Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moral weaknes

Too much writing advice is too much. Yet, knowing that doesn’t slow me down from seeking it.

Lately, I’ve been re-examining John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps To Becoming A Master Storyteller. The guy looks at stories from every possible angle. Among other things, he discusses seven steps of structure that every story needs as it develops over time, in its growth from beginning to end. They are:
-Weakness and need
-New equilibrium

These are not something external, such as the three-act structure imposed from the outside. They exist within the story. Truby calls them the nucleus, the DNA of the story. They are based on human action because they are the same steps people must work through to solve problems. 

The step I’m currently paused at is an aspect of weakness and need. At the start of a story, the MC must have one or more weaknesses that holds him back from reaching his goal. It should be something so profound, it is ruining his life. This flaw forces a need for the character to overcome the weakness and change or grow in some way. This is a psychological flaw that is hurting no one but the hero. I get that.

Truby says most stories incorporate that. What elevates a so-so story to an excellent one, is a moral flaw. A moral weakness hurts not only the protagonist, but others around him, as well. As an example, he cites the story The Verdict in which the MC, Frank, has a psychological need to overcome his drinking problem and regain his self-respect. His moral flaw is that he uses people for money. In one instance,Frank lies his way into a funeral of strangers, upsetting the family, trying to round up more business. 

Okay, I get that, too. And because Truby acknowledges its importance in stories, I give it credence, as well. But how about for an MG character? Do they need to be morally flawed for the story to pop? The stakes are lighter for MG and that’s the nature of it. Experts say there are certain lines not to cross and having the hero be morally corrupt seems like one of them.

But this is John Truby. He really, really knows his stuff. Shouldn’t I listen to him? If Tiger Woods offered tips on your golf swing, seems to me it would be wise not to argue about it. Still, a moral flaw doesn’t feel right for that age level of story. 

Looking back over other stories, I can’t think of any MG characters with moral flaws. There must be a few. They have psychological weaknesses to overcome. The strong-willed behavior of Kyra in Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One brings the anger of the prophet down upon her family. That seems like a character strength rather than a flaw and it does raise the stakes for her. Same with Sal in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. Her denial creates angst with her father, but again, rather than immorality, it seems it’s more a matter of innocence. Both of these works are YA. It could be a YA vs. MG thing. What works for older audiences doesn’t necessarily work for all readers. 

Julie Daines posted here a few weeks ago about listening to your gut, your writer’s intuition. That inner voice is telling me to question Truby’s on this. Truby or not Truby, that is the question. 

(This article also posted at

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