Showing posts with label The Anatomy of Story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Anatomy of Story. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 29

The Goal of Writing

The Goal of Writing

What is the goal of writing?

I mean by this not only why do we, as individuals, write, I mean what is it we hope to do, to accomplish, by our writing.

From my reading, I would say that one of the most common answers is: to entertain.

And that makes sense. I think we've all had the experience of coming home from a hard day and wanting nothing more than to sit down and relax with a cup of steaming hot cocoa--or other beverage--and a book guaranteed to take your mind off the cares and troubles of the day.

That said, I think it might matter what kind of story you're writing. For instance, someone who writes a literary story might be more interested in focusing on a particular aspect of the human condition than on entertaining their readers. I think all writers care about entertaining readers, it's just a matter of emphasis.

So, tentatively, let's say that the goal of genre fiction (perhaps mainstream too, but certainly genre) is to entertain. But let's see if we can't narrow it down a bit more.

First, though, let's take a look at what a story is at it's most fundamental level.

Story: A Definition

John Truby in "The Anatomy of Story" gives the following definition:

"A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why."

Truby views a story as essentially interactive, something that passes from a storyteller to one or more listeners.

There are two parts to this:

1. Emotional knowledge: reliving the life

Truby writes:

"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 he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of knowledge--emotional knowledge--or what used to be known as wisdom, but they do it in a playful, entertaining way."

2. Figure out the puzzle: a verbal game

Truby calls stories verbal games. The storyteller constructs "a kind of puzzle about people" and asks the listener to figure it out.

There are two parts to this:

a. Give certain information about the characters to the audience.

b. Withhold certain information about the characters from the audience.

It is the interplay of (a) and (b) that keeps readers guessing up until the end.

Question: What do you think the goal of storytelling is? 

Photo credit: "♥ The Drongo Love ♥ Happy Valentine's Day ♥" by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 20

Narrative Setting: How To Build A World

"You create a story world to express and manifest your characters, especially your hero." John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, writes: "creating a unique world for the story--and organically connecting it to the characters--is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue."

When I read that passage I knew I couldn't close out my series on narrative setting without talking about how Truby constructs a story world, a narrative setting, one designed specifically for his characters. Truby talks the reader through how to create a story world that characters not only 'hook' into, but which complements the hero's journey and gives it meaning.

Truby writes (and this is something he emphasizes all through "The Anatomy of Story"): just as the interrelations between the characters--especially the protagonist--give meaning to the whole, so it is for settings.

Truby writes: 

"... in good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters."

"The process of translating the story line into a physical story world, which then elicits certain emotions in the audience, is a difficult one. That's because you are really speaking two languages—one of words, the other of images—and matching them exactly over the course of the story."

Here is John Truby's advice for creating a story world rich in meaning:

1. Create The Story Space

1a. Use the story's designing principle to draw the boundaries of your story world.

Begin with the story's designing principle "since this is what holds everything together." The designing principle will tell you where to draw the boundaries, what shape the world should be, what kind of world it should be.

1b. Divide the story world into visual oppositions.

Divide the story world we delineated in step one into "visual oppositions" based on how your characters oppose one another.

2. Three types of setting.

Truby advises us to "detail the world using ... natural settings, artificial spaces, and technology."

3. Connect the story world to the hero's overall development.

When I read this part of Truby's book I knew I had to share this information on my blog. This point is really why I'm doing this post, we're going through steps 1 and 2 because they're prerequisites to get here.

SO. Let's take this one step at a time.

1. Creating The Story Space

1a. Use the story's designing principle to find the boundaries of your story world. 

First, let's quickly discuss the designing principle. This is one of the core concepts of Truby's "The Anatomy of Story" so I'm not going to be able to do it justice here. 

Truby writes:

"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."

Think of the designing principle as the seed, the idea seed, the nucleus, that a story grows from. Here's one of Truby's examples:


Designing principle: "Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman."

(Note: Truby also talks about the premise but I'm not going to cover this concept here.)

Finding the boundaries.

What we want to do is develop a one line description of our setting, something that will tie it into the designing principle of our story.

Here's an example from the movie, "Four Weddings and a Funeral":

Designing principle: "A group of friends experiences four Utopias (weddings) and a moment in hell (funeral) as they all look for their right partner in marriage."

Story World: "The Utopian world and rituals of weddings."

John Truby gives many more examples in his book, and I should mention that I'm leaving out an enormous amount of material--the story premise, theme line, and so on.

Anyway, after you write down the designing principle you're equipped to delineate the extent of the story world, to clearly establish its physical boundaries.

Truby writes that the story "arena is the basic space of drama. It is a single, unified place surrounded by some kind of wall. Everything inside the arena is part of the story. Everything outside the arena is not."

Truby goes on to say there are four main ways of creating a story arena that possess enough "variety of place and action" to sustain the events of any story.

i. The Spotted Umbrella

Think of a medieval town surrounded by thick walls. Many inhabitants of the town could have a general overall knowledge of the town and how it's laid out, its various areas, and so on, though a particular individual might spend most of their time in only a few of its many environs.

