“The Anatomy of Story” (or: I Went and Got Myself Some Writing Help)

So. I’ve been frustrated and discouraged with my novel of late. And by “of late” I mean “for the past two to three months”. In a fit of angst, I hit up the library and picked up a couple of books on storytelling. One of them, Improving Your Storytelling, I haven’t really looked at yet. It’s about the art of performance storytelling. Useful. But not what I need right this second. John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, on the other hand, is about writing and building a good story from the bones on up. It’s directed at screen writers, so a lot of the examples the author uses to break down the techniques he’s presenting are movies (“Tootsie” and “The Godfather” feature pretty heavily so far). Because it (conveniently?) doesn’t break down movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “The Witches of Eastwick”, it means that I’m forced to, y’know, actually do my own work.
The novel I’m trying to write, it turns out, is not a Fun Romp with a romance at its center.
It’s a story about mothers and daughters and the way families fuck each other up for generations.
And, hopefully, a Fun Romp as well. I still want to get Chicken Antics in there somewhere.
What I’ve been doing is going through what the author is billing as “22 steps to becoming a master storyteller”, one step at a time, and trying to figure out how my novel is going to do its own talking.
For the moment, I’m about half-way through Chapter Four (“Character”) and I’m running up against the requirements of making my hero – Imogene – a fascinating and relateable character.
This is kind of stumping me a little because, for the moment, Imogene isn’t all that fascinating. Or at least I’m having trouble seeing how she’s going to be fascinating to anyone other than me. I like reading about rehabilitating neglected farmland, learning how to forage, and making preserves for the first time. (I loved Under the Tuscan Sun – original memoire version – for just that reason). Other people? Mmmm… Maybe not.
Imogene is a woman who is, honestly, past the age where she can be forgiven for not really being an adult yet; a woman who has been repeating a cycle of (1) need help/support/care (2) find someone to offer that help/support/care (3) allow personality and dreams to be subsumed by helper/supporter/care-giver in order to maintain relationship and retain help/support/care (4) pressure builds up until BLAMO: big fight, runs-away/gets-kicked-out (5) repeat from start, possibly with a honey-moon/appology period if the new helper/supporter/care-giver is the same one as before… She’s been doing this since she was in her teens. First with her mom (who does something similar), and then with her girlfriends (who, in a way, are stand-ins for that first unreliable care-giver, but who are also used by her mom to keep herself (Mom) as “the good guy” or “the reliable one” in Imogene’s eyes). It’s messy and kind of gross.
Imogene is, essentially, a woman who is mooching her way through life because (a) she believes she’s incapable (not smart enough, not reliable enough, not skilled enough, not employable enough, not, not, not… Girl needs to read her some Adulting) of doing otherwise.
And (spoiler) because she secretly (like: she doesn’t even know she thinks this) believes that, if she suddenly starts reliably exhibiting competence, confidence, and the ability to take care of herself… nobody will ever love her. (Okay, yes, this totally plays into how she was raised – her mom is very insecure in an “I need to be needed, therefore how dare you exhibit independent thought?!” kind of a way).
… Most of which I figured out to the point of being able to articulate it that concisely, oh, in the past 36 hours or so.
Seriously. O.O
So I’ve been looking at my characters, at the poly triad who might or might not stay a poly triad; at my MC’s dead grandmother who left her a house out of spite against her estranged daughter, and who might have been in the same position as Kate – the non-legally-married member of the above-mentioned poly triad. I’ve been looking at Maddy, the 15-year-old being pushed into adulthood too fast by a needy mother who is self-medicating with alcohol to cope with undiagnosed depression, poverty, and a parenthood that she wasn’t ready for at all; and seeing how she is a foil for Imogene (whose mother was also coping badly with poverty and unplanned parenthood, if not undiagnosed clinical anxiety, but who pulled her child into perpetual childhood rather than pushing her into premature adulthood), and also for Emily, who is fourteen and stretching her wings and whose mom – whose barely-nineteen-when-Em-was-born, working-two-side-eye-gaining-jobs and single-parenting an unplanned child mom – is becoming one of Imogene’s closest friends in Emerson. I’m looking at Mary-Ellen, the almost-60-year-old who is a foil for Imogene’s mom, whose oldest (Kate) and youngest (Jade – who will potentially be Heather by the end of the story) daughters are living far outside the boundaries of “normal” (particularly in a tiny town like Emerson, pop: 5,104 not counting out-of-town university students) one for her relationship and the other for her body. I can see how Jade/Heather could potentially be a roll-model/mentor for Maddy, who badly needs to see some other artsy, freaky kid who is loved by her parents and has a safe place to call home and how being an artsy, freaky kid doesn’t automatically mean that your mom can’t deal with you or that you have to sleep in the university library during the day because you’re spending all night at the 24-hour Tim Hortons and have to stay awake to stay in the warm…
