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!

Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scene; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and enver take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issues, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Book Recommendation: The Walls of Air

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Ah, recommending the second book of a trilogy, that’s a new one for this blog!

The Walls of Air is the second novel in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy. The second book of a trilogy is always a bit tricky; you have to find a balance between answering some of the questions that the first novel set up while setting up the final stage of the final book.

Barbara Hambly manages to do just that in an admirable way. Our main characters — Ingold, Rudy and Gil — all face considerable challenges and each of them grow and change; some in ways that you’d expect, while others might surprise you. What Ingold goes through at the end of the novel, in particular, changes him into a much darker, more cruel version of himself; a version that was only hinted at, previously.

I won’t go into detail, but it’s an understandable transformation which feels very much ‘earned,’ if you will.  Appropriate. So it is with Gil and Rudy, whose transformations are more gradual and less…contested.

The Walls of Air features two storylines:

The first storyline deals with Rudy and Ingold’s journey to Quo, the Magical Capital/College of the world. I didn’t quite fancy Rudy as much as Ingold or Gil in the first book, but this storyline had me rooting for him time and time again. Our San Fran wizard’s apprentice is quite a charmer, that’s for sure.

Gil has some problems of her own in the Keep, overshadowed only by her proclivity to scholarly work, and her ability to see patterns early enough to make her brilliant but late enough not to resolve the tension over Rudy and Ingold’s quest.

Hambly’s prose is once again splendid. I read it with such ease that it’s a challenge not to lose myself and any notion of time when I’m within the confines of Darwath’s fantastic world.

I could say so much more about it…but I’m afraid to spoil a great experience for you. I’d really rather not do that, so you go ahead and read it!

Writing Advice: The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 1

I’ve been thinking about today’s blog post–quite a bit, in fact. I decided that instead of offering you some of my own hard-earned wisdom(insane laughter), I would take you on my exploration of John Truby’s well-regarded, well-known book, “The Anatomy of Story.” 

The plan is simple: Make a post about each chapter (sometimes the posts about a chapter might be more than one, depending on how complex the chapter is).  Within these posts I will attempt to extract the most important advice, guidelines, techniques and so on by retelling and rephrasing the most important parts, those that jump at me from the pages of this book; I will occasionally offer my own commentary and views, no doubt a great deal less worthwhile than Mr. Truby’s, but none the less, mine. It is *my* name on the blog, after all…ain’t that right, lads’n’lasses?

I hope that this little adventure will be useful and worthwhile not only to me, but to you as well, dear reader. So let’s begin!

CHAPTER 1: Story Space, Story Time

It’s no easy feat, creating a great story. Showing the how and why of human life — perhaps the end goal of storytelling, all things considered — is a monumental job.

There are numerous obstacles in your way.  Take common terminology: what help are terms like “rising action,” “climax,” “progressive complication” and so on, when we get down to the nitty-gritty of practice? Those terms, so theoretically burdened and broad, are meaningless and lack practical value for storytellers.

Just so with the ‘three-act theory,’ which, while a lot easier to use in practice, is a mechanical view on story, hopelessly simplistic and almost inevitably leading to episodic storytelling.

Great stories are organic – living, breathing organisms that develop, in a way eerily similar to the human body.

We could define a story as: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted, and why.

Three distinct elements can be observed: the story itself, the speaker (or storyteller), and the the listener, or audience.

Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices and emotions that led the character to do what they did. Stories are really giving the audience emotional knowledge–what we can easily dub as wisdom–in a playful and endearing way. (Magnus’ commentary: I thought that was a really nice view and explanation on stories.)

The storyteller constructs a sort of puzzle, to be figured out by the listeners. Two major elements go into the construction of this puzzle:

  1. The author presents the audience with information about a made-up character; and
  2. He then withholds the certain information–which is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe, by forcing the audience to figure out who the character is, what his motivations are. That’s what draws the audience to the story; without it, we no longer have an audience, and the story stops.

THE STORY

All forms are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.

But what is the dramatic code? It is, in simple terms, an artistic description of how a person can grow and evolve. Let’s explore this concept further:

  • Change is fueled by desire. (“I want, therefore I am.”)
  • A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
  • Characters who go after their desires are forced to struggle; it is that struggle that effects change upon a character.

The ultimate goal of the dramatic code is to present a change in a character, or to illustrate why change didn’t occur. The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways, of course.

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically or morally. The story body is made of many parts: characters, plot, revelations, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave and symphonic dialogue.

