Tag Archives: John Truby

Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return.

Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

To be honest, when I started writing novels, I’d never heard of the three-act structure. Later, when I read about the concept, “beginning, middle, end” seemed like a horrific oversimplification of the story form. More than that, I bristled at the idea that I was to write according to a set formula.

Soon, however, I began to see the structure in movies, and honestly, some of the joy of stories blinked out. Now I could predict, when things were bad, they’d only get worse. I could anticipate the beaten bad guy pulling out a gun, or the frightened girl running into the arms of the killer. The more I saw the girders of the story structure, the less I liked it.

Did all stories really have three acts?

Anyone familiar with drama knows they do not. There are one-act plays, two-act plays, even four- or five-act plays. Yet there are writers, and writing instructors, who hold religiously to the three-act structure.

Act One introduces the hero and gives a call to adventure which he may resist, but eventually he passes through the first door of no return and accepts, ushering him into Act Two. Here a mentor appears who teaches the hero, and he has any number of encounters with the dark forces. At some point he faces a dark moment within himself, then discovers a talisman that helps him in the battle. Again he passes through a doorway of no return which thrusts him into Act Three and the final battle, after which he returns to normal, though he himself is changed, for good or ill.

Of course there are adaptations of this framework for the various genres, but a good many writers believe this is the only way a story can be structured. Thankfully, not every writing instructor sees it this way. Some time ago Stephen James said the following in a Writer’s Digest article entitled “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients”:

While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?

Screenwriter John Truby also brings into question following a formula. In his book The Anatomy of Story, he says, “A great story is organic — not a machine but a living body that develops” (p. 5). He further explains, “The story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.”

Some writers talk about their characters insisting on going here or doing that. The characters, of course, aren’t real and can only do what the author imagines them to do. But if the character comes to life for the author, then there is a “right” way she must act that is consistent with her traits. The story, then, organically grows out of the characters rather than the author imposing a set of actions on the character.

And how many acts can that take? As many as need be. Stephen James again:

Stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.

Now that’s the kind of story structure I like.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2011.

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Filed under Plot, Story, Structure

Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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The Denouement – Wrapping Up Loose Ends

The End - BookA novel’s plot structure, in its simplest outline, consists of an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and the denouement also called the conclusion or resolution. Of all the story elements, perhaps the least examined is the denouement which resolves the complications of a story’s plot.

Part of this lack of analysis might be because no two denouements look alike. Truly, there is no hard and fast “right way” to wrap up a story.

Fairy tales famously took care of the denouement with one line: They all lived happily ever after. Mysteries often closely dovetail the denouement with the climax—the whodunit is entwined with the lives and stories of the suspects who didn’t do it, and the reader learns all about those too as the detective reveals how the crime was committed.

Somewhat popular today in fantasy are stories that have a somewhat open-ended denouement, often for the purpose of introducing the next book in a series.

Other stories seem to go to great lengths to wrap up all the loose ends. I think, for example, of Return of the King, third in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially the story question ended when Frodo battled Gollum and ended up destroying the One Ring.

But we know by the title that this volume of the story is about the returning king, so after the climax, there is the resolution of the king being accepted by his people. Then there is the story of the hobbits returning home, of their dealing with Sauroman in the Shire, and finally of Frodo’s departure with the elves. And I’m not listing all the various loose ends that are nicely tied in the process.

Another approach is to skip the denouement altogether. The story “The Lady Or The Tiger?” skips the climax (will the princess tell her lover under punishment by the king to open the door releasing the tiger or the lady he would then have to marry?) Consequently, with no climax, there can be no denouement.

Gone With The Wind ends in a similar way with one major difference: the protagonist is a different person in the end; she has learned who she loves and who she doesn’t love and she’s learned what gives her strength. Apart from that, the reader knows little of what will become of her.

The_End_(5647069175)Writing instructor John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story says, “A great story lives forever” (p. 418), much the way a train ends but continues on.

Truby describes three types of endings that truncate a story: premature endings (of which there are also three kinds: the protagonist’s early self-revelation, the hero’s desire attained too quickly, the actions the hero takes to achieve his goal aren’t organic); arbitrary endings in which the story just stops; and the closed ending in which the hero achieves his goal, gains new insights, and essentially lives happily ever after.

With these endings, the story does not live on.

All three of these structural elements give the audience the sense that the story is complete and the system has come to rest. But that’s not true. Desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee the hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is a always a living thing, an ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story. (Truby, The Anatomy of a Story, p. 419)

As I see it, this “living ending” is the secret to a successful denouement. Of course, there is no formula, no set way to ensure that readers will continue to think about the characters going on after the story, but there are some principles that might help.

One writer, Charlie Jane Anders, says the most legitimate reason for the denouement to exist is to “provide some resolution to the themes of your story.” She goes on to explain:

if your plot doesn’t end with enough of a clear-cut catharsis to resolve the main themes of your novel, then yes, you need a denouement. (“What’s The Difference Between Denouement And Picking At A Scab?“)

Later she adds

Remember: readers actually like it when you make them do a lot of the work themselves. And a big part of the pleasure of reaching the end of a book is getting to imagine in your own mind how the characters will go on afterwards — the story keeps unspooling in your head after you stop turning pages, except that the training wheels have come off. So the less you spoonfeed the reader in your final pages, the more you’re inviting her/him to start imagining the story after the book ends. (Ibid.)


