Writing Fiction—Planning the Truby Way


Anyone who hangs around fiction writers or our blogs soon deciphers that there are supposedly two types of authors—seat of the pants-ers and outliners—though James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure (Writer’s Digest) identified a third sort of in between writer.

I’ve identified myself as the latter, at least when I write fiction. When I journal (or blog), I definitely write on the fly. For this blog, I pick a topic and pour out my thoughts as they come. When I journal, I don’t even pick a topic!

On the other hand, when I write non-fiction formally—the articles I did for Victorian Homes, for example—I carefully research and plan.

Fiction seems to fall in between.

But I’m currently dreaming up a stand alone fantasy to write when I complete The Lore of Efrathah (I’m revising the last book, now titled Against Blood and Fire.) I had one plot point and no characters, though I knew the story would take place in Efrathah before Lore. But who would it be about, what would it be about, what would happen?

No thoughts, but no hurry either. Until a few weeks ago, when I was in Borders with our little group of SoCal speculative fiction writers (Mike Duran, Merrie Destefano, Rachel Marks, and me), and Rachel pulled The Anatomy of Story (Faber and Faber) by John Truby from the shelf.

I was excited about the book because it put a premium on theme, something few other writing books seem to do. But once I had my copy, I realized it was more than a book that discusses the elements of stories. The subtitle is accurate: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

Well, I don’t know about the “master” part, but I do know that by setting out to follow the steps, I am building a story. And the great part, as Truby says, it is organic. It isn’t a formula where you plug in character type A in slot B, then fifty pages later shift to Act II.

All that to say, I am becoming a firm believer in plans. I’ve run across several blogs/writer comments in which writers are obviously well into their story and they do not know what will happen.

One said his character was accused of a crime, of which he was innocent. Or not, because he did have a good motive to commit said villainous deed.

Well … doesn’t it MATTER early on if your character is a villain or a hero? I mean, is it OK to switch part way through a story? Or will the author, of necessity, have to go back over that earlier ground and rewrite, putting in the appropriate foreshadowing and character attributes of a villain?

Either way, it seems so unnecessary to me if an author would sit down and think the story through first.

Sure, changes happen as a story unfolds. The character must act in a way that is consistent, so in a given scene, the appropriate and necessary action may be one the author had not anticipated before hand. Hence new possibilities open up.

But using Truby’s organizational structure, there is a framework that serves to hold the story in place so it doesn’t wander.

Here are some pertinent quotes:

Most writers don’t use the best process for creating a story. They use the easiest one …

The writer comes up with a generic premise, or story idea, that is a vague copy of one that already exists …

He thinks of the opponent and minor characters as separate from and less important than the hero. So they are almost always week, poorly defined characters.

When it comes to theme, our writer avoids it entirely so that no one can accuse him of “sending a message” …

He comes up with a plot and a scene sequence based on one question: What happens next? …

Often 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.

Instead of the above, Truby says the process he is detailing will allow you, the author to

construct your story from the inside out … With each chapter [of The Anatomy of Story], your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

This latter is exactly what I’ve experienced so far. I think I’m being won over. I’m not outlining. I’m not filling out character charts. I’m thinking and answering questions and imagining and recording in a precise way what each new layer of my story will become. I hope. 😕

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