calculate where the towers should go and how much stress the steel could take, etc. In other words, design.

We’ll worry about actually building the bridge later.

That’s what I’m trying to do with the story at this stage.

The tension that drives the narrative will be the clash between the hero and the villain, just like in a bridge it will be the weight of the roadway versus the strength of the supporting towers and the suspension cables.

So I’m pounding away at another talking-to-myself file, “Manning (hero) versus Instancer (villain)”, asking myself how are these two characters different, how are they alike, what does Manning want, what does Instancer want? Are they mirrors for each other? How? What does that prove? Are they dependent on each other? How? What does that prove?

I don’t know any of the answers going in. I’m free-associating.


If we think of Alien or Predator or Jaws, the heroes spend a big part of the movie trying to figure out how to stop the unstoppable, kill the unkillable. Our story demands the same.

What would Manning think along these lines?

  1. Instancer is physical, at least in this world. He can’t be shot but he can be grappled with. He’s very strong but not superhumanly strong. He can’t lift buildings.
  2. If he can be ‘conducted’ into this world, can he be conducted out?” That’s the key. We have to figure this out. Etc.


What I want to have at the end of this exercise is a schematic of the story, one that hangs together dramatically and architecturally like the Golden Gate Bridge or the screenplay for Rocky.

I want a hero whose problems, aspirations, wants and needs are as clearly defined and as emotionally involving as those of Rocky Balboa.

I want an antagonist like Apollo Creed, whose emotional surface reflects Rocky’s and works beautifully against it, yin versus yang.

I want supporting characters like Adrian and Mick and Pauly, each of whom represents an aspect of the theme.

And I want a crystal-clear, powerful theme


            A bum can be a champ if he’s just given the chance


that plays in every scene of the story and is paid off in the climax, not just for the protagonist but for the supporting characters as well. And of course for the reader.

I don’t need scenes at this point.

I don’t need dialogue.

I don’t need sequences.

Level Two is about structure.

It’s about architecture.

By the way, this process that I’m going through now after the collapse of Draft #11 is the process I SHOULD HAVE been doing from Draft #1.

I was lazy.

I was scared.

I didn’t push myself far enough.

That’s why #11 crashed.

That’s what I’m back to Square One, reverting to basics.

That’s okay.

It happens to everybody.

So to recap …

Last week we talked about the first level (for me, at least) of a Ground Up Rewrite.

That level was about genre.

It involved identifying the genre we’re working in (again, a task we SHOULD HAVE done in Draft #1 and even earlier) and defining for ourselves the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre … then reworking our story to align with those principles.

Level Two, what we’re talking about today, is about doing the same thing, not for Genre, but for Universal Storytelling Principles.

We go back to basics.

We remind ourselves of the timeless principles (and believe me, Homer and Shakespeare had to do this shit too) that balladeers and rhapsodes and puppeteers, not to mention Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino,  have been using forever.

And we go back to those basics ourselves.

Next week, the fun part: Actually WRITING the freakin’ thing.

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Report from the Trenches #6

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 9, 2017


First lemme say thanks to everyone who is following this series. Believe me, writing these posts is helping me as much or more than it’s helping you.

Robert Mitchum (100 years old on August 8) in "Farewell, My Lovely"

Robert Mitchum (100 years old on August 8) in “Farewell, My Lovely”

This new book is my nineteenth, I think. I’ve gone through this same hellish, tear-it-down-and-start-all-over-again process on almost every prior book, but I’ve never really paid attention to what I was doing. I just put my head down and ground it out.

Having to write these posts has made me play witness to my own process. It helps. I never really knew what I was doing.

Okay. Where do we stand today? Let’s regroup from the beginning.

I got Shawn’s original notes on April 28.

Three days ago I finished a scene-by-scene outline for the next draft (#12).

That’s progress.

That’s real progress.

But that’s how long it has taken me, out of the ashes of Draft #11, to whip together a bare-bones, ballpark blueprint for Number Twelve.

Looking ahead, I’ll guess three or four more months to make this into a finished draft.

I post this intel for my fellow trench-mates who are now going through a similar process or will be in the future. For comparison. This is how long it’s taken me, working full-time seven days a week.

But lemme back up a minute, playing witness, and ask myself, “Steve, what EXACTLY have you been doing in these three and a half months? What’s the actual process?”

If you put a gun to my head, I would say that the work has been in three stages, or three levels. (There’s too much detail to cover in one post … I’ll continue this over the next two or three.)

