The Seven Basic Steps to Story Structure

The Seven Basic Steps to Story Structure:

On the cover of Truby’s book reads: “The Anatomy of Story, 22 steps to becoming a master story-teller.” Inside, however, Truby writes that the number “22″ is fairly arbitrary and is only a framework he created as a rough guideline. Truby claims that the 22 steps can be stripped down to seven rudimentary steps fairly integral to story-telling. I describe them in the following paragraphs:

1) Weakness and Need

The “weakness” is the major moral flaw present in the main character- it is the illustration of a poorly chosen central value preference. Truby argues that the weakness runs under the surface of a story (much like a value preference in any argument) and is not revealed until the protagonist discovers the flaw herself. Truby stresses that the weakness should be one that effects how the main character treats herselfand others. He writes that in many stories, the main character merely has a psychological weakness that only effects how the protagonist treats herself. However, this distinction is not as necessary with the idea of the weakness being a Moral Principle- which inherently is a basis for how one interacts with the world.

The “need” is what Truby characterizes as the “lesson” of the story. It is the prescription that results from the outcome of the main character overcoming her weakness. The “need” would be phrased as such: Protagonist must overcome said weakness to live a more moral life.
In terms of values, the “need” would simply be the inverse of the allegedly flawed Moral Principle that the main character holds. So the “need” might now be phrased: Protagonist must discover that she holds a flawed moral principle [ex: Independence over Cooperation] and change it [to Cooperation over Independence] in order to live a more moral life.
For instance*:

In the film Dogville, the main character’s weakness is her total submission to the value preference: Collective Responsibility over Individual Responsibility. She needs to release her firm grip on this value preference so that she can hold others accountable for their actions- thereby living a more moral life (according to the filmmaker).

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s weakness could be his commitment to the value preference: Thrift over Emotional Well-being. Scrooge needs to loosen his pockets so that he can learn the wonders of friendship.

In the short story The Lottery, the main-character’s weakness is that she goes along with the value preference: Tradition over Individual Freedom. The protagonist needs to change her mind (but unfortunately the town-folks’ mind, as well) in order to escape the consequences of the town’s tradition.

2) Desire

Desire is the superficial goal the character wants to achieve. Truby makes an interesting distinction between desire and need. Desire is the what the main character wants on the surface- what the audience thinks the story is about (when in actuality the story is about the Moral Principle within the main character’s need).

For instance:
In Dogville the main character’s desire is to escape the mafia and the police.
In A Christmas Carol, the main character’s desire is to escape his ghosts.
In The Lottery, the main character’s desire is to escape death by stoning.

3) Opponent

The opponent in a story is the character competing with the protagonist. The opponent should be the character (or group of characters) best suited to constantly and relentlessly attack the protagonist’s weakness; done in such a way that the protagonist must overcome their weakness or fail. Truby uses the term opponent because he sees a large mistake in most stories as making this character a “villain” (-a character that looks evil, and does “evil” things). Truby argues that in a good story, the villain is not evil, he/she just opposes the main character. Truby also makes a very important insight: The opponent should not simply wish to stop the protagonist, the opponent should have desires that cross the protagonist’s; and Truby argues that ideally the opponent would be competing for the same thing as the protagonist. The opponent should also be human- and by this Truby means, the opponent has to be able to learn.

Much like a written argument, making a story in which the opponent is pure evil is setting up a straw-man. A good story, like a good article, will illuminate the opposition in the most positive way- otherwise no-one will identify the moral argument because they will not be able to understand the opponent.

For example:

In Dogville, the opponent is the protagonist‘s lover. He appeals to the main-character’s value preference so that she considers him a victim of society.
In A Christmas Carol, the opponents are himself in the past, present, and future. The ghosts personify Scrooge’s inspection of his deep seeded value preference.
In The Lottery, the opponent is the town leader, representing the whole of the town-folk. The stringently obeyed tradition of the town bodes ill for the main character and causes her to question the value preference that put her in the situation.


Truby writes that the protagonist should establish some semblance of a plan or strategy to attain the desired goal. Otherwise, the audience does not know why the character does what he/she is doing. The audience should never be utterly in the dark about the central character’s decisions, it prevents them from understanding the main-character’s value preferences.

