Tag Archive: The Anatomy of Story

Camp NaNo & My Escape From The Outlining Outhouse!

outlining outhouseLast November I attempted my first NaNoWriMo, but since I’m a turtle-paced plotter and not a fast-fingered pantser, I approached it like this: A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win NaNoWriMo. Despite that excellent plan, I didn’t win (see Results of a Slow Writer’s First NaNoWriMo). There were two reasons for that, one of which was that I started a new freelance writing gig mid-month that ate up most of my time, and the other was that “pushing ahead” on my project, something NaNo encourages, did not  work for me. Despite all my preplanning, my story simply wasn’t ready to be churned out in one go. I hit roadblock after roadblock because I hadn’t developed something crucial regarding the story or the characters, and had to go back to change things, and try again. Which, I suppose, is what writing is all about. But I’d rather develop those things before I get into the messy process of writing. So what was I missing?

This is something I’ve been struggling with for years: what exactly needs to be developed before I start to write? I know how to beat out a story arc (Outlining Method 1: Story Beats) and hone a life-changing character arc (The Hero’s Emotional Midpoint). I even made myself a handy Pre-Writing Checklist. Yet my story outline still stinks! It’s like I’m stuck in the Outlining Outhouse, re-plotting, re-plotting and re-plotting, hoping to eradicate the stench. But I can’t, so I burn it down and dig a new hole – only to fill it  with more crap.

How can I escape?

In desperation I turned to more writing craft books. After a few useless misses, I found THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. It is exactly what I need: story development steps to go through before one starts writing. Truby also stresses that this approach is for all writers, plotters and pansters alike. Why? Because it’s less about story structure (i.e. this action happens here and is followed by this action and then this action, etc.) and more about story elements that are needed to create not just a good story, but a great story. And I think that is the most valuable aspect of Truby’s book — discussing what makes a story great and giving the reader actionable questions to answer to develop that greatness in their own work.

And what makes a story great? A Moral Argument.

Some of you might be going, “No kidding! I knew that!” Well, so did I. But it’s a very difficult thing to write. It must be woven so seamlessly into the plot that it won’t be seen by the reader but rather felt. That’s what I was going for, but I wasn’t quite hitting the mark. I’m sure with enough practice I could have got it, but I want to have a great novel published before I’m 80, so I’m ecstatic that Truby has written a book to speed up this learning process. Because this outhouse reeks and I cannot wait to get out of it!

So for Camp NaNo, my goal is to not  spend all my time in the outlining outhouse. The plan is to work my way through THE ANATOMY OF STORY to develop my novel idea, and then write an outline that hopefully won’t completely stink. I’m sure I’ll find myself in the outhouse every once in a while, but at least now I know how to escape it and write a better – no, great! – story.

Any of you guys going to Camp NaNo this summer?


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Character Need: Psychological + Moral

I’ve been reading writing craft books for almost two decades, and it’s gotten to the point where most of them don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. But recently I had a creative crisis that prompted me to look hard for new information, and after a couple misses I came across THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby. I highly recommend you check it out. I’m not going to regurgitate the book’s content here; I’m simply going to highlight a small tidbit I found in Chapter 3 that has completely changed how I approach developing a protagonist’s journey…

Character Need-PsychologicalMoral

Early on in my career, I learned that the hero’s WANT and NEED are two separate things and integral to the Character Arc. Let’s refresh…

WANT = What the hero desires and believes will make them happy. WANT is the motivation behind the hero’s GOAL.

FLAW (personal characteristic) + LIE (personal belief) = What prevents the hero from achieving their GOAL.

NEED = What will actually make the hero happy. The NEED overcomes the hero’s FLAW and counters the LIE they’ve believed up until the Climax of the story. Recognizing this need is what prompts the hero to change; acting on this need is what allows the hero to triumph in the end (which may or may not involve achieving the original GOAL).

Note: The above applies to stories with a positive character arc rather than a negative character arc. Also, an arc period. Some people don’t think having the hero change is a necessary part of a story. I do simply because I prefer stories where the hero changes and am disappointed with stories where the hero doesn’t change. But I recognize that this is my opinion and not the law.

Now back to this Character Need thing…

Notice the use of the word “personal” in the definitions above. Most students of writing craft learn that the hero’s NEED is something deeply personal that affects the hero. Truby calls this a “psychological need.” However, he also identifies another type of need: moral.

“In average stories, the hero only has a psychological need [that] involves overcoming a serious flaw which is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories, the hero has a moral need in addition to the psychological need… [which is] hurting others.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, pg 41.

So, if there are two types of NEED, there are two types of character FLAWS: psychological and moral. Sometimes a psychological flaw (such as alcoholism) has an obvious moral flaw (hurting the ones you love) attached to it, but not always. Take a psychological flaw like low self-esteem. How does that flaw hurt others? It’s easy to brainstorm ways, but up until now, this is not something I’d ever made a point of doing. And I realize this was a missed opportunity to: 1) add more poignant conflict to the protagonist’s relationships; 2) create deeper stakes; and, most importantly, 3) perfectly intertwine Character Arc and Theme.

In my post The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme, I talk about how a story’s Theme always revolves around a human value, and when we test values we are debating morals. But before coming across this concept of a hero’s “moral need” I had developed Character Arc and Theme separately. I knew each was affected by the other, but my process was more like putting two things side-by-side and trying to make them complement each other. Now I approach Character Arc and Theme as puzzle pieces that fit together and develop them in tandem.

This was such a lightbulb moment for me, and made my WIP’s character revelation scene finally click into place. I’ve been playing with the character arc for months. It’s always been connected to the theme, and there was a moral flaw in there somewhere too, but before I clearly identified the moral need, I hadn’t been able to really focus my heroine’s character change into something powerful. Now I think I have.

In conclusion, the tiniest writing tips can be just what you need for a story breakthrough.

PS – Are you wondering why Dustin Hoffman from the movie Tootsie is in the title card? Well, because his character is a perfect example of psychological and moral need working together, as John Truby discusses in THE ANATOMY OF STORY.


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