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John Truby and Leslie Lehr talk about story structure (otherwise known as my obsession) for novelists, and so much more
About five years ago, I discovered John Truby's story structure. A student of mine at UCLA was going on and on about what a genius he was, so I bought the tapes of his classes, bought his book--and had my first New York Times Bestseller. Along the way, I became fast friends with his wife, the novelist and screenwriter, Leslie Lehr, and attended John's classes as well.
John and Leslie approach story differently from all the other story people. There's no three-act structure. There's no rising and falling action. Instead, the Truby method goes much deeper, focusing on the moral choices of the characters and the impacts of those choices on everyone. His first book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller is a bestseller--and I have my own dog-eared copy on my desk at all times. Usually focused on films, John and Leslie are now having an upcoming class, STORY FOR NOVELISTS, starting in San Francisco, September 2015 and I cannot wait until they bring it to New York.
Over the past 25 years, more than 30,000 people (including me!) have attended John's sold-out Writers' Studio seminars around the world. He's been a story consultant for major studios and a script doctor on more than 1800 movies, sitcoms and television dramas from Sony Pictures, HBO, Paramount, BBC, and more.
Leslie Lehr writes about what-ifs of modern motherhood. Her debut novel, 66 Laps, won the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal. Soon after, her screenplay, Heartless, was produced as an independent film. The romantic thriller financed five other films for Santa Monica Pictures, aired on USA TV and has been screening in Europe for eight years. Her next books were the nonfiction tomes, The Happy Helpful Grandma Guide, excerpted on FisherPrice.com; and Wendy Bellissimo: Nesting, featured on Oprah.
What a Mother Knows, her literary thriller is a Recommended Read at Target and is currently in development for film. In addition to private manuscript consulting, she teaches at the world-renowned Writer's Program at UCLA Extension and mentors writers to publication as the Novel Consultant for Truby’s Writers Studio.
I'm so completely thrilled to have both John and Leslie here. Both of them have literally changed my life. Thank you, John and Leslie! (Note: John Truby is answering these questions, but Leslie's input is in them, as well!)
What made you decide to take your extraordinarily brilliant (trust me, it is) story structure program and rework it for novelists?
Novelists are so concerned with the right word that I think they sometimes forget about story. Sure, readers love words, and love what beautiful language can do. But the main reason they read is for story. In fact, the single most important element for success in any written medium, including novels, is strong narrative drive. I see too many novelists who don’t know this or don’t know how to get it on the page.
You'll be presenting seminars on this along with the superb novelist Leslie Lehr. What's she taught you that you didn't know already?
More like what hasn’t she taught me. My expertise is story, in any medium. She’s very strong on story structure, and knows how the novel medium changes the requirements for a good story. She’s also an expert on prose techniques that are unique to narrative fiction.
How do you go from one form to the other? (When I first started writing scripts, I was told that they read like novels!)
That’s a big subject we will cover in the class. How do you go from script to novel, and how do you go from novel to script? Both have to tell a good story but they do it in different ways. The biggest differences between novel and film are structure and point of view. You have to know how to translate these elements above all.
What's the biggest difference between structure for novels and films?
Plot. You need much more of it in novels, but it doesn’t have to have the same dramatic punch that plot has in movies. It’s a very special skill to be able to weave a complex plot, but also stretch it over what is typically a much longer time frame.
What's the biggest mistake you think writers make in writing novels?
They think they can just start writing and figure out the story as they go. Novels need story structure even more than films because the reader has no visuals to rely on, only imagination. Most of all, writers often have no idea how to create narrative drive.
Many novelists I know are resistant to structure, no matter how much I praise it. They think they have to "follow the muse." They also are sure that if there are no surprises for the writer, there won't be surprises for the reader. And, of course, once I get them to try structure, they love it, and they realize that's not true at all. But what do YOU say to writers?
I tell them, go ahead and “follow the muse.” Here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll get about 40 pages into your novel and find out you’ve written yourself into a story dead end. You stop writing the book and then repeat the same process with the next book.
Story is all about seeing the big picture, along with the major story beats, as a whole. If you get the right structure up front, you’ll have plenty of surprises writing the scenes. But you’ll also have a scaffolding that will tell you which creative surprises will work and which ones won’t (and the vast majority won’t). As Leslie puts it, how can you hit the bullseye if you can’t see the target?
I'm curious, I've been applying your seven steps--which are extraordinary on target--for my novels. Are there additional steps and issues novelists should be aware of?
Oh yes. The seven steps are great for figuring out the anchor steps of the entire story. But for really great plot, you have to know how to use many other steps. And that’s a big deal for novelists, because you have to string a lot more plot over the 300-400 pages in a typical novel. For example, one of those additional plot steps is Revelation. Novels have 3 to 4 times as many reveals as a screenplay. We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about this all-important element in writing novels.
Are the starting points for novels and scripts pretty much the same? Writing something that will change YOUR life? Have a character with a strong arc and a moral dilemma?
Absolutely. The fundamentals of great story are the same for every medium. But novelists also have to know the unique ways of setting up narrative drive, beginning with a strong desire line. We’ll explain how to do that in the course.
Many novels--and films--have experimental forms or ensemble players. There is no straight through line--or is there? I'm thinking about films like Momento or Grand Canyon (which had multiple points of views, much like novels), and novels that play with form like Louisa Meets Bear--which is a series of interconnecting stories that all flow back to two initial characters. Do the structural components still apply?
Yes they do, but as you can imagine they apply differently. These are multi-hero, multi-POV stories. This is a major part of the novel world, much more so than Hollywood film. Above all, you have to know how to connect all the story strands to get that through line. We’ll talk about a number of techniques you can use to do multi-strand stories correctly. You do it quite well in your writing, Caroline, and Leslie will talk about a technique you use in IS THIS TOMORROW in the class.
What are you most excited about in teaching this upcoming class in Story for Novel?
I’m a big believer in writers going for greatness, which is why I’m so excited about sharing 10 techniques common to all Great American Novels. Obviously, no one can teach someone how to write the Great American Novel. But I believe these 10 techniques, which are extremely detailed, can give a writer a tremendous advantage if he or she wants to take on this immense challenge.
I've been told that if you are a good screenwriter, you'll be a lousy novelist--and vice versa. I refuse to believe this is true. Why would someone think this?
This is nonsense. Yes, if a novelist doesn’t learn the unique elements of the screenplay medium, he or she will fail, and vice versa. But that assumes writers can’t master new techniques. If a writer learns how to tell a good story, along with the special techniques of that form, they can be great in both mediums.
Will there be a book on this, I hope? I use your Anatomy of Story for all my classes.
That’s a great idea, Caroline. I was busy last year creating my Myth Class, which includes the beats for three new Female Myth stories I think will be huge the next few years. But Leslie has been talking about a Story for Novel book as well, since she uses Anatomy of Story in her work as the TWS Novel Consultant and adds a lot of focused information when she works with writers individually. Now that I know you’d be interested in that book too, it may just be a matter of time. Stay tuned.