Posted tagged ‘novel writing’

What I’ve Learned About the First Draft of a Novel

June 14, 2016

“What if we entertained the possibility that we did not need to even understand where our story was taking us?”
— Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel

It can be daunting, this writing business.

For years, I procrastinated getting started on the first draft of a science-fiction novel.  Oh, I did my research in a disorganized way, kept copious notes and agonized over how to organize them usefully, and read widely about novel-writing and the nature of story.  It often amounted to not much more than pencil sharpening, without finding the motivation to put that point down on the paper and get going.

But now, I’m happy to say, I’m almost 45,000 words in on the first draft.  I’m told a typical book length manuscript might be 90,000 words, so that makes almost half-way.  My plan is to overwrite by quite a bit, because I’m quite sure I’ll be paring and trimming extensively during revision.  And that makes sense that I will have to in this case, because the story has only barely got up on its feet and begun to stroll forward.

Why did it take me so long to get on with it?  It was sheer procrastination, fear of failure and lack of imagination about the satisfaction of it, really, rather than some deep-seated writer’s block rooted in the psychology of my relationship with my mother. Or father. Or crazy aunt from Argentina.

What Finally Got Me Going

I wanted to share what finally tipped me into the role of novel-writer (even if it never goes anywhere finally).  That tipping is, of course, about actually writing almost every day versus just thinking about it.  But I hope describing some of what helped me it might help others of my procrastinating brethren and sistren.

First of all I have to give a lot of credit to Chuck Wendig.  He’s a novelist, and comic-book writer of all things, who manages to convey with sparkling crudeness the need to stop with the excuses already on his blog Terribleminds.  After I read his post How To Push Past the Bullshit And Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan To Get Shit Done I had no place to run.  It was either do it or don’t.

The main point of his “simple plan” is to pick a relatively small chunk of words to do every day and commit to writing them on a schedule that you keep.  It will add up, but it has got to be done almost every day.

One of my difficulties in the past was trying to do too much writing in one sit-down, and then getting frustrated and blocked. Now I do a little more than Wendig’s recommended 350 words, but not a lot more.  As he says, you can sneeze that much at one go….

Another very useful thing that I did in preparation was writing a rough 30 page story treatment.  Not really an outline, because strict outlines always seem to shut down my imagination, but a scene sequence that would take me to the major points of my story.  I was guided in this very much by John Truby’s insightful book, The Anatomy of Story.  As a result of that effort I have a web of characters, a “reveals” sequence, and the main points of my plot laid out as a rough road map.  I’ve already gone off the rails with much of the scene sequence but that’s alright.  I don’t feel lost.  I may not be on the exact road I imagined but I can see the high points off in the distance.

On Not Having Any Faith in What You’re Doing

But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  I find that having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good at these times.

For me, it has been Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within.  There’s a few of these kinds of books around: write a novel in a month, or on the weekends, or in this case, in 90 days.  I’m not following Watt’s schedule of writing, or even his thoughts on structure, which go on about the typical three acts.  (There’s nothing about stories or novels that dictates three acts; it seems to be just a way of talking about the beginning, middle and end of a work of fiction.)

But what is so inspiring are his thoughts about discovering the story we’re struggling to get down, the story that’s in us.

“The fear that we are doing this wrong is bound to arise, but it is often tied up with the idea that we are supposed to know how to do it.  Our story is bigger than we are…. Our job is to inquire.  When we put our curiosity before our fears, we will get to the end.”  And:

“You don’t need to force anything.  We allow the truth to be told, even if it seems, at times, temporarily at odds with our idea of the story. Sometimes it may seem that we’re off course, but as we stay with it, we discover a deeper truth.  As our hero moves toward his goal, he encounters obstacles, and we might be surprised that he’s not doing what we thought he would.  This doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong.”

A Nice Cup of Green Tea

So this is what I do on every day I write:

— Make a cup of green tea.  This signals to me I’m now ready to write.  It serves as a way of declaring, to me and my subconscious, that the surgeon is approaching the patient, for better or worse.  The signal could be anything really: playing a certain piece of music, spraying oil of patchouli around the place, or making a series of elaborate arcane gestures over the computer.

