Sunday 15 May 2022

John Truby's The Anatomy of Story - by Rowena House

With a month to go before the PhD deadline to complete a detailed outline for the work-in-progress, I got side-tracked by a storytelling craft guide I’d meant to read for ages, only to discover it is a goldmine of great plotting advice, and the timing of its arrival proved perfect.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story was recommended to me years ago by author friend Lucy Van Smit of The Hurting fame, and now her very successful A Writer's Journal for the Writers & Artists Yearbook. She said I’d like it and she was right. 

Among its many excellent features is a recommendation that rather than developing the main character arc from its beginning, better to plot backwards from the protagonist’s psychological self-revelation near the end.

Intuitively, I wanted this to be ‘right’, partly because I’ve conspicuously failed to make progress by starting the current seventeenth century witch trial work-in-progress with Chapter 1, and partly in homage to all the still-born mauscripts mouldering in an old laptop which also began at the beginning.

On the other hand, I’d just spent $325 and five weeks of my life delving into the pre-story of my protagonist’s life, working out an ‘origin wound’ that is poisoning his life when the story opens and causing his immoral behaviour.

Why, then, start again by plotting the main character arc backwards if I already have a beginning? Isn’t that redundant or procrastination?

The answer, I think, is a need to stress test all the plotting decisions made so far before the next big step of scene weaving (to use Truby’s term). To explain...

If you’ve been reading my recent ABBA posts, you’ll know that for most of this year I’ve been using template synopses to outline the WIP, including (at last) a full Story Grid for the protagonist’s A-plot, plus the detailed backstory of his wound and its implications, thrashed out during Jeff Lyons’ intensive Anatomy of a Premise Line online course.

Truby, then, is the third leg of this stool: a way to check my workings before moving on.

Truby and Lyons are a good fit even though they seem to start the story development process from opposite ends of the end-product – Lyons from before the action starts, Truby from near the finale. But they both rely on the same foundation: a psychological and emotional ‘weakness’ (Truby) or a ‘moral blind spot’ (Lyons) which restricts the protagonist’s personal growth at the outset and creates their need to overcome their flaw by the end.

Before I began this experiment with template synopses, I was suspicious of this sort of predetermined basis for all stories; if you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve come across it endlessly, too, as the ‘want’ versus the ‘need’. But I’d paid my money for Jeff’s course, and gave it a really good try, and found myself happily surprised. Not only did this 'healing-a-wound' method create a workable outline, one that got my A-plot the commercial thumbs up from Jeff, but it also unlocked the workings of Story Grid and now Truby, too.  

Proof that it’s helpful for subplots as well came this morning when I was reviewing my preliminary notes about Truby for this post, and suddenly found myself in the middle of the spontaneous creation of the best working outline of Beth's B-plot I’ve managed in two long years!

Yes, I had a ton of research about Beth under my belt. Yes, I had fixed her Story Grid internal and external genres. But Truby cut away years of agonising over her root motivation and how that could get her from the story's A to Z. Now I can see the wood for the trees.

So how does Truby’s system work? Natch, I can’t summarize the whole thing here, so I’ll describe a couple of its key features instead. 

Despite its subtitle, “22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller”, The Anatomy of Story is less prescriptive than, say, Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid and its outgrowths (all useful), as Truby applies his character-led plotting process to all stories, rather than being genre-specific.

Within his twenty two steps, Truby says seven form the core of all plots, including subplots; if these steps aren’t on the page, the reader will feel cheated.

The seven are: i) the protagonist’s psychological and moral weaknesses, which together determine their inner, long-term need; ii) their object of desire AKA their concrete, short-term story goal; iii) a strong and ‘necessary’ opponent (see below); iv) the plans drawn up by the protagonist and opponent to achieve their mutually exclusive desires; v) the climactic battle between protagonist and opponent; vi) for positive endings, a self-revelation where the protagonist (and the opponent in better stories) “strip away the fa├žade” they have been hiding behind, and an acknowledge how they must change to thrive/survive; and vii) the new equilibrium in which they enact their new better selves for a happy, prescriptive ending. In cautionary tales like The Godfather, the protagonist fails to see themselves for who they truly are (and, in Michael Corleone’s case, ends up a monster).

For fans of story structure this is familiar stuff, as are many of the other fifteen steps (7+15=22). But that is by no means a criticism. This book is clear, thorough and persuasive.

For example, his advice on the opponent includes the following: “the single most important element of a great opponent is that he [sic] be necessary to the hero. This has a very specific structural meaning. The main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero.”

This definition caught me by surprise. Hitherto, I’d thought about opponents in plot terms: how they would stop the hero from getting what he wanted in some direct confrontation or by a devious route. But of course it doesn’t have to be that way!

She (my main opponent is female, thank you, Mr Truby) doesn’t have to attack Tom, the protagonist, head on. Other characters can do that, including those who will credibly spend time with him through the middle build. But by undermining his confidence early on, by exacerbating his emotional and psychological weaknesses, she could render him incapable of action over a long time period and across distances, paralyzing him with his own inner toxins. Ye-ha.

Even as I write this, part of my brain is saying, duh. Yeah? And seeing this technique at work in every movie on Netflix. But that’s the thing about passive and active knowledge: there’s a point at which you internalize it properly, and then apply it.

Reading Truby and applying his principles is like that overall. It's as if I've been given a fresh pair of eyes to check over my every planning decision. One last example...

This month I finally managed to complete the full Story Grid foolscap outline for the A-plot, thanks largely to the confidence boost received last month when Jeff Lyons signed off its underlying premise and short synopsis as commercially viable.

It turned out that having confidence in these foundational elements was key to unlocking the Story Grid’s worldview (revelation) internal genre, which in turn resolved many of the plotting issues with the external genre, now designated as historical crime.

Jeff Lyons’ Anatomy of a Premise Line also gave me a specific neurosis for Tom, worked through from his childhood to the story’s present. It is a highly exploitable neurosis, making him vulnerable to a wily opponent, and one that complicates his other main weakness, ignorance, which is the negative value provided by his internal Story Grid genre. So Tom’s opponents have two targets to attack – his neurosis and his ignorance – as well as his plan to disrupt, and their own strategies to achieve. It all adds up. Tom’s plot looks good to go.

With the subplot getting more focused, too, it’s possible I’ll even meet my mid-June deadline to have them both finished. Wouldn’t that be a turn up? Meanwhile, time for a dog walk in the May sunshine. Enjoy the longer days if you’re getting them where you are.

@HouseRowena on Twitter (story tweets and rants about the world)

Rowena House Author on Facebook (now a journal for the work-in-progress) (lots about The Goose Road)

1 comment:

Lynne Benton said...

Very interesting post, Rowena. Thank you!