Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do novelists need story structure? I rave about Truby story structure

Every once in a while, there is a writerly discussion about how some writers write from inspiration, “following their pen,” writing pages and pages at National Novel Writing Month (I’m not a fan of that, by the way), or writing a crappy draft in a stream of conscious way and then seeing what’s there. Outlines and synopsis, some writers say, make for flat writing. “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader,” some say. Admit to using an outline and you may get some glassy stares, as if you’ve said you like Venus Paint By Number paintings. I realize some writers can and do write without a plan, but for me, it leaves me with a tangle of story. It makes me feel as if I am creating the flesh without having the bones beneath.

The main argument against story structure has been that it kills creativity. So, listen to this quote, from John Irving. “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re doing probably isn’t very vital. If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell the story, then you’re not trying to tell enough.”  Sounds like his writing is full of surprises, grief, angst, the zone--all those delicious and wonderful and terrifying and terrific things novelists grapple with, right? Well, Irving outlines. He won’t start a novel until he knows his last line. 

I started out writing without a plan. For me, it always ended badly. Then I reluctantly began to outline, realizing as I wrote, that the outlines were a kind of lifeline for me. They organized things a bit, and because I was always changing them. Suddenly, I began to be more of a structuralist.

Enter John Truby and his Story Structure Class. I first heard about him in my UCLA novel writing class. I get a lot of screenwriters, and because I was trying to write scripts, one of my students began to gush about John Truby story structure. Truby had spent years studying stories--what makes them work, what doesn’t, and he came to the conclusion that the usual three act structure for film was all wrong that instead there were certain key things in every story spine, whether it was in a novel, a film, a crowd pleaser or the most esoteric work. 

The student gave me her notes and I found that the same story principals he talks about for film could work for novels. Just this week, I took his 3-day story structure seminar, and I felt as if sparks were coming out of my head. He gave me this new way to think about story, a new way of seeing a story, so that every novel becomes a moral argument in a sense, with a deeper meaning, instead of just a series of events. 

I took the class with another novelist, Tish Cohen, and together, we ganged up on John and asked if he’d consider doing a story structure class for novelists, which he wants to do. 

What can I say? He showed me how to break down the beats of stories, how to find the moral center, how to escalate the drama, and find the bones to build on. And do I feel less creative for knowing structure? Actually, I feel more. 


LuAnn Schindler said...

Sounds interesting! I start with an outline in my head and know where I would like to end, but the story tends to veer off that path and take on a life of its own.

I'm intrigued about the moral aspect of every story. I've read plenty of novels that don't have any type of moral dilemma. Maybe that's why they "don't work"??

Julie Kibler said...

I like doing the marathons … but only with an outline solidly in place (and my last page). The marathon keeps my butt in the chair, outline keeps my brain on track. I used this post on Writer Unboxed from Donald Maass last time to get my outline started. Best thing I ever did--come to think of it, he should probably be in my acknowledgments … :)

Julie Kibler said...

Actually, looking at the timing, I already had my outline finished, but I used this to tweak it and be sure I had what I needed.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Julie, I think with an outline in place, it might work for me. I just hated the idea of just writing, writing, writing without a purpose. And LuAnn, I think it is that moral question that makes a good novel great!

David Gardner said...

I didn't think I needed one, Caroline, for precisely the reasons you cite ("too confining, not organic") and -- my special take: too "mental." But I've been slogging around in my current novel for months with no shape in sight. No spine. And I'm getting older everyday, so I don't feel like wasting time. I'll try Truby again -- thanks for the reminder! I found his work a bit dense before, but maybe I just wasn't ready. Would love to see how he speaks specifically to novelists!

Clea Simon said...

I'd be very interested in a Truby novel course. Thanks, Caroline.