The first level I’ll call




Boiling it down to its essence, this stage of work (or re-work) has been about

  1. Identifying the genre I was working in (thank you, Shawn, for making it clear in your notes that I didn’t know that.)
  2. Re-educating myself on the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre (thanks again, pard), and
  3. Rethinking the entire book to make it align with these conventions and obligatory scenes.


What specifically? What do I mean by genres and by conventions?

Shawn identified the genre I was working in as Supernatural Thriller. (This is what editors do.) In other words, something in the zip code of The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby.

The story was also a Police Procedural.

Something like Se7en.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in "Se7en"

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in “Se7en”

And it’s a redemption story, like Unforgiven or Casablanca.

So … a mix of three genres but basically a Redemptive Supernatural Thriller.

I didn’t know that when I was writing Draft #11.

No clue.

All right. Knowing it now, thanks to Shawn, what specifically did I do?


The trick of this sort of story [Shawn wrote in his notes] is to ride out the uncertainty about the true nature of the evil until “all Hell breaks loose.” Remember that in The Exorcist the girl was taken to all kinds of doctors and had all kinds of tests and all possible explanations were eliminated before they brought in Max von Sydow as the last resort to save her. Then and only then does the devil make himself truly known … when the Exorcist arrives with Father Karras as his assistant.


That’s a convention of the Supernatural Horror Thriller genre.

Further from Shawn’s notes:


The reader and the viewer of both of those stories needed evidence, a progressive narrative build to the revelation that the devil/supernatural is real and on stage.

They needed to be convinced that such a being would come to earth and/or visit earth. The devil/supernatural form needed a vehicle to get here. The little girl in The Exorcist and the woman in Rosemary’s Baby are the vehicles … notice that the devil comes through the female.

I think your character Rachel could come in handy as the force that HaSatan [the Devil] uses to come to life…


Ain’t it great to have help like this?

Bottom line: I took both of Shawn’s points (which I had been blind to before) and asked myself, “How can I accomplish these two genre objectives? One, delay the revelation that the villain is supernatural? And two, use the female element, possibly the character of Rachel, to ‘conduct’ this supernatural being into the material world in the first place?”

These weren’t the only two elements that needed attention in order to bring the story into alignment with the conventions of the Supernatural Thriller genre. But they illustrate the issue.

So … in the broadest global sense (remember, this is Level One of reworking the story; I’ll get into Levels Two and Three in the next couple of weeks), I began by trying to solve those two issues in story terms.

Again, how specifically?

I reworked in index-card form the first half of the story to hold off the revelation of “Holy shit, the villain is the devil.” In Draft #11, the reader knew right away. (Of course she’ll know right away anyway, as in The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, just from the jacket of the book and other meta-cues, but the characters in the story won’t know, at least not for certain.)

This meant cutting five chapters out of fourteen and inserting four new ones. I made the detectives work harder. I made them dig up clues without any help. This radically re-energized them as individuals—and made them more interesting as well.

The great thing about adhering to conventions in any genre is the freakin’ process works.

Conventions work.

The gunfight at the end of the Western works.

The lovers parting and then coming together in a Love Story works.

Making detectives follow clues works.

So that was Step One in aligning the story with the genres I was working in.

Step Two, per Shawn’s notes, was having a female character ‘conduct’ the Evil One into physical form.

Again, this is a convention I wasn’t even aware of until Shawn pointed it out to me.

At first I thought, “That is a TERRIBLE idea. And there’s no way I can do it.”

But of course Shawn was right.

After a week or so of thrashing, a potential scenario came to me. I’m not gonna spell it out here (it’ll take too long) but suffice it to say, the idea went off like a firecracker. It gave me three or four new scenes, totally overhauled the character of Rachel (in a good way), and gave me a modified climax that was twice as dramatic and five times as satisfying as the previous one.

Of course I haven’t written any of this stuff yet.

It’s all in outline/index card form right now.

But it should work.

I think it will, anyway.

In my early career as a screenwriter, I worked with a partner. When we’d start a new project, the first thing we’d do was watch a boatload of movies that were similar to the one we were working on. We didn’t call it this, but we were studying the genre and the conventions of that genre.

One of the scripts we wrote was a film-noir detective flick for Dino DeLaurentiis. When we noticed that the private eye always gets beaten up in these movies (Chinatown, Farewell My Lovely, The Long Goodbye), we stole shamelessly.

Obligatory scenes work.

Genre conventions work.

So … that in general is Level One of my self-observed process for taking a crashed-and-burned project and trying to set it back up onto its feet.


Identify the genre you’re working in and bring your story into line with the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre.


At least that, it seems, is my process.

We’ll talk about the next two levels in the coming weeks.


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Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 20 Comments
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