— Open the congenial, straightforward writing application I’m choosing to use.  Once upon a time, I wanted to get too complicated with software that helps you sort out scenes, lists characters, manages structure, etc.  I’ve forgotten all that.  I use RoughDraft, which is an old free word processor that produces files in the common .rtf format. It allows you to attach separate notes to each chapter file, has a word counter and a back-up function built in.  But anything you’re comfortable with will do, I’m sure.

— Use a calculator, virtual or real, to have at the ready a display of my word goal for this session.  I often go past the number of words it sets, but I find it so helpful to have that mark in front of me.  With RoughDraft I have a running tally of how many words I’ve written, so I just add to that figure to get my day’s goal.

— Start to write.  Cause and effect.  Enquire and discover the truth of the characters, the best I can discern at this stage anyway.  See where it goes.  Sometimes I’m rewarded with a byway that is surprisingly appropriate and that I hadn’t planned on.

— Don’t go back and rework what you’ve written (following Alan Watt’s advice).  I don’t know for sure where I’m going yet, so how do I know what to revise?  Just write, trust in the exploratory nature of the process, and the words add up.

— Back up everything.

A couple of useful online resources I’ve found: Power Thesaurus, when you’re looking for a better word that you haven’t used three times already; and another that I will use and adapt from more, The Online Slang Dictionary.

There’s also my copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression which is useful for showing not telling the reader something of your character’s state of mind.

There are many more sources of both inspiration and craft that I could mention.  But these are working for me, so far.

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At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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World Building and the Brink of Novel Writing

May 16, 2015

After a false start or two (or was it three?), I’m poised to take the plunge into the first draft of a science fiction novel.

I’ve been trying to sort out how much world building is really necessary before I start.  I’ve got an entire personal wiki and a moleskin notebook or two filled with info about this world of mine.  But it’s not well-organized, or even well thought out, and it’s daunting to burst out onto an unknown plain, bare sun bright overhead, and populate it with every geological feature, weather system, religious artefact, industrial process, scientific advance and weirdly consistent culture it should have.

I keep telling myself, this is the first draft.  It’s supposed to be exploratory and not fully formed in some ways.  I will be discovering much in the process of writing it.  I don’t have to know everything about the novel world before I start. In the immortal words of terriblemind’s Chuck Wendig, “you’re not writing a fucking encyclopedia.”

(He also goes on to say in a post on “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding”: “If you’re lazy (like me!) and don’t feel like you can commit to writing a glacier-sized world bible, hey, you know what? Build it as you go. As you write, introduce details relevant to the story, the plot, the characters, the theme, and to the chapter at hand. This’ll probably require work on the back-end….”)

worldbuildingI’ve even made notes of counsel to myself in the same vein:

“Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.”

“Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.”

How Much World Building is Enough?

But I am yet filled with trepidation about how much world building preparation is enough.  It is another way I use to procrastinate, I’m sure, these fears about starting the writing.  (There’s an interesting aspect of these fears that I will touch on at the end of this.)

But as a way to calm and reassure myself, or alternatively, cause myself much anxiety at how much I haven’t done in preparation, I thought I would look at some of the more useful links on world building that I’ve found.

Some of them are of the school that you need to have every detail of your world thought-out before you start, but there are some thoughtful recommendations never the less.  I think to myself, I have to find a way to make the world-building fun and creative, or I’m really barking up the wrong tree with this science fiction ambition.

And also I realize that I’m unbelievably fortunate to live in the time of the Internet, where I can research almost anything with the touch of a few keys.  The possibilities for creative combination and variation of what’s out there are many.

Some World Building Links

World-Building_concept1. Writer Ava Jae in a blog post on Writability lists 15 details to remember.  She lists climate, social structure, measurements (I hadn’t thought of that one but of course), food, and ethnicities among them.  For instance, on ethnicities, she asks:

Is your world monoethnic? Are there several ethnicities, and if so, where did they come from? Is it location-based? Are certain ethnicities considered more desirable than others? Are any ethnicities persecuted or worshipped?”

2. Prolific author S. Andrew Swann provides a post/essay on “Worldbuilding: Constructing a SF Universe.” He counsels us to understand how the fictional world is different from our own.  Your world must have its own rules.

“… A reader will allow a writer to alter anything about the universe, as long as the writer explains why what we thought we knew is wrong. You’re job is to convince the reader that you know what you’re doing, and to never allow the reader to believe you wrote something out of ignorance or carelessness.”

