Last Spring I took a screenwriting class in hopes of discovering the Holy Grail of plot. I had read The Poetics. I had written a classic three-act structure. But I wanted to know more. I wanted the secret. The answer. The definitive checklist. How could I write a great plot without pulling out my hair or drinking myself into a red wine stupor? I was sure that screenwriting was the answer.

True to my expectations, my class explored an expanded story construction of eight “chapters” or sections, each one revealing character action and plot points leading to a climatic moment when the battle is fought and won, and the hero is changed forever. I’m making light, but the truth is I really liked the structure. Sure it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s still solid storytelling. And sometimes in the muddy middle of a novel, I need a glimmering hope that formula or not, something will make sense of my last hundred pages.

Then, about a month ago, I read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Truby is a Hollywood script doctor, story consultant and screenwriting guru, and much to my surprise this book doesn’t start with plot at all. Truby’s premise is that all story—every novel, every play, every film, every tale told around the campfire—begins with character.

A character’s desire (the actual thing the character wants), the opposition to that desire, and how the character changes through the course of the story to achieve that desire (and a psychological and moral need that the character may not be aware of) are the basic stuff of storytelling. Plots can be complicated with multiple voices, psychological blocks, reservals, and a host of other considerations, but desire/need is the key. At the same time, while trying to achieve this desire/need, the character cannot act outside his or her world view. A idealistic kid can’t suddenly be cynical without cause. A prim girl can’t suddenly engage in sex without some angst.

Truby’s approach isn’t totally organic. He does offer “The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure.” But his process offers up plenty to think about, and he clearly writes about the progression of cause and effect through the narrative story arc. Admittedly, I had been lucky with my recent novels and actually done some of the things Truby suggests, but I’m not sure I did them intentionally.

I learned a lot reading this book. There are great sections about scene weaving and dialogue. And Truby encourages the writer to think deeper about story through symbols and designing principles. I can’t guarantee this book offers up the secret to great plot writing, but it gives strong hints about where the focus of your thinking should be. And that’s a great help in itself.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007.

Truby also has video lectures on YouTube. Here’s his lecture on plot:

This is a Tollbooth Classic post written by Helen Hemphill, one of the original Tollboothers.