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, truby.com. You may find it enlightening.