I liked these thoughts on the necessary historicity to imply the complexity of your invented world:

“Every fictional universe has a past, if only an implied one. You, as the universe’s creator, need to know enough of this past to give the reader a sense that this world existed before the story began, and will continue to exist (barring catastrophe) long afterwards. Also, remember that the past is different things to different people. You’re in a position to know the “real” historical events of your world, but your characters are at the whim of memory, historians, propaganda, and official records. When someone in a story has a different view of history than the reader does, the reader will gain some insight into that character’s personality and culture.”

3. Young Adult sci-fi author Shallee McArthur provides a framework to think about the culture of your made-up world in a post “Worldbuilding — How to Develop the Culture of Your Novel.”

She offers a diagram to think about what makes up a culture — values, rituals, heroes, symbols, and the practices that bind together the latter three.  Practices could include gender roles and politics for instance.

Of rituals, for example, she writes:

“Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there’s a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana.”

4. Author Berley Kerr gives guidance on science fiction and fantasy in the post “Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy.”

He writes about factors such as Dominant Technology, Transportation, and Currency.  About currency he writes:

“Money tells the reader what kind of world it is. If they’re bartering, chances are the place your character lives in is poor or the population is scattered with no centralized government.”

Of course, if we could make a bartering society high-tech somehow, that could be an interesting take….

5. In quite a thoughtful post, sci-fi author Malinda Lo writes about “Five Foundations of World-building.”

She says things I like about how much world building to do:

“But I don’t think you need to get bogged down in answering 100 questions about the economics and politics and plant life of your world. I suggest you focus on five main issues that will serve as the foundation for your world. All those other details — even the shape of eating tables — can emerge after you’ve established this foundation. Often those details emerge right out of the writing itself.”

WbMLThe five main issues she lists are: 1) Rules, 2) Rituals, 3) Power, 4) Place and 5) Food.

About food:

“This is one of my very favorite elements of world building because I love to eat! But food does more than just taste good. In fiction, it can tell a complicated story involving ritual, power, and place, which makes food an excellent short-hand for world building.”

6. Charlie Jane Anders posted on io9 an essay on “The Difference Between Good Worldbuilding and Great Worldbuilding.”
After obsessing, she says, about world building for quite a while, she concludes that:

Good world building shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great world building shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on:

“Because when it comes to a rich, complicated world, a lot of the most important or telling details are going to be the things that people overlook.”

She mentions George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame as a master of allowing the reader to see what the character fails to notice.

7. And finally for the world building links there is this advice from author CJ Lyons, “World Building: Don’t Do It.”

It starts from the understanding that every novel, of whatever genre, is an exercise in world building.  She advises to create the world through the point of view of our characters:

worldbuilding-2“Talk their talk, walk their walk. Live their world through their eyes and your reader will feel transported. Every choice your characters make, from what clothes they wear to the car they drive, helps to create this alternative universe for your readers.”

Since I’m on the starting-to-write-the-novel topic, here’s one more link, to the effectively crude Chuck Wendig: “How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan to Get Shit Done.”

Use Fear to Connect

And finally, I’d like to mention a great way to creatively use all one’s fears about writing which I found in the book The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.

He calls it The Fear Exercise.  You must write as quickly as possible for five or so minutes completing the sentence “I’m afraid to write this story because….”  Make a list of every fear from the trivial to the forbidden.  Then use all these fears to connect to your main character.  He or she has many of the same fears, of failure, of ridiculousness.

Watt writes: “I encourage you to get excited by your fears.  Make friends with them.  They offer clues, and direct access to your story.”

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Notes on image sources, from top down.

1) From yet another page on world building by Veronica Sicoe.
2) From a post by author J.S. Morin also on worldbuilding.
3) From a University of Southern California site on interactive media.
4) From a column by Rajan Khanna on Lit Reactor, which is interesting on the styles of worldbuilding.

Thoughts On Building A Novel

June 27, 2014

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”

An Even Better Book About Story

May 24, 2014

“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.”

truby--anatomy_smallHe has no use for terminology like “rising action,” “climax,” or “progressive complication,” or any other approaches without real practical value for storytellers.

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.

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