Truby’s Plot: 7 Key Steps

I seriously think that every writer ought to read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.  When I was in grad school, I tried to get it on the reading list one semester for me and my coterie of fellow students, but our adviser turned overruled me.  I guess it was because Truby’s book mainly used movies as examples of good plot.  But I’m a child of the movies, and to me a, a good story is a good story regardless of whether it’s on film or printed on paper.

Truby’s book has a couple of wonderful chapters on plot, and what makes it such a great read is his discouragement of using his plot outline as a set-in-stone tool.  He points out twenty-two steps that go into a good plot, but he also says that a writer doesn’t need to include all of them and they can be rearranged to suit anyone’s needs.  “The twenty-two steps are not a formula for writing,” he writes.  “Instead, they provide the scaffolding you need to do something really creative.”

So here I am starting a series of posts that will guide you through each of his steps, to explain how I understand how they work and what they might do for you.  Because the fact is that I’m still going through the plotting stage for my own novel and I take some comfort reviewing the parts to make sure I know what I need to know.

I used Truby’s method once before on my last big attempt at a novel, and the first thing I can tell you is that it will all probably change dramatically by the time you get a few drafts into the story.  Like I said, this stuff isn’t set in stone.  At the very least, I would recommend using the method to get through your first couple of drafts.  You probably have a big story in your head, and this will help make sense of it all.

As I go through the steps, I’ll reference Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.  It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I honestly think it would be easier for you to rent it or borrow it from a friend, and spend a couple of hours watching it and following along with the blog series.

Although Truby says that there’s a great deal of flexibility to be had in his method, there are seven steps that he insists are present in every good story: weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, and new equilibrium.  I admit that I have yet to find a story that doesn’t have one of these basic points.

The weakness and need focus on what’s wrong with the main character.  This step is broken into four smaller parts.  The problem is the part that tells you what the hero must overcome.  Finding your way home.  Getting a gift for a friend’s birthday.  Studying for a test.  These are all problems that must be overcome.  Then there’s the weakness, which is what the hero is lacking.  Perhaps your hero has a tendency to lie, or is terribly shy.  And then there’s the need, which is broken into a psychological and a moral component; the psychological need is something harming only the hero himself, and the moral is an extension of the psychological that is hurting others.  Roger’s weakness is that he is very shy.  His psychological need is that he needs to develop relationships to become more whole as a person, and morally his shyness is causing him to behave coldly, which in turn upsets others.

The next part – desire – is what goal the hero wants to achieve, and this cn be found by looking at the problem.  If the hero’s problem is that he’s failing a class, his desire is to get a better grade.

The opponent is the character standing in the way of the hero.  More precisely, it’s a character who wants what the hero wants.  If the two aren’t competing over the same thing, there’s no conflict and no story.  Not every story has an opponent, however, but rather an obstacle.  In the film Rain Man, Charlie and Raymond Babbitt may have friction, but they aren’t competing with each other.  Instead of an opponent to overcome, Charlie is faced with a mystery: why didn’t anyone tell him he had a brother?

The plan is what strategy the hero will use to defeat the opponent and get what he desires, and the battle is the confrontation between the hero and the opponent.  Again, if there is no opponent but a mystery, the battle is a search for answers rather than a fight.

Self-revelation is when the hero is when the hero goes through a change that gets him what he psychologically and morally needs.  He understands what’s holding him back in life, and what he has to do to make his life better.  In the case of tragedy, this can be a negative thing, but I’ll get into that later.

And the final step is the new equilibrium.  Here, the crisis is over, the world has gone back to normal, but the hero has been fundamentally altered.

The other great thing about the Truby method is how organic it is and how each piece fits naturally with the others.  This is certainly true with the seven key steps.  If there’s no plan, then the opponent can’t be overcome and he wins.  If there’s no desire or problem, then there’s nothing wrong with the hero’s world, and there’s no story.

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