“The first obstacle is the terminology most writers use to think about story. Terms like “rising action,” “climax,” “progressive complication,” and “denouement,” terms that go as far back as Aristotle, are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless. Let’s be honest: they have no practical value for storytellers.
I quite like the way John Truby phrases this in his book, The Anatomy of Story. It reminds me of my favorite rule of writing: “Everything is a rule… until it isn’t.”
I think the thing I enjoy the most about Truby’s book so far is the way he breaks down the problems with traditional schools of thought when it comes to writing, and how, as he puts it, “a mechanical view of a story… inevitably leads to episodic storytelling. An episodic story is a collection of pieces, like parts stored in a box. Events in the story stand out as discrete elements and don’t connect or build steadily from beginning to end. The result is a story that moves the audience sporadically, if at all.”
Truby goes on to state that “just as many writers have a mechanical view of what a story is, they use a mechanical process for creating one… the result: a hopelessly generic, formulaic story devoid of originality.”
Enough quoting (for now) - let’s discuss what Truby is saying here. While Truby used a screenplay for his example, I’ll dive into my favorite genre of literature: fantasy.
I’m sure all the fans of fantasy have seen the lists. What lists, you ask? Well, the list of “Ways to Tell you Are in a High Fantasy Novel”1, “The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey”2, or even “6 Signs You’re Not the Main Character”3. These often humorous lists are ways in which fans acknowledge tropes in their favorite genre. When Truby talks about a mechanical process, these are the kind of things he’s speaking of.
For example, what makes a book a fantasy book? Well, in general:
- There is magic and/or magical creatures
That’s it. There are a lot of subgenres, though, so once again I’ll stick to what I know. So, what makes a book a “high” fantasy? What “defines” the genre?
- There is magic
- There are magical races (usually elves, dwarves, orcs, etc)
- It takes place in an alternate (typically medieval) realm
- The protagonist is a hero
- The protagonist is on a great quest to defeat an evil
The high fantasy genre was established back with Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings series, which is why most of the “qualifiers” are from his books. So say that you decide you want to create a high fantasy novel, and you decide you need to follow all the rules of the genre. You make a hero who is on a quest to defeat a great evil, in a fantasy realm where magic and magical races abound.
How many stories can you name with that plot?
(Here’s a hint - mine’s one of them. Hey - I’m honest.)
None of these things are bad on their own - something I like to say is that cliches are cliches for a reason - they work. But the problem comes in when a story relies solely on cliches and adds nothing original. Cliches are not a story - they’re parts of a story. A “collection of pieces”, if you will. Things such as “the hero gets the girl” - there have long been criticisms of this trope, usually because no time is devoted to developing the relationship between the protagonist and their love interest. No one minds that “the hero gets the girl” - they just want it to mean something.
As Truby stated, having the hero get the girl just because he’s supposed to won’t move an audience - not without proper build up from the beginning of the story.
So how do you write a high fantasy novel without following convention? It’s a genre because of the similarities in the stories in it, and if that’s the kind of story you want to write, how do you write a specific genre without falling back on a set of rules?
Well, I’ll tell you what I did, and then we’ll go back to Truby for his advice. I’ll also throw in a breakdown of another author in the same genre, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, as I and many other would consider him, as Truby phrases it, a “master storyteller”.
- There is magic
- Ok, well how does it work? By setting up unique rules for how the magic in your fantasy setting works, rather than leaving it vague - even if it isn’t explained to the reader - you’re differentiating your magic from the magic someone throws in who just adds magic because it’s supposed to be there. I actually have an entire document breaking down how magic works in Magdra, and it does follow a specific set of rules to work the way it does. There is a little explanation in the books so far, but I don’t (at the moment) have any time when I pause to go into a long complicated discussion on how magic works. You can tell there are rules just by how the characters interact, though.
- Brandon Sanderson - in Mistborn (I’m only going to discuss the first novel as far as I remember it), magic also has a particular set of rules. Characters that have magic need to eat metal to “fuel” their powers - alternatively, another set of characters can store power in metal (usually jewelry), but the fact remains that a component is needed for magic to work. It is also shown that only particular individuals can use magic - which is not explained in the first book, but the reader can tell there is an explanation. By setting up these unique rules (and the puzzles they add to the story), Sanderson creates something unique out of a convention.
- There are magical races
- Well, I tried to stay away from “traditional” fantasy races - elves, dwarves, orcs, etc - but they did in some form end up in the story. Where they do exist, so also do other, nontraditional (though not entirely unique) races exist. I tried to create societies around these races that differed from normal fantasy races - I put the elves in a swamp and made them anthropomorphic frogs, I made “dwarves” extremely tall, I have harpies that are obsessed with love, and deertaurs as opposed to centaurs.
- Brandon Sanderson - Mistborn is a lackluster example of magical races, but in Sanderson’s other works he includes entirely original races not found in other fantasy stories.
- It takes place in an alternate realm
- I tried to include cultures that were inspired by non-Western medieval countries, which is what many fantasy stories do. I have entire pages on each country as well, while still not detracting to tell the reader all about every single on in detail. Many of the countries are inspired by real world places, which is something I hope to move away from in the future, but others are their own creation devoid of such inspiration.
- Brandon Sanderson - the world of Mistborn is wholly different from the “standard” high fantasy world. It contains few countries, and is not based on any real world location. It is still not our own world, but it not a world based on convention, either.
- The protagonist is a hero
- Allaha is the protagonist of my story, and throughout she follows a strict moral code and is, in fact, a hero. However, throughout the story, she runs into more morally gray situations, and sometimes has to make hard decisions that may not necessarily be “right”. She also has to deal with more personal issues, such as her relationship with her family and her faith - complications that help separate her from other heroes in the same genre.
- Brandon Sanderson - Vin is the protagonist of Mistborn, and is a bit more of a classic hero story. She is a street urchin that is blessed with great power, brought under the wing of a wise mentor. However, Sanderson takes the time to develop Vin’s personality, her likes and dislikes, and also has her run into morally gray situations and have to make tough decisions. Flaws are often the saving graces of fantasy heroes - when they have them, they feel more relatable.
- The protagonist is on a quest to defeat a great evil
- My “twist” on this is that unlike other stories, my hero has no idea what evil she faces or how to stop it. In fact, the first book is all her and her companions trying to find answers to these questions. Usually the quest a hero undergoes in a story is straightforward - go get this evil-stopping weapon, go to this place for evil-stopping power, stop the evil before it happens by sealing it with this ritual which requires etc etc etc. Making the quest more complicated, or the path to victory harder to visualize, the quest becomes less by the numbers.
- Brandon Sanderson - ok, this man is a master of foreshadowing, so I can’t really explain without giving away spoilers. If you’ve read the books, however, you likely know that you will not see the endings of his books coming.
So using my own work and the work of a celebrated author, I’ve shown how you can write for a specific genre without making your story exactly like every other story in the same genre. So let’s see what Truby has to say on the subject of writing stories without following a mechanical process.
Truby’s goals to his readers are that he 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
One of my personal favorite phrases that Truby uses here is that “your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way”. I like this phrase because as many writers and avid readers know, many great authors will tell you that their characters do act on their own. I myself have changed parts of my stories because my characters derailed my intentions, and oftentimes to authors their characters feel like real people, just as they do to the readers.
In the next part of this series, I’ll get more into the processes Truby discusses - well, as much as I can without giving the book away.
Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, NY.