The reassuring thing about learning story structure is that the more you read, the more you hear the same thing over and over. That said, different story experts use different terminology. Today I compare the terminology used by John Truby in his book Anatomy of Story with that of screenwriting teacher Michael Hauge, whose story breakdown can be found in his own words at his own website. John Truby, too, has shared his 7-Step Structure in various places, including on podcasts which can be found on iTunes.
The thing both experts have in common when teaching story structure is that they have a ‘basic’ version and a ‘complex’ version. In both cases the basic version applies to pretty much every narrative out there in whatever format (advertisements, narrative poems, short stories), whereas the more complex structure applies most closely to popular and memorable big-budget Hollywood movies.
Novelists have more leeway in applying the more complex structure and are not bound ‘to the minute’, but even novels tend to conform to the basic steps.
I have noticed that picture books do, too.
MICHAEL HAUGE’S BASIC STORY STRUCTURE
With annotations as I compare to John Truby. Note that Truby uses a 7-step structure whereas Hauge uses a 6-step structure. Hauge has compressed the last two steps into one. TP stands for ‘turning point’. Truby doesn’t tend to use the phrase ‘turning point’.
1/ THE SETUP
TP: The Opportunity
Truby calls his setup: NEED/DESIRE (Truby’s step 1), in an attempt to help writers remember that we need to connect the desire to the need, which is itself broken down into ‘psychological’ and ‘moral’ need. In other words, what’s wrong with the hero that is ruining their life, and how are they hurting other people?
Hauge calls the ‘psychological weakness’ a ‘wound’. I’ve also heard it called a ‘(fatal) flaw’.
I have noticed that in children’s stories and in some more uplifting, gentle stories for adults, the hero doesn’t always have a moral need. The main character is a genuinely good person.
But I do think that Truby’s point about connecting the hero’s need with the desire is important. It seems the DESIRE (Truby’s step two) is part of Hauge’s step two, below, in which circumstances change the the hero now wants something.
2/ THE NEW SITUATION
TP: The Change Of Plans
Somewhere around here Truby advises to introduce an OPPONENT (step 3). Some story experts say that the opponent can be something like ‘nature’ (e.g. a disaster story) while others argue that the best opponent must have their own moral code which is in conflict with the hero’s. This explains why disaster movies often have a human opponent as well as ‘forces of nature’. Then there are movies like Gravity, where the only opponent seems to be ‘tech breaking down in a hostile environment’. Gravity was nevertheless a box office hit.
TP: The point of no return
This equates to Truby’s ‘First Revelation and Decision’ step in Truby’s 22-step structure. In his simple structure it is simply THE PLAN (Truby’s step 4), and in stories it seems to be a rule that characters can’t go back on their plans. In fact, Truby specifies that characters cannot ‘change their desire’, not without it turning into a different story. Two desires = two stories. We know the story is over when the desire has been accomplished (or not).
4/ COMPLICATIONS/HIGHER STAKES
TP: The major setback
Truby specifies that plans never go smoothly in stories, otherwise the middle sags or the story is too short. In this part Truby also recommends that your opponent ups the ante. Though Truby doesn’t talk about this in his basic 7-step structure.
5/ THE FINAL PUSH
TP: The Climax
Truby refers to the BATTLE (Truby’s step 5) rather than the climax, perhaps because he’s not a fan of the three-act structure, which he argues was never a thing even in Aristotle’s day. And the word ‘Climax’ is irrevocably linked to that way of thinking about story. A battle isn’t necessarily a literal scrap (although it often is in movies, because you need something visual to symbolise inner turmoil). It can be a purely psychological thing.
6/ THE AFTERMATH
Truby breaks this step into two separate parts: SELF-REVELATION (Truby’s step 6) and NEW EQUILIBRIUM (Truby’s step 7), but Hauge does specify that the writer needs both those steps, with the exception of stories such as Thelma and Louise, in which the aim of the ending is to leave the audience stunned, in which case we never see the ‘new equilibrium’ (though it must be assumed).
THE EIGHT POINT ARC BY ALI HALE
1. Stasis – The “everyday life” in which the story is set. [WEAKNESS/NEED]
2. Trigger – Something beyond the control of the protagonist.
3. The quest — The trigger results in a quest. [DESIRE]
4. Surprise – Pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist. [OPPONENT]
5. Critical Choice — A decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance. [PLAN]
6. Climax – The highest peak of tension in story. [BATTLE]
7. Reversal – The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax [SELF-REVELATION]
8. Resolution – Return to a fresh stasis. [NEW EQUILIBRIUM]