The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

I abhor formulas and believe form should never dictate content–rather the reversal.  Still, I am struck by the good sense of John Truby’s Seven Steps of Story Structure.  Truby is a Hollywood script doctor and author of The Anatomy of Story, an impressive analysis of story structure.  While Truby’s exhaustive knowledge is geared toward feature films, I can’t help but see how his ideas connect to story in the written form.

While Anatomy offers much more than the Seven Steps of Story Structure, Truby claims that all stories, in their growth and development, from beginning to end, have these seven characteristics:

1. Weakness and need: a hero with a weakness (think of TV’s House…his bum leg, his arrogance, his social dysfunction) and a need (House needs to know he can love and be loved)

2. Desire: the backbone of the story that drives the hero (House must solve the case and prove his intellect)…notice that the desire, the want, isn’t the same as the “need”

3. Opponent: this character, often the antagonist, must go against the protagonist by wanting the same thing (House has a lot of different opponents–Foreman, the hospital rules, the patient who lies, even the disease)

4. Plan: heroes who want something need a plan of action (House figuring out how to beat the disease)

5. Battle: when the story boils to a crisis (House arguing with the other doctors, the patient almost dying….cut to commercial!!!)

6. Self-revelation: here the hero realizes what he wanted wasn’t what he needed…..I want to say this again, The hero wants something (with House, e.g., to prove reason trumps love) but he realizes that what he wanted wasn’t what he needs (cue alone time with dramatic music, House looking somber)

7. New equilibrium: with the new knowledge the world changes for the character (House sometimes doesn’t change, but he has,–e.g., he stops taking vicodin or reaches out to Wilson in an act of friendship)

Okay, you read this and you think, Gee, Mark really likes House.  Or maybe you read this and you think, well, this is basic.  It is basic, but it’s not.  And there’s so much more (like the Moral Need and the Moral Argument).  I read Truby’s book, and I wondered, Why didn’t anyone teach me this?  We did!, I can hear former lit profs crying.  So maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it back then, but once I finished the book, I started to see this stuff in the stories I read and view, like the Need versus the Want.  Never thought of that.

I still believe content should dictate form.  But now I am thinking more about form and character arc and story arc and what needs to be in the story if I want it to be compelling.  So check out Truby’s book or his website,  You may find it enlightening.

6 responses to “The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

  1. Reblogged this on By C. R. Scott and commented:
    A wonderful article talking about the seven key steps of story structure. Reblogging it for posterity.

  2. I’m reading Anatomy now. While I believe Truby did a wonderful job of deconstructing the elements of a story, I felt some of it was rather obvious. (battle, desire, self-revelation). I’m always suspicious of “how to write” books. I know Truby hasn’t published much besides his series of how-to books. Are there any novelists or screen writers who attribute their sale to Truby’s course? I have a friend obsessed with Truby and I respect his passion. Before I turn my process into a paint by numbers system, I’d like some evidence it works. Any help would be appreciated!

    • Definitely don’t connect the dots. I feel the same way you do about how-to methods. There’s no magic pill, no “one” answer. If there were, everyone would be publishing. I do, however, love to explore how people write, their processes, so I look at Truby’s tips, which are found in many places beyond Truby, as guideposts in the storytelling process. (I also, for instance, am intrigued by Robert Olen Butler’s method which, as far as I can tell, is diametrically opposed to Truby’s.) So it’s the same old conundrum. Some writers outline, some don’t; some writers must know the end before they begin, some write to find out what will happen. But to answer your question, Caroline Leavitt credits Truby with improving her novels (the last of which gave her her first NYC Best Seller listing). Go here for her thoughts on Truby:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      • Matt Hiebert

        Thank you! That is a very strong testimonial and exactly the diirection I needed. She even addressed some of the creative concerns I have with his system. I’m going to give it a try and see if it solves some of my structural concerns. I have friends who are obssessed with his method and I’m always suspicious of silver bullets.

  3. I know I’m really late. But if you don’t outline and don’t know the end, you aren’t doing it right. Maybe you can start out that way to get some ideas out there, but outlining is as integral as revision.

  4. This is my favorite writing guide book. After reading it, writing stories and having them make sense and work seemed more enjoyable. This way of attacking a writing project made sense to me. It clicked. Now writing is fun and the stories I create are much better because of this guide.

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