…I’m looking at all these people and wondering how, when thrown into that mix, I’m going to make Imogene the fascinating one.
John Truby’s book says that a main character needs to have (a) a moral need, and (b) a psychological need; both of-which drive the character’s development, but also (c) a specific, bounded-by-time-or-activities desire upon-which to hang the events of the story itself.
Imogene’s NEEDS are (a) to stop being such a mooch, stop lying to herself about her competence and whether or not people will have her back if she shows it, and also to stop confusing “independent” with “isolated/lonely” and “connected” with “merged/subsumed”. But here desire? The thing that I’m hanging the events of the story on? It’s this:
Pre-Beginning of Story, she unexpectedly reconnected with her grandmother (the one she hasn’t seen, or heard from, since the age of three or maybe four, when her mother got the hell outta Dodge on the coat-tails of her soon-to-be-first-ex-husband and never looked back) during a romantic getaway with her now-ex GF (Jan) in Emerson. She’s been intermittently corresponding with said Grandmother for about a year – not quite – and it’s still a bit of a bone of contention between her and her mom, when said Grandmother ups and dies. I’m not sure of what (it may not actually be relevant to the story). But Imogene doesn’t know this.
She finds out because, as the story opens, she is recently broken up with the above-mentioned GF, has run out of couches to crash on, and is staring her (believed to be only) options in the face:
1) Move in with her mother. Again. Which she doesn’t want to do, but she’s run out of couches to crash on.
2) Go and “visit” the country-dwelling grandmother… and see how long she can milk that visit in order to have somewhere to live while she finds a new GF (ideally back in the big city) with a U-Haul on hand.
So she picks up and goes to Emerson and is banging on the empty house’s front door, and then goes around to the back to see if her grandmother is outside, and comes back out only to meet some dude pulling up in the driveway who turns out to be The Lawyer (or some other Official – possibly an easy-going cop who’s been called out by a nosey neighbour to see who this stranger is who’s trying to get into the Deceased’s house)… and it’s through this interaction that she finds out her grandmother is dead. And also, eventually, that she’s inherrited the house.
The story is hanging on her decision – made in part to put some distance between herself and her own mother – to stick it out in Emerson for one year before deciding whether or not to sell the inherited house and move back to The Big City.
So my hope is that I can show her growing and changing and becoming more confident in her own ability to pay her own bills and generally provide for herself (once away from the influence of her mother and the romantic stand-ins who she’s been repeating her cycle with for years) over the course of an agricultural year (May to May, but also potentially September to September) through actions like:
Finding a job that she finds fulfilling and which miraculously covers her (extremely minimal) bills
Growing some of her own food, learning to make preservers that will not result in botulism
Raising half a dozen laying hens (yes, really!)
Whining a lot, but actually getting shit done
Going from [asking for rescue when things have Gone All Wrong] to [asking for Help when things are getting slightly out of hand] to [asking for guidance when a given task is looking like it might potentially go pear-shaped]
Discovering that her assumptions about Rural Old Ladies aren’t all entirely accurate
Discovering that her assumptions about Rural Lesbians (or straight people, for that matter) are *also* not all entirely accurate
Being moral support for friends going through hard times
Being literal, physical support for friends going through even harder times
Repeatedly taking initiative on things
Slowly becoming a deeper and deeper part of a community of people she likes and cares about and wants to have like and care about her
…Which, hopefully, will actually work rather than feeling like buckets and buckets of filler.
I’m hoping that chapters 7-10 (“Symbol Web”, “Plot”, “Scene Weave”, and “Scene Construction and Symphoic Dialogue”) will help me prevent the events of my story from being boring. But I have to get through chapters 4-6 (“Character”, “Moral Arguement”, and “Story World”) before I can do that.
Wish me luck!


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Filed under prose, writing

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