Almost every week on #storycraft, one of us mentions that our characters “speak to us”, or that our characters “choose their own actions.” Most fiction writers will have had at least some experience of this but those who haven’t, or who aren’t fiction writers sometimes take it literally – in one #writechat a participant stated outright that such talk sounded “insane.” The thing is, while it’s not insane to say such things, it’s also in no way helpful – neither to those who have never experienced it, nor to the writer who cannot explain what’s actually going on there (because, I’m hoping, they don’t actually think their characters are talking to them!)

Today, I’d like to go a little more deeply into what we mean when we say things like this and then discuss how we can get to this point of subconscious knowledge while still applying technique and craft a great story.

I think this quote from John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” is wonderfully relevant:

In Chapter 1 of “The Anatomy of Story” John Truby tells us that his goal is to:

…explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one, so that you will have the best chance of writing a great story of your own. Some would argue that it’s impossible to teach someone how to tell a great  story. I believe it can be done, but it requires that we think and talk about story differently than in the past.

In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for storytellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story. I will

  • Show that a great story is organic – not a machine but a living body that develops
  • Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose
  • Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea

The main challenge facing any storyteller is overcoming the contradiction between the first and second of these tasks. You construct a story from hundreds, even thousands, of elements using a vast array of techniques. Yet 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.

In this sense we storytellers are a lot like athletes. A great athlete makes everything look easy, as though his body just naturally moves that was. Bit in fact he has so mastered the techniques of his sport that his technique has simply disappeared from view, and the audience sees only beauty.

It has taken me years to get around to reading this book, mostly because of the almost cult-like passion with which those who recommended it to me did so. In a way, I wish I had read it when it was first recommended but I also think that I’m in a better position to appreciate just how helpful the book is now that I’ve read so many other writing books which, for the most part, really do just show us a different approach to what is really the same basic, theatrical, story “structure”. So, now that I’ve declared my liking for the book (and recommendation) on with #Storycraft!