For example, when I watched the movie "Aliens" I had a general sense of the planet but Ripley only travelled to a few places on its surface. In terms of my analogy, those are the spots within the umbrella.

ii. The Straight Line

This is the basic layout of a journey story.

One of the challenges of writing a cohesive journey story is making all the different areas seem connected. 

What one usually doesn't want is for the reader to feel as though each location is a different story. You want them to feel it's all part of one unified tale.

One way to create "the sense of a single area" is for the terrain the hero travels through to remain fundamentally the same.

For instance, a hero might travel to several different villages located along the same river. Or the hero might travel to several locations in the same desert or country.

Truby gives the movie "Titanic" as an example of a story where the hero travels in a straight line.

iii. The Circle

This approach has much in common with the previous one, with the exception that, at the end, the hero returns home. Truby's example: "The Wizard of Oz."

iv. Fish Out Of Water

The fish out of water story generally utilizes two different worlds.

In one world, the first, the hero is seen to have certain talents (or weaknesses). Then the hero is unceremoniously tossed into a second world--one where the rules are markedly different--and those same talents (or weaknesses) are shown.

Often, whatever the hero did well in one world he will be completely incompetent at in the other. 

Of course, the two worlds aren't necessarily different physical places. Something could happen to so completely alter the social environment of the hero that the change is just as profound as a change of place. For instance, the hero's five older siblings die in a tragic accident and so he goes from completely ignored to being continually doted on.

Truby's examples: "Beverly Hills Cop," "Crocodile Dundee."

Note: Truby writes: "What holds them [the separate locations] together is that the hero uses the same talents in both places ..."

Truby's tip: Don't stay too long in the first area. Truby doesn't like talking about acts, but I'd say, in a three act story, be sure to take the hero into the second world--the special world of the adventure--at the beginning of the second act.

1b. Divide the story world into visual oppositions.

Ask yourself: 

What are the oppositions between my characters? 
What values do they hold?
How do your characters fight each other?
How do their values conflict?

As you ask and answer these questions think about how these oppositions could be symbolized or represented visually.

Truby advises writers to attempt to produce three or four critical, visual, oppositions.

Truby uses the example of "King Kong." The opposition is, in part, between "Carl Denham, and the giant prehistoric beast, Kong. So the main opposition within the story world is the island of New York, the man-made and overly civilized but extremely harsh world where image-maker Denham is "king," versus Skull Island, the extremely harsh state of nature where Kong, master of physical force, is king."


2. Three types of setting.

There are three main kinds of settings:

a. Natural settings
b. Man-made settings
c. Tools/Technology

a. Natural settings

i. The ocean.

An ocean has two parts: the surface and the deep, dark, depths.

The surface:

The surface of the ocean gives us a sense of contest, a sense of "a game of life and death played out on the grandest scale."

The deep places: 

- A weightless dream world.
- A terrifying graveyard.

In the deep places sea creatures reach up to grab those on the surface and drag them down to their death in the murky depths.

Also, when I think of the deep places of the ocean, it occurs to me that often bodies of water are used to symbolize the unconscious mind and the creatures/complexes it harbours.

ii. The forest.

The forest is a natural cathedral. "It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away."

The forest is also where children get lost and witches live. There may also be a ghost or two and we wouldn't be surprised to see a hunter stalking his prey.

John Truby talks about many other kinds of natural settings: outer space, jungles, desert and ice, islands, mountains (the mountain vs the plain), plains, rivers, weather. But I'll let you read about those in Truby's excellent book. 

b. Man-made settings

Truby writes that each man-made space "is a physical representation, in microcosm, of the hero and the society in which he lives."

I'm only going to go over one of Truby's examples: the house.

The house.

A house encloses a character and "shapes the growth of the person's mind."

Houses are intimate. They are spaces where your character can express himself without fear of ridicule. 

Question: What might your hero reveal about himself in his house that he wouldn't anywhere else?

The opposites.

Safety vs Adventure

Generally, we think of a house as a place of safety. It's a place for you to relax and take refuge in, it's a place for you to enjoy your friends and family. 

No hostile forces are allowed in. 

In this sense, a house is a place of safety.

BUT if the hero remains always in a safe place he will never grow, never achieve anything. He will stagnate. Truby writes that the trick is to use the house as "the strong foundation from which we go out and take on the world."

"Often in stories, the first step of adventure, the longing for it, happens at the window. A character looks through the eyes of a house ..." looks out at the far hills, at the mountaintop or even the jungle, and dreams of what might be, dreams of adventure.

Truby has many other examples, and he talks about various kinds of houses (the warm house, the terrifying house, the cellar versus the attic). Truly, if you have any questions about setting, developing the opposites, how to hook the characters in your story into the landscape/setting, chapter six of "The Anatomy of Story" is definitely worth the read.

