Once you’ve worked out what story is, it’s time to figure out how to write one. This part－developing a story－isn’t easy; for some of us, it can take longer than the natural human lifespan.
But now, more than ever before, help is available. Here are some of my study notes from an important modern text: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (ISBN 978-0865479937) by John Truby, available from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. (These are affiliate links: if you click on one and decide to buy, I may get a small commission.)
So, from the text:
The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end. It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens. Most Hollywood films are linear.
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, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many of Dickens’s stories, 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. Thrillers like Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation typically favor the spiral, in which a character keeps returning to a single event or memory and explores it at progressively deeper levels.
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 and American Graffiti.
An explosion has multiple paths that extend simultaneously; in nature, the explosive pattern is found in volcanoes and dandelions. In a story, 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, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Each emphasizes characters existing together in the story world as opposed to a single character developing from beginning to end.
Writing Your Story
Here’s the writing process we’re going to use. We will work through the techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story. You will construct your story from the inside out. That means:
- making the story personal and unique to you
- 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; 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 dramatic code hidden under its surface. Think of the seven structure steps as your story’s DNA.
- 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. We will express the theme 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 22 story-structure steps (the seven key steps plus 15 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 laststep 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.
One final reveal: If you want to tell the great story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps. And you must do it every time you write a new story. If you can learn the craft and make your own life a great story, you will be amazed at the fabulous tales you will tell.
Again, these notes are from The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby. If you’re a storyteller, I would recommend that you add it to your craft library. And, again, you can get it from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.