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The Anatomy of Story
Story Space, Story Time
EVERYONE CAN TELL a story. We do it every day. "You won't believe what happened at work." Or "Guess what I just did!" Or "A guy goes into a bar ..." We see, hear, read, and tell thousands of stories in our lives.
The problem comes in telling a great story. If you want to become a master storyteller, and maybe even get paid to be one, you run up against tremendous obstacles. For one thing, showing the how and why of human life is a monumental job. You have to have a deep and precise understanding of the biggest, most complex subject there is. And then you have to be able to translate your understanding into a story. For most writers, that may be the biggest challenge of all.
I want to be specific about the obstacles of story technique because that's the only way a writer can hope to overcome them. The first obstacle is the common terminology most writers use to think about story. Terms like "rising action," "climax," "progressive complication," and "denouement," terms that go as far back as Aristotle, are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless. Let's be honest: they have no practical value for storytellers. Say you are writing a scene where your hero is hanging by his fingertips, seconds from falling to his death. Is that a progressive complication, a rising action, a denouement, or the opening scene of thestory? It may be none of them or all of them, but in any event, these terms don't tell you how to write the scene or whether to write it at all.
The classic story terms suggest an even bigger obstacle to good technique: the very idea of what story is and how it works. As a storyteller in training, the first thing you probably did was read Aristotle's Poetics. I believe Aristotle was the greatest philosopher in history. But his thinking about story, while powerful, is surprisingly narrow, focused on a limited number of plots and genres. It is also extremely theoretical and difficult to put into actual practice, which is why most storytellers trying to learn the practical techniques of their craft from Aristotle leave empty-handed.
If you are a screenwriter, you probably moved from Aristotle to a much simpler understanding of story called "three-act structure." This is also problematic, because three-act structure, albeit a lot easier to understand than Aristotle, is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong.
Three-act theory says that every story for the screen has three "acts": the first act is the beginning, the second is the middle, and the third is the end. The first act is about thirty pages long. The third act is also about thirty pages long. And the second act runs to around sixty pages. And this three-act story supposedly has two or three "plot points" (whatever those are). Got that? Great. Now go and write a professional script.
I'm simplifying this theory of story, but not by much. It should be obvious that such an elementary approach has even less practical value than Aristotle. But what's worse is that it promotes a view of story that is mechanical. The idea of an act break comes from the conventions of traditional theater, where we close the curtain to signal the end of an act. We don't need to do that in movies, novels, and short stories or even, for that matter, in many contemporary plays.
In short, act breaks are external to the story. Three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logicwhere the story should or should not go.
A mechanical view of story, like three-act theory, inevitably leads to episodic storytelling. An episodic story is a collection of pieces, like parts stored in a box. Events in the story stand out as discrete elements and don't connect or build steadily from beginning to end. The result is a story that moves the audience sporadically, if at all.
Another obstacle to mastering storytelling has to do with the writingprocess. Just as many writers have a mechanical view of what a story is, they use a mechanical process for creating one. This is especially true of screenwriters whose mistaken notions of what makes a script salable lead them to write a script that is neither popular nor good. Screenwriters typically come up with a story idea that is a slight variation on a movie they saw six months previously. Then they apply a genre, like "detective," "love," or "action," and fill in the characters and plot beats (story events) that go with that form. The result: a hopelessly generic, formulaic story devoid of originality.
In this book, I want to show you a better way. My goal is to explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one, so that you will have the best chance of writing a great story of your own. Some would argue that it's impossible to teach someone how to tell a great story. I believe it can be done, but it requires that we think and talk about story differently than in the past.
In simplest terms, I'm going to lay out a practical poetics for storytellers that works whether you're writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story. I will
• Show that a great story is organicnot a machine but a living body that develops
• Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose
• Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea
The main challenge facing any storyteller is overcoming the contradiction between the first and second of these tasks. You construct a story from hundreds, even thousands, of elements using a vast array of techniques. Yet the story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.
In this sense we storytellers are a lot like athletes. A great athlete makes everything look easy, as though his body just naturally moves that way. But in fact he has so mastered the techniques of his sport that his technique has simply disappeared from view, and the audience sees only beauty.
THE TELLER AND THE LISTENER
Let's begin the process simply, with a one-line definition of a story:
A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.
Notice we have three distinct elements: the teller, the listener, and the story that is told.