3. Connect the story world to the hero's overall development.

THIS--connecting, hooking, the story world (/setting) into the hero's arc, his journey--is really what I've been wanting to talk about. 

We've laid the foundation by formulating our story's designing principle and drawing the boundaries of our world. We've divided this story world into visual oppositions and we've explored the various types of settings (natural, artificial, technology) and how these can help develop the hero's journey.

But since this post is already twice as long as usual, I'll save that for next time.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "almost may" by paul bica under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 13

John Truby And The Anatomy Of Story

John Truby And The Anatomy Of Story

Yesterday I read John Truby's, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. I've had the book for ages, many people recommended it, but something was always more important than sitting down to study it. Or so I thought. 

Big mistake! 

Today I'm going to talk about John Truby's answer to the question: What is a story and what do we want it to do?

(Note: I was going to post the third and final part of my "Narrative Setting" series today. I will post that on Wednesday instead.)

What Stories Are

Imagine you're telling a story to a group of people. Truby writes that if the story you tell is a good story, two things will happen:

1. Your reader/listener will be emotionally enmeshed in the life of the protagonist.

In other words, a good story makes the reader identify with the protagonist. 

But, more than this, the reader will (ideally) be so caught up in the story they will experience her emotions, they will feel her both her happiness and her pain. This is what happens when we cry at the end of a sad story.

Truby writes that:

"[...] The storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments. These moments are so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. Good storytelling doesn't just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. [...]

"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 he did. [Emphasis mine]"

2. Your reader/listener will be engaged in a verbal game you are playing.

Truby writes:

"The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience."


"As a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking the listener to figure it out. The author creates this puzzle in two major ways: he tells the audience certain information about a made-up character and he withholds certain information."

Why withholding information is important:

We've all heard this advice before: Don't overexplain! (Often there are several exclamation marks.) And it's great advice. But why

Why is overexplanation--and it's cousin, the premature information dump--such poison to a reader's enjoyment of a story?

Truby offers this cogent explanation:

"Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller's make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story."


These are the two main parts of story:

1. Feeling: Character Identification

Members of the audience--the audience as a whole--must feel as though (this is the goal) they have lived through the events of the story with the protagonist. This is part of character identification.

Truby holds that three things must happen for an audience to identify with a character. The audience must:

a. Understand the forces that led the protagonist to do what he does.
b. Understand the choices that led the protagonist to do what he does.
c. Understand the emotions that led the protagonist to do what he does.

2. Thinking: A verbal game or puzzle

We need to give the audience enough information about a character to identify with them, but withhold enough so that they are still curious, so that they want more."

We need to force the audience to:

a. Figure out who the character is.
b. Figure out what he is doing.

Change: The heart of story

Change lies at the heart of every story. 

What causes change? What inspires it? What drives it?

Truby writes:

"... change is fuelled by desire."

Desire is what "propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. 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."

"A character pursuing a desire takes actions to get what he wants, and he learns new information about better ways to get it. Whenever he learns new information, he makes a decision and changes his course of action."

"Any character who goes after a desire and is impeded is forced to struggle (otherwise the story is over). And that struggle makes him change."

The Climax Of A Story

At the end of a story we have the culminating event. This is what everything so far has let up to, all the character identification, all the verbal puzzles. Truby writes:

"The focal point [of a story] is the moment of change, the impact, when a person breaks free of habits and weaknesses and ghosts from his past and transforms to a richer and fuller self."

A word of caution

I agree with Truby that, generally, usually, the culmination of a story is that point--usually toward the end of the a story--it is that point of internal change, when the hero goes through an internal transformation.

That is, I agree with him to a point. I think it depends on the kind of story one wishes to write. 

Take Indiana Jones And Raiders of The Lost Ark as an example. The movie did very well at the box office and enjoys high reviews (for example, it ranks at 95% at

Indiana Jones didn't have a focal point. He didn't have a moment of change. He didn't have a transformation of any sort. At least, not that I could tell. (Perhaps, though, I enjoy the movie so much as an action tale I've missed it. That's possible.)

I'm sorry, I have to say this: The ark was the only arc in that movie!

(Sorry, couldn't resist. Won't happen again.)

I read somewhere that Raiders was intended to be a homage to the pulp heroes of the 40s and 50s, and pulp heroes, in general, didn't have character arcs. (At least, the few that I've read didn't.) That movie was just about being a terrific action tale and, of course, answering the question: What will happen if they open the ark?

Truby focuses on internal change--and so he should. I'm not arguing with that. 

Really, I'm not. 

I'm just pointing out that not all financially successful and well loved heroes have both an internal and an external arc. Some, like Indy in Raiders, only have an external one.

That's it! On Wednesday I'll finish up my three part series on narrative setting by talking about how setting can help build conflict. Also, at some point in the future I'll discuss Truby's Seven Key Structure Steps.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Ellipse" by Daniele Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.