Eight Things I Learned about Writing This Month
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
I recently finished John Truby's The Anatomy of Story--an in-depth book about the craft of writing. It'd been a while since I'd read a book about writing, but, as there are always new things to learn, I thought I'd share a few gems.
"A story has a minimum of seven steps in its growth from beginning to end:
1. Weakness and need
7. New equilibrium" (p 37)
Truby goes into detail about each of these seven steps, but I'll summarize them briefly. In short, these steps describe the growth a character must endure from beginning to end. What are his weaknesses? What does he need and want? Who is his opposition? How does he plan to get what he wants? When he executes his plan (battle), how does it pan out? What does he learn through this experience and how is he changed at the end?
I found these steps helpful because it will give me a checklist as I write. It will allow me to cement details about the protagonist's personality without jamming them haphazardly into the plot.
"In average stories, the hero has only a psychological need. A psychological need involves overcoming a serious flaw that is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral need in addition to a psychological need. The hero must overcome a moral flaw and learn how to act properly toward other people. A character with a moral need is always hurting others in some way (his moral weakness) at the beginning of the story." (p 38)
This was something I'd never realized on a conscious level--the fact that our flaws cause harm not only to ourselves but to others. Looking back at my first two manuscripts, I can see where this comes into play, especially because I'm someone who's very mindful of morality. I love writing self-absorbed, unpredictable, unreliable characters who unknowingly make mistakes at the expense of others. It never fails to make an interesting story.
Truby goes on to say that, without both dimensions of the need (psychological and moral), the story will fall flat. This has been helpful to keep in mind as I draft my third book.
"A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal.... If you give your hero and opponent two separate goals, each one can get what he wants without coming into direct conflict. And then you have no story at all." (p 42, 43)
For some reason, this is something that had never occurred to me before--the fact that the hero and opponent should be competing for the same goal. If they aren't, then where's the conflict? There isn't, really.
What this piece of wisdom drew to my attention was my tendency to make people mean for the sake of being mean. They're so easy (and fun!) to write. Just add a streak of Draco Malfoy here and a dash of Regina George there. Unfortunately, writing like this is a shortcut. It creates a shallow source of conflict. From now on, I'm going to be conscientious not only of how I create my villains, but why I'm creating them.
"To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often defined by who he is not." (p 50)
This advice is perfect, given what I'm trying to accomplish in this book right now. I'm alternating between the perspectives of three (maybe four) characters, but they're all so different, I'm having a hard time linking everybody's story to the main plot. As it turns out, I might not need it all. I've got to streamline the multiple perspectives in a way that emphasizes the qualities and personality of the protagonist.
"The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these characters, the larger issues and themes unfold." (p 51)
And here we come back to the opponent. Truby sure does devote a decent amount of time to this topic, and reasonably so. It really caused me to question how much of an emphasis I put on the protagonist-antagonist relationship. I tend to focus on the protagonist-mentor relationship or the protagonist-sidekick relationship.
This quote makes me think twice, though. Take Luke and Darth Vadar, for example. They're the epitome of light and darkness, good and evil. They're unforgettable.
"You begin individuating your characters by finding the moral problem at the heart of the premise. You then play out the various possibilities of the moral problem in the body of the story." (p 61)
This quote ties back in to creating characters that essentially are mirrors of each other. Truby takes it a step further by describing how we individuate characters--finding the "moral problem" of the book and enabling characters to make various moral decisions and face the consequences.
By "moral problem," Truby means the overarching question writers seek to answer in their novel. For example, the moral problem could be: how should men treat women in the workplace? Or, how should a married woman act if she falls in love with a man who isn't her husband? In the case of this first moral problem, a writer might compare and contrast various male characters who treat women differently in the workplace.
"Better stories go beyond a simple opposition between hero and main opponent and use a technique I call four-corner opposition. In this technique, you create a hero and a main opponent plus at least two secondary opponents.... Think of each of the characters--hero and three opponents--as taking a corner of the box, meaning that each is as different from the others as possible." (p 79)
This may be the most practical writing advice in the book. I even reiterated the chart from the book to exhibit Truby's "four-corner opposition" technique. A simple story would adhere to a basic hero vs. villain format, but by implementing two additional opponents who attack both the hero and one another, we create a deeper, more complex web of conflict. In other words: drama, drama, and more drama.
"Mastering technique is not enough. Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story. If you want to tell the great story, the never 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." (p 350)
This quote, coming in the very last pages, is so striking, isn't it? To write a book, we must not only possess a mastery of the craft--but we must honestly self-reflect on our own needs, weakness, and desires. It is in this retrospection that we drew up characters that are as lively and vivid as a real person--because that's where it came from.
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