Writing Advice: The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure (Chapter 3 of The Anatomy of Story)

Welcome back to my summary of ‘The Anatomy of Story’ by John Truby. Today we’ll take a look at Chapter 3, which deals with the steps of story structure. Let’s get to it! 

When we talk about the  structure of a story, we talk about how a story develops over time.

A story has a minimum of seven steps in its growth from beginning to end:

  1. Weakness and need.
  2. Desire.
  3. Opponent.
  4. Plan.
  5. Battle.Thgfgfgga
  6. Self-revelation.
  7. New equilibrium.

(Magnus Commentary: Sound bit unclear? Don’t worry, we’re gonna breeze through these!)

These seven steps aren’t arbitrarily imposed from without, the way a mechanical story structure such as the three-act structure is. These seven stop are based on human action, and are organic.

1.Weakness and need.

From the very beginning of the story, your hero has one or more great weaknesses that are holding him back. The need is what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. It takes change and growth to overcome weaknesses.

Need is a wellspring of the story, and sets up every other step. Keep two important points in mind:

Your hero shouldn’t be aware of his need at the beginning of the story. 

If he’s already cognizant of what he needs, the story is over. The knowledge comes at the end, after the hero’s gone through a great deal of pain or struggle.

Give your hero a moral need as well as a psychological need.

Psychological needs involve overcoming a serious flaw that is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral flaw in need of overcoming; a character with a moral need is always hurting others in some way at the story’s beginning.

(Magnus Commentary: I’m interested to see a character begin without a moral flaw but develop it as the story progresses.)

Giving your hero a moral need also prevents him from being perfect or a victim. Both are the kiss of death, storytelling-wise.

Keep the problem simple and specific.

The problem is also present from page one, but it isn’t as important as the weakness and need. Crisis defines a character very quickly.

Technique: Creating the moral need

Remember the rule of thumb: To have a moral need, the character must be hurting at least one other person. The moral need usually comes out of the psychological need. The character must be hurting at least one other person. The moral need usually comes out of the psychological weakness that leads him to take it out on others.

  1. Begin with the psychological weakness.
  2. Figure out what kind of immoral action might natural come out of that.

A second technique for creating a moral need is to push a strength so far that it becomes a weakness. It goes like this:

  1. Identify a virtue in your character; then make him so passionate about it that it becomes oppressive.
  2. Come up with a value the character believes in. Then find the negative version of this value.

2. Desire

Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal. A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play. It’s the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hands. It’s intimately connected to need.

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to confuse need and desire or them as a single step.

Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character. A hero with a need is paralyzed in some way by his weakness. Desire is a goal outside the character.

Need and desire also have different function in relation to the audience. Need lets the audience see how the hero must change to have a better life. It’s the key to the whole story, but it remains under the surface, whereas desire is on the surface, a thing that the audience wants along with the hero.

Your hero’s true desire is what he wants in this story, not what he wants in life.

Technique: Starting with desire

Careful — you might think to jump past the need and weakness and straight to desire. It’ll start the story off quickly, but it might very well kill the payoff, the ending of the story. Step 1 makes it possible for your hero to change at the end. They’re what makes the story personal and meaningful. And they’ll make the audience care. Don’t start with desire, not ever.

3. Opponent.

See the opponent not as an evil cliché, but structurally, in terms of his function in the story. A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal. The opponent thus links with Step Two: Desire.

It’s this link that forces hero and opponent to come into direct conflict. Two separate goals mean…the two characters can each get what they want without coming directly into conflict.

To find the right opponent, start with your hero’s specific goal — whoever wants to keep him from getting it is an (or The) opponent.

4. Plan.

Action isn’t possible without some plan. The plan is the set of guidelines or strategies, that the hero will use to overcome the opponent and reach the goal. Linked to both the opponent and the desire. The plan should always be specifically focused towards reaching the goal and defeating the opponent.

5. Battle.

The final conflict between hero and opponent; determines which of the two characters wins the goal. The final battle may be a conflict of violence or of words.

6. Self-Revelation.

The battle is an intense, painful experience for the hero. The crucible for battle causes the hero to have a major revelation about who he really is.

Much of the quality of your story is based on the quality of your story. Good self-revelation, like need, comes in two forms — psychological and moral.

In psychological, the hero strips away the façade and sees himself honestly for the first time. The stripping away of the façade isn’t passive or easy. It’s the most active, difficult and courageous act the hero performs in the entire story. As need is the beginning of the hero’s character change, so is self-revelation the end-point.

7. New Equilibrium.

Everything returns to normal, and all desire is gone, except for one difference. The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible. A fundamental and permanent change will have taken place, either positive or negative.

The hero will therefore either move to a higher level, or — if he’s committed a terrible crime that exposes a corrupt personal flaw — will fall and be destroyed.

That’s it for this week! Hope you find my summary of Chapter 3 an interesting one: here’s to next week, which’ll be centered on Chapter 4: Characters! 

There are plenty of interesting examples and exercises in the book, which are also worth a look. As always, I don’t fully agree with the premise of the novel — that this is the best way to write; but it’s an interesting and educational experience, reading this!

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