Statements about denouements that accomplish what a novel needs, then, include the following:

  • they do not have a set length
  • they do allow the characters to “go on living” after the end of the story
  • they may give a panoramic view of the characters doing something that lends itself to expansion in the reader’s mind
  • they may hint at what happens next without spelling out particulars
  • they should wrap up the theme of the story, though other loose ends may still be dangling.

Your turn: what’s the best ending you’ve read? What, in your view, made it so good?

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Developing The Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

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Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return. Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

To be honest, when I started writing novels, I’d never heard of the three-act structure. Later, when I read about the concept, “beginning, middle, end” seemed like a horrific oversimplification of the story form. More than that, I bristled at the idea that I was to write according to a set formula.

Soon, however, I began to see the structure in movies, and honestly, some of the joy of stories blinked out. Now I could predict, when things were bad, they’d only get worse. I could anticipate the beaten bad guy pulling out a gun, or the frightened girl running into the arms of the killer. The more I saw the girders of the story structure, the less I liked it.

Did all stories really have three acts?

Anyone familiar with drama knows they do not. There are one-act plays, two-act plays, even four- or five-act plays. Yet there are writers, and writing instructors, who hold religiously to the three-act structure.

Act One introduces the hero and gives a call to adventure which he may resist, but eventually he passes through the first door of no return and accepts, ushering him into Act Two. Here a mentor appears who teaches the hero and he has any number of encounters with the dark forces. At some point he faces a dark moment within himself, then discovers a talisman that helps him in the battle. Again he passes through a doorway of no return which thrusts him into Act Three and the final battle, after which he returns to normal, though he himself is changed, for good or ill.

Of course there are adaptations of this framework for the various genres, but a good many writers believe this is the only way a story can be structured. Thankfully, not every writing instructor sees it this way. Earlier this year Stephen James said in his Writer’s Digest article “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients”

While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?

Screenwriter John Truby also brings into question following a formula. In his book The Anatomy of Story, he says, “A great story is organic — not a machine but a living body that develops” (p. 5). He further explains, “The story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.”

Some writers talk about their characters insisting on going here or doing that. The characters, of course, aren’t real and can only do what the author imagines them to do. But if the character comes to life for the author, then there is a “right” way she must act that is consistent with her traits. The story, then, organically grows out of the characters rather than the author imposing a set of actions on the character.

And how many acts can that take? As many as need be. Stephen James again:

Stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.

Now that’s the kind of story structure I like.

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Antagonists Are Real People Too

Antagonists are the sparring partners of the heroes in our novels.

Years ago when I began to study fiction, I heard the admonition to make all characters, even the antagonist realistic. Good advice, certainly, as far as it went. The problem was that the suggestions to make this pivotal character seem real sometimes backfired.

Let me explain.

The almost universal advice was to give the antagonist both good and bad qualities since people in real life are mixed bags. The secondary answer was to write in the antagonist’s point of view on occasion.

Of course that’s an option and many writers choose to do so, but I found in the books with chapters written from the opponent’s perspective, especially when those chapters revealed the antagonist’s tender side or the horrific circumstances that explained his evil, I didn’t care quite as much whether or not the hero won.

Was showing the good as well as the bad the only way to make an antagonist realistic? I’m afraid I stand against the tide of popular opinion on this one and say, No.

I arrived at this position in part because I write fantasy, and there are some unlovely characters in fantasy. If you’ve read The Hobbit, picture a goblin and see if you can recall a good trait. I may be forgetting something, but I can’t bring one to mind, and yet I had no problem believing Tolkien’s goblins. They were a serious and believable threat to Bilbo.

There are other examples in fantasy literature, so I have to conclude, if fantasy writers can make these darkly evil characters seem real and believable, then putting good qualities into the antagonist isn’t necessary for other writers either.

But what does make the antagonist seem real? Primarily, I believe it is motivation. The antagonist must want something logical, something that fits with his circumstances and character.

Golum, for example, in The Hobbit and in Lord of the Rings wants the ring Bilbo found because it had been his. He’d had it for years, and it was his precious. This desire was perfectly believable in the beginning, and as it developed in the trilogy became even more understandable.

If, however, Golum, who had been living away from people, deep in the goblin tunnels, wanted to kill Bilbo and take over his special home in Hobbition, the desire would not have fit the character or the circumstances. It would have been an unmotivated desire and therefore unbelievable.

The antagonist’s motivation, then, is the key, and his desire is the engine.

One writing professional, John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, says this about the antagonist, or opponent:

The opponent is the character who most wants to keep the hero from achieving his desire. The opponent should not merely be a block to the hero. That is mechanical.

Remember, the opponent should want the same thing as the hero. That means that the hero and the opponent must come into direct conflict throughout the story…

The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story.

Mr. Truby goes on to say that the opponent does not need to be someone the hero hates. In fact he or she can be a friend, co-worker, spouse, brother. He can even be nicer or more moral, but in the end he needs to stand against the hero.

They both can’t get what they want. It is through this struggle, that the hero grows. But that also is a side issue to the central point — by giving the antagonist an important place in the story and setting him up with desires that collide with the hero’s desires, this character will become realistic and believable.

For a companion article on this topic, see “Develop Your Antagonist.”

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Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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