This week I spent a few sessions on the deck with John Truby. Or, more specifically, his book The Anatomy of Story.
Truby has his own approach to story structure, but for me the true value of his book is the process, not the structure.
I have a problem. I always want to jump right into the story and start writing. It’s like signing up to run a marathon when you barely have enough juice to run a 440.
A novel requires a full cast of characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, allies, opponents, fake allies, fake opponents. A good novel explores the interactions between all the characters, what Truby calls the character web. If you really want to write a rich, powerful novel, you need to understand all these characters, their motivation, their weakness, need, desire, key values, and how they interact within a character and between characters.
Truby saves me from myself. He forces me to understand the full depth and power of the story itself. He forces me to treat the characters as real people, not just pieces to move around on the board to advance the plot.
Basically, he forces me to do the heavy lifting before I start writing.
Why is that important? It saves a ton of time and frustration caused by writing scenes and chapters that I have to throw away. Chapters that don’t feel authentic or that go nowhere.
This is not a formula. It’s not paint-by-numbers. It’s the exact opposite. It’s a process that allows you to create a unique story that isn’t like any other story.
I spent a few hours out on the deck reading Chapters 1 and 2. I uncovered a lot of good things for me to know or research before I start writing.
Chapter 2: Ten steps to develop premise
Step 1: Write something that could change your life
- Classic whodunit plot
- Unlikely hero
- Ghost from the past (Brillo?)
- Talisman from the past (Randall knife?)
- Rock thrower, or is that too much?
- Recurring homeless character, annoying, who Jack rescues from a culvert in a flood
Premise: An antisocial homeless veteran takes on powerful enemies to solve the murder of a childhood friend.
Step 2: Look for what’s possible
- What if the villain is involved in Code Next, wanting to develop multi-family dwellings in Shoal Creek?
- What if the villain is in league with city officials who will be at risk if the truth comes out?
- What if Jack has already been in a few scrapes with the law? Perhaps an outstanding case against him with a pending court date?
- What if Jack has some allies that he calls only when all is lost? A judge? A judge who has ruled against him in the past? A high-ranking military officer?
Step 3: Identify the story challenges and problems
- Keep the plot from getting too intricate
- Educate the reader on Riki’s backstory without violating POV
- Portray the homeless life without falling into the ditches of trivializing, moralizing, sermonizing, and all the other izings
- Establish Jack as a zen-like dude who has insulated himself from human involvement, a non-interventionist, without being a jerk
- Construct a consistent personal philosophy initially built on a traumatic childhood event and developed through life experience
- Research the conflict, if any, between a zen-adjacent world view and Jack imposing his moral sense on another by actively seeking justice. Is this a challenge for Jack, something he has to work through? Or is he already there?
- Perhaps the turning point is stepping out of his insular world to intervene on behalf of a close friend from his past
Step 4: Find the designing principle
Designing principle: Use the classic David vs Goliath story to show how a reclusive vagabond overcomes his nature to solve the murder of a childhood friend by exposing the crimes of the monied elite.
Step 5: Determine your best character in the idea
Best Character: Jack
Step 6: Get a sense of the central conflict
Central Conflict: Jack takes on the powerful to expose the murderer
Step 7: Get a sense of the single cause-and-effect pathway
Single Cause/Effect Pathway: A murder disguised as a suicide draws a reclusive homeless man out of his self-imposed isolation to expose the murder.
Step 8: Determine the hero’s possible character change
W = weakness (psychological and moral)
A = struggle to accomplish the basic action in the middle of the story
C = changed person
Hero’s Character Change: W x A = C
Weakness = non-interventionist, the world is what is, we don’t change it, we live in it
Action = decides to bring a murderer to justice
Change = becomes an agent of change to intervene in what is to make it what should be
Step 9: Figure out the hero’s possible moral choice
Moral Choice: take a side instead of accepting what is
Step 10: Gauge the audience appeal
Audience Appeal: Universal. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong
What about your story? Have you thought it through? Have you identified cool things that could make it more interesting or problems you must overcome to make it compelling?
See you next week. Keep on writing.