An Even Better Book About Story
“Human growth is very elusive, but it is real, and it is what you, the writer, must express above everything else (or else show why it doesn’t occur).”
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, 2007
In my ongoing quest for story, in which I unconsciously emulate the character in a novel seeking essential answers about writing and being thwarted at every turn by external circumstances and the weaknesses of my own character, I’ve encountered John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story. (Or maybe that’s just barely consciously….)
In any case, Truby’s book is like the main course after the appetizers of the previous post, “The Synergy of Two Books About Story.”
Truby is apparently something called a “story consultant” in Hollywood, and comes more out of the screenwriting milieu than novel writing, but his book on story is universal enough to cover all the varieties. It is rich with ideas and in depth, even more so than the previous two books I looked at here.
He wants the writer to get away from artificial divisions like “three-act structure” to get to grips with the natural characteristics of compelling stories. His goal, he says, is this:
“In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.”
I’m not going to attempt to mention everything he covers in 421 pages, but I will try to hit some of the high points that appealed to me. Perhaps this can serve as an introduction to what I think is one of the better books on story, and writing, that I’ve read.
The dramatic code is central to his analysis, and the foundation for most of the structural elements he describes in stories.
In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. According to Truby, the dramatic code is at the core of human psychology. It’s an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.
Premise and Designing Principle
The writing process is about decisions, Truby says, and the first important guide to those decisions is the premise of the story. “Your premise is your inspiration.” It should contain the ingredients of the first flash of excitement when the idea of the story first arose. The premise allows the writer to explore the story, and the form it might take, before it’s actually written.
Truby counsels that finding the gold in a premise, takes time, a lot of time. He recommends taking weeks to sit and sift the premise. And he provides a suggested methodology to get the most out of it.
I’ll list the steps he discusses without going into them in detail. I’ve found them fruitful and their names are quite descriptive:
1) Write Something That May Change Your Life
2) Look for What’s Possible
3) Identify the Story Challenges and Problems
4) Find the Designing Principle
5) Determine Your Best Character in the Idea
6) Get a Sense of the Central Conflict
7) Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway
8) Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change
9) Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice
10) Gauge the Audience Appeal
That’s a lot to think about. In my own case, with the story I’m working on, I’ve already sorted a lot of this out, perhaps more by luck than design.
Finding the designing principle, no. 4 in his list, gave me a lot to chew on. It has a very specific meaning to Truby — it’s the internal logic of the story, the organizing principle that unifies it. And he says, the designing principle is difficult to see, and in order to work, it must be original. He gives the example of the movie Tootsie to illustrate his meaning:
Premise — When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.
Designing Principle — Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.
Or taking James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Premise — Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.
Designing Principle — In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of one day, one man finds a father and the other man finds a son.
The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure
According to Truby, a good story has a minimum of seven steps (it may have more) in its progress from beginning to end. These are not external structural requirements, such as imposing a three-act structure. He says, “They are the steps that any human being must work through to solve a life problem.” How these steps are linked will be up to the author, in order to provide the greatest impact.
1) Weakness and Need. The main character is missing a crucial characteristic, has a profound weakness that is holding him or her back from gaining what the character truly needs. Our hero, though, should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.
2) Desire. This is different from need, which is the character overcoming a weakness. Desire is a goal outside the character. Desire is more obvious and allows the reader to want along with the hero, and provides what the reader or audience thinks the story is about. Need is more hidden and linked to self-revelation by the end of the story.
3) Opponent. Truby says seeing the main character’s opponent as purely evil “will prevent you from ever writing a good story.” The opponent must be seen structurally: the opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal. Truby gives the example of a detective story: “It appears that the hero wants to catch the killer and the opponent wants to get away. But they are really fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe.”
4) Plan. The hero’s plan is organically linked to desire and the opponent to be overcome.
5) Battle. The battle is the final conflict over the goal between the hero and opponent. This could be an overt event of extreme violence, or a confrontation through dialogue.
6) Self-Revelation. This most completely can come in both psychological and moral forms. The hero sees himself or herself honestly for the first time, and takes action to prove that changes have occurred.
7) New Equilibrium. “The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible.”
The Character Web
Although there’s much more to explore in what Truby presents, the final thing that I want to mention, and that made a great impression on me, is what he calls the web of character. All the characters must help define the others.
Many of the characters serve as opponents to the main character, although they may be a friend or lover, and may be even better people than the hero.
Truby talks about allies, fake-ally opponents, fake opponent allies, subplot characters and the story functions served by them. For instance, he thinks of subplot as a very specific device — a way to show how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in different ways. “Through comparison, the subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.”
He goes on to detail how to create a great hero, how to create character change in the story, and how to build conflict. For instance he describes how better stories go beyond a simple opposition between the hero and main opponent and often use what he calls a four-corner opposition.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the nature of story as presented by Truby. But I’ve found the book very useful and even inspirational. And with my own work, it lets me see the way forward.