I feel drawn to making an analogy with paper-writing: Like a table of contents in a book, or an explanation at the beginning of a paper that tells the reader what will be covered, a map must be available to the audience of a story (not of the plot- in which mystery facilitates drama- but of the main character’s thought process).

5) Battle

The ultimate conflict between the protagonist and the opponent. It decides who reaches his/her goal. The battle can be articulated in infinitely varying methods- from physical to psychological to whatever. The whole story builds up to this moment- it is at this moment that the main character must overcome her incorrectly held value-preference or fail.

6) Self-Revelation

The main character goes through a very difficult struggle during the battle, and as a result sees her weakness. Truby describes this process as “strip[ing] away the facade [she] has lived behind” and argues that the process of stripping her facade should be the most difficult obstacle the protagonist faces in the story. As a result of going through this self deconstruction the heroine gains new insight and reveals her insight by her actions leading to and from the moment of introspection.
Truby argues that in good stories the opponent has a self-revelation at the same time that the protagonist does. The opponent’s insight must be related and intertwined with the main character’s insight- both insights pointing the audience toward the moral argument behind the story.

Good examples of these types of stories are actually romantic comedies. While they often do not deal with subject matter that is very piercing- they do establish the opponent (the love interest) as a learning human. Often times, both the main character and the opponent must learn and change in order to treat each other morally.

7) New Equilibrium

At the end of the story, a state of normality is regained. The only major difference being that now the protagonist has either evolved or devolved as a result of changing a flawed value preference. If the protagonist cannot realize her flaw, or is unable to deal with her flaw, she falls and is defeated (allowing the audience to learn from her mistake instead). If the protagonist has her revelation in time, she “wins” and is able to find a way to live in a more ethically able way (the audience shares in her success and in her moral revelation).

There are a few interesting methods Truby describes as lubricants for the seven-step story process. I will attempt to describe a few of these methods in the next section.

* The examples I use are not exact, there is much more nuance and many exceptions and variations to stories that Truby goes into in his book. Many stories have multiple opponents and protagonists, changing desires, missing or multiple plans and battles. I am merely outlining a basic structure.

Other Interesting Elements of Story:


Truby explains symbols in a way that I found very insightful. Usually we think of symbols as the weird (seemingly unintentional) re-occurring objects that our 5th-grade english teachers placed an infuriating amount of importance on memorizing.
She is wearing white: It’s her virginity!
Look a Dove: Peace!
There is an “A” on her chest…
Truby describes the use of symbols in a way I found much more interesting: Symbols are any “thing” that the storyteller attaches to an emotion. It can be a color, a series of notes, an object, a character, a voice… anything the storyteller wants. Their utility is tremendous. Think of a storyteller employing a symbol like a pavlovian bell. The storyteller produces food and rings a bell. The audience salivates. Soon, the storyteller merely rings the bell, and the audience still spews forth bubbling saliva.

A good example is in the film Jaws, where the all-too familiar quickening notes- “baaah-dump…. baahh-dump” soon terrify the audience without the need for any shark to be visible.
In The Matrix, the virtual world is represented with green hues while the real world is desaturated blues. The audience soon only needs to see the hues on-screen to have the feeling they are no longer in the real world.

There are symbols that exist outside of stories that can be employed (like the “dove” or the color white) but these symbols are dangerous to use because they are ambiguous. Maybe a good analogy would be thinking of symbols like ambiguous words. You can attempt to use a word like “justice” or “spirituality” or “true love” in a paper, but you run the enormous risk of everyone having different concepts of these words. So to be a more effective writer, you might create another version of the word with a subscript (like “true love1“) that will serve as a symbol for the definition you outline at the beginning of your paper or story.

Story World:

An interesting insight Truby makes is that (much like the opponent should be the character best suited for taking advantage of the protagonist’s weakness) the environment should be specifically created to relentlessly put pressure on the main character’s weakness. This way, the character’s weakness (her flawed value preference) becomes the pivotal element in the story.


Truby describes that a crucial element in the plot is the act of revealing new information. Truby argues that in order to build drama and interest, a story must reveal new information exponentially in frequency and in magnitude. So in a good story, Truby argues that every new bit of information is progressively more important and more frequently occurring- spiraling upward to the climax (battle) of the story.

I hope this post is helpful. PLEASE do not hesitate to ask for clarification or anything. I have tried to cram a lot into this post and I realize that it may not be very clear.



~ by animationslider on May 21, 2014.

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