Saturday, November 7, 2015

Your Character's Moral Need

In preparation for NaNoWriMo this year, I once again picked up John Truby's book The Anatomy of a Story. I wanted to refresh my memory and see what nuggets of wisdom I might rediscover in those pages.

I'd purchased the book several years ago for another story I was writing at that time, and his "story steps" gave structure to that novel--something it was sorely lacking.  Back then, I didn't apply the steps until the first draft was nearly complete, and as you can imagine this was a long and arduous (though rewarding) process. This time I was determined to do it the other way around. I wanted to know my scene list and story structure before I typed the first word of the very first paragraph.

I have to say, what a difference! I'm so pleased with what I've accomplished so far, and the places these characters have taken my story.  Even though it might seem counter intuitive to plot a character-driven story before you actually start writing, I found it to be quite the opposite.  Even if you're one of those "seat-of-your-pants" type of writers, you'll want to read the chapter on the "Seven Key Story Steps" and pay particular attention to the first step: creating your character's weaknesses and need. I promise you, your characters--and your story--will be richer for it.

If you want to narrow it down even further, to a single golden nugget of wisdom, for me it would have to be creating your character's "moral need." It's that moral need that is the "wellspring of the story". The moral need adds depth and meaning, and it drives the action of the rest of your novel.

As Truby says: in average stories, the hero has only a psychological need which involves overcoming a serious flaw that hurts nobody but himself.  In better stories (and we all want to be better, don't we?) the hero must overcome a moral flaw and learn how to act properly toward others.

"A character with a moral need is always hurting others in some way at the beginning of the story," says Truby.

So, how to find the right moral need for your character? I like this method on page 43:

"Identify a virtue in your character. Then make him so passionate about it that it becomes oppressive."

So oppressive it hurts other people.

The character isn't even aware of this need (and he won't discover it himself until much further down the road. Read Truby's book to learn more about the character's moment of self-revelation. :)

Then, once you've figured out your character's moral need, here's what you'll do: on page one of your novel -- or certainly in the first five pages-- your character will be in trouble, and whatever that trouble is, whatever the crisis -- big or small --let that crisis stem from your character's moral need. You'll be amazed at what comes of it.


The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Monday, June 3, 2013

The First Scene: Trouble in River City

Today we start our novel.
What will we write about? There can be only one answer.

"There are eight million stories in the naked city, and they are all about the same thing--trouble. Your novel will be about trouble. We're not interested in reading about anything else." - John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months

So, when should the trouble start? By the first plot point? Ten pages in? Five? Here's another tip from Dufresne (my most trusted advisor, the writer whose guides I turn to over and over again for writing wisdom, motivation, and more than occasional confidence boosts) :

By the end of the first scene "we ought to know what the trouble is, what our central character wants and why, and we should have an indication of what his struggle will be. And we should have a reason for caring about him. You have to make us want to read the next chapter, the next scene."

So here we go. Let's begin. Get out your laptop, your notebook, your napkin--choose your weapon--Let's write the first scene of our novels.

John Dufresne: The Lie That Tells A Truth
John Dufresne: Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I've been meaning to post something on revision for a long, long time, and now that I'm in the throes of it myself (revising the first draft of a short story that's taking way too long!), I thought I'd share some nuggets of wisdom from the masters:

Today's Revision Nugget: Yearning

I've blogged about this one before, but it's so important to every story, so critical, that I wanted to bring it to your attention again, this time in the context of revision.  Seems important to get this one thing right --really right-- before the rest of the story can fall into place the way it should:

Here's Robert Olen Butler (From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction):

REVISION TASK #1: Find the moment in your story or novel "in which the deepest yearning of your main character shines forth," surround it with sensual, authenticating detail, and make it sing! Force the reader to respond "in a deep, visceral way to that first epiphany."