Theme is the brain of the story, characters–the heart, story structures are the skeleton, and so forth. Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

STORY MOVEMENT

Nature uses a few basic patterns to connect elements in a sequence. Storytellers use these same patterns, individually and in combination, to connect story events over time. Let’s see which those are:

  • Linear Story: Tracks a single main character, from beginning to end.
  • Meandering Story: Follows a winding path without apparent direction.
  • Spiral story: The character keeps returning to a single event or memory, and explores it at progressively deeper levels.
  • Branching is a system of paths that extend from a few central points by splitting and adding smaller and smaller parts.
  • Explosive Story: Has multiple paths that extend simultaneously. These stories also put more emphasis on exploring the story world, showing the connections between the various elements there and how everyone fits, or doesn’t fit, within the whole.

WRITING YOUR STORY

What writing process will give you the best chance of creating a great story?

Most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal and generic. We will work, instead, towards a writing process that may be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original. It’s no easy process.

You’ll construct your story from the inside out, meaning that:

  1. You must make the story personal and unique to you;
  2. You must find and develop what’s original within your story idea.

With each chapter, your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

Next Up: Chapter 2: Premise

Things are heating up!

 

 

Book Recommendation: Fahrenheit 451

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Ray Bradbury is one of the great American storytellers of the 20th and early 21st century.  I’m currently making my way through his “Zen in the art of writing,” and let me tell you…it does not disappoint.

This post is about Fahrenheit 451, a book that Ray Bradbury wrote with a certain message in mind; a book whose theme transcended Bradbury’s idea that television destroys interest in reading literature. Instead, it has become a quintessential dystopian tale about the dangers of censorship.

Why? Because in Fanhrenheit 451, firemen burn books. That’s right; gone are the good old days when firemen would extinguish fires. Now, their purview is somewhat different; burning books, since those contain dangerous ideas, ideas which one minority or another found offensive; which, it was decided, needed to be purged since they were too dangerous, too prone to cause in-fighting and whatever else nasty business you could imagine.

Gigantic TV sets that cover the walls, and ear shells, which blast entertainment into people’s heads are all that entertains people. They’re never off, not for a moment. Does that sound eerily familiar, perhaps?

One of the best things about books is that you can shut them when you need to think.

Well said, that. Fahrenheit 451 is filled with memorable quotes and haunting descriptions. Written in 1953, it never the less remains deeply relevant to this day.

It’s a short novel, some 200 pages–less, perhaps. Bradbury’s prose is beautiful, poignant and memorable. No surprise, if you’re at all familiar with the author you’re dealing with.

It’s well-worth your time. Go get it! Now!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

Book Recommendation: The Man in The High Castle

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It’s been a long time coming, this. Philip K. Dick’s look at an alternate version of the world where the Germans and the Japanese won World War 2 is nothing short of a spectacular example of speculative fiction.

How does he do it? How does Dick create such a mortifying vision of the world such as it never was, but could’ve been? How does he weave the essence of three differing cultures, so at war with each other; how does he navigate with such ease between philosophy and action, art and suspense; how does he spin it all into such captivating narrative?

Such skill as to leave you breathless. I’m not quite certain how to even begin to approach it, but I shall persevere, none the less!

After the war ended and the Axis won, the Japanese and the Nazis divided the USA amongst themselves, with New York acting as de facto headquarters to the Nazis, and San Francisco — of the Japanese.

The Man in The High Castle follows the lives of several very different individuals, often connected by the barest threads. They come from all sides of life — a Jew; a neutral Swede businessman who is more than he appears; a high-ranking Japanese Trade officer in the Pacific States of America, a puppet state of the Japanese Empire; a waitress, and an antiquary shop owner, amongst others.

To say what these characters go through would be to spoil an interesting read, and so I won’t. I will, however, tell you that a great deal of them read a book inside the novel; it’s a little piece of popular fiction called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, whose author writes about an alternate reality where the Axis Powers lost World War 2 in a manner that at first seems similar, yet is wildly different to the way in which our own history unraveled.

Is your head spinning from all the alternate realities yet?

Regardless of the answer, Dick’s depiction of a world thoroughly transformed by the Nazis’ victory is worth your time. Paragraphs like these will chill you to the bones; they will force you to ask yourself questions, to face uncomfortable truths and to dig deeper. Into history, into the present, even into the future.

P.S. Fascinating is Philip K. Dick’s use of the I Ching, the ancient “Book of Changes,” originally Chinese, adopted by the Japanese later down the line, is a book of oracles, used for divination by numerous characters across the book, in order to make decisions. I had never heard about it before–shame on me; nevertheless, it pops up time and time again, oftentimes affecting the choices of important characters.

Even more curious is the fact that Dick actually used the I Ching to aid him in writing the book and its outcome.