The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience (they keep no scorethe studios, networks, and publishing houses do that). The storyteller makes up characters and actions. He tells what happened, laying out a set of actions that have been completed in some way. Even if he tells the story in the present tense (as in playwriting or screenwriting), the storyteller is summing up all the events, so the listener feels that this is a single unit, the full story.
But telling a story is not simply making up or remembering past events. Events are just descriptive. 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. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience's essential life too.
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 knowledgeemotional knowledgeor what used to be known as wisdom, but they do it in a playful, entertaining way.
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. 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. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.
Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both. But you can see story forms that go to one extreme or the other, from sentimental melodrama to the most cerebral detective story.
There have been thousands, if not millions, of stories. So what makes each of them a story? What do all stories do? What is the storyteller both revealing to and hiding from the audience?
KEY POINT: All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.
The dramatic code, embedded deep in the human psyche, is an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve. This code is also a process going on underneath every story. The storyteller hides this process beneath particular characters and actions. But the code of growth is what the audience ultimately takes from a good story.
Let's look at the dramatic code in its simplest form.
In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. The "story world" doesn't boil down to "I think, therefore I am" but rather "I want, therefore I am." Desire in all of its facets is what makes the world go around. It 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.
Once a character has a desire, the story "walks" on two "legs": acting and learning. 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.
All stories move in this way. But some story forms highlight one of these activities over the other. The genres that highlight taking action the most are myth and its later version, the action form. The genres that highlight learning the most are the detective story and the multiperspective drama.
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. So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.
The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways:
• Myth tends to show the widest character arc, from birth to death and from animal to divine.
• Plays typically focus on the main character's moment of decision.
• Film (especially American film) shows the small change a character might undergo by seeking a limited goal with great intensity.
• Classic short stories usually track a few events that lead the character to gain a single important insight.
• Serious novels typically depict how a person interacts and changes within an entire society or show the precise mental and emotional processes leading up to his change.
• Television drama shows a number of characters in a minisociety struggling to change simultaneously.
Drama is a code of maturity. The focal point 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. The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that's why people love it.
KEY POINT: Stories don't show the audience the "real world"; they show the story world. The story world isn't a copy of life as it is. It's life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.
THE STORY BODY
A great story describes human beings going through an organic process. But it is also a living body unto itself. Even the simplest children's story is made up of many parts, or subsystems, that connect with and feed off one another. Just as the human body is made up of the nervous system, the circulatory system, the skeleton, and so on, a story is made of subsystems like the characters, the plot, the revelations sequence, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave, and symphonic dialogue (all of which will be explained in upcoming chapters).
We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin.
KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.
No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.
To see how an organic story moves, let's look at nature. Like the storyteller, nature often connects elements in some kind of sequence. The following diagram shows a number of distinct elements that must be connected in time.
Nature uses a few basic patterns (and a number of variations) to connect elements in a sequence, including linear, meandering, spiral, branching, and explosive.1 Storytellers use these same patterns, individually and in combination, to connect story events over time. The linear and explosive patterns are at the opposite extremes. The linear pattern has one thing happening after another on a straight-line path. Explosion has everything happening simultaneously. The meandering, spiral, and branching patterns are combinations of the linear and the explosive. Here's how these patterns work in stories.
The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end, like this:
It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens. Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.
The meandering story follows a winding path without apparent direction. In nature, the meander is the form of rivers, snakes, and the brain:
Myths like the Odyssey; comic journey stories like Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Big Man, and Flirting with Disaster; and many of Dickens's stories, such as David Copperfield, take the meandering form. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense; he covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way; and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society.
A spiral is a path that circles inward to the center:
In nature, spirals occur in cyclones, horns, and seashells.
Thrillers like Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Memento typically favor the spiral, in which a 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, as shown here:
In nature, branching occurs in trees, leaves, and river basins.
In storytelling, each branch usually represents a complete society in detail or a detailed stage of the same society that the hero explores. The branching form is found in more advanced fiction, such as social fantasies like Gulliver's Travels and It's a Wonderful Life or in multiple-hero stories like Nashville, American Graffiti, and Traffic.
An explosion has multiple paths that extend simultaneously; in nature, the explosive pattern is found in volcanoes and dandelions.
In a story, you can't show the audience a number of elements all at once, even for a single scene, because you have to tell one thing after another; so, strictly speaking, there are no explosive stories. But you can give the appearance of simultaneity. In film, this is done with the technique of the crosscut.
Stories that show (the appearance of) simultaneous action imply a comparative explanation for what happens. By seeing a number of elements all at once, the audience grasps the key idea embedded in each element. 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.
Stories that emphasize simultaneous action tend to use a branching structure and include American Graffiti, Pulp Fiction, Traffic, Syriana, Crash, Nashville, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Last Year at Marienbad, Ragtime, The Canterbury Tales, L.A. Confidential, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Each represents a different combination of linear and simultaneous storytelling, but each emphasizes characters existing together in the story world as opposed to a single character developing from beginning to end.
WRITING YOUR STORY
So let's get practical: What writing process will give you the best chance of creating a great story?
Most writers don't use the best process for creating a story. They use the easiest one. We could describe it in four words: external, mechanical, piecemeal, generic. Of course, there are lots of variations on this process, but they all work something like this.
The writer comes up with a generic premise, or story idea, that is a vague copy of one that already exists. Or it's a combination of two stories that he has creatively (he thinks) stuck together. Knowing the importance of a strong main character, our writer focuses almost all of his attention on the hero. He "fleshes out" this character mechanically, by tacking on as many traits as possible, and figures he'll make the hero change in the last scene. He thinks of the opponent and minor characters as separate from and less important than the hero. So they are almost always weak, poorly defined characters.
When it comes to theme, our writer avoids it entirely so that no one can accuse him of "sending a message." Or he expresses it strictly in the dialogue. He sets the story in whatever world seems normal for that character, most likely a major city, since that's where most people in his audience live. He doesn't bother using symbols because that would be obvious and pretentious.
He comes up with a plot and a scene sequence based on one question: What happens next? Often he sends his hero on a physical journey. He organizes his plot using the three-act structure, an external imprint that divides the story into three pieces but doesn't link the events under the surface. As a result, the plot is episodic, with each event or scene standing alone. He complains that he has "second-act problems" and can't understand why the story doesn't build to a climactic punch that moves the audience deeply. Finally, he writes dialogue that simply pushes the plot along, with all conflict focused on what is happening. If he is ambitious, he has his hero state the theme directly in dialogue near the end of the story.
If most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal, and generic, the writing process we will work through might be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original. I must warn you right up front: this process isn't easy. But I believe that this approach, or some variant of it, is the only one that really works. And it can be learned. Here's the writing process we're going to use in this book: We will work through the techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story. Most important, you will construct your story from the inside out. That means two things: (1) making the story personal and unique to you and (2) finding and developing what is original within your story idea. With each chapter, your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.
• Premise We begin with the premise, which is your entire story condensed to a single sentence. That premise will suggest the essence of the story, and we will use that to figure out how to develop it so as to get the most out of the idea.
• Seven Key Story Structure Steps The seven key story structure steps are the major stages of your story's development and of the dramaticcode hidden under its surface. Think of the seven structure steps as your story's DNA. Determining the seven key steps will give your story a solid, stable foundation.
• Character Next, we will create the characters, not by pulling them out of thin air but by drawing them out of your original story idea. We will connect and compare each character to every other character so that each one is strong and well defined. Then we'll figure out the function each must perform in helping your hero develop.
• Theme (Moral Argument) The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message, we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we'll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience.
• Story World Next, we'll create the world of the story as an outgrowth of your hero. The story world will help you define your hero and show the audience a physical expression of his growth.
• Symbol Web Symbols are packets of highly compressed meaning. We'll figure out a web of symbols that highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters, the story world, and the plot.
• Plot From the characters we will discover the right story form; the plot will grow from your unique characters. Using the twenty-two story structure steps (the seven key steps plus fifteen more), we will design a plot in which all the events are connected under the surface and build to a surprising but logically necessary ending.
• Scene Weave In the last step before writing scenes, we'll come up with a list of every scene in the story, with all the plotlines and themes woven into a tapestry.
• Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue Finally we'll write the story, constructing each scene so that it furthers the development of your hero. We'll write dialogue that doesn't just push the plot but has a symphonic quality, blending many "instruments" and levels at one time.
As you watch your story grow before your eyes, I can promise you one thing: you will enjoy the creation. So let's begin.
Copyright © 2007 by John Truby