Truby and the Why of Fiction

The book that made me want to learn the craft of fiction.
(“Moby Dick”, by Augustus Burnham Shute, 1851-1906.)

I have this desire to write about my life. It sounds egocentric and it probably is a bit, but I do think there is a lot to tell — if only I could learn the lessons. The truth is that it is hard to face the truth. So I thought trying to write fiction might be a way to make it easier. Maybe by pretending I am writing about someone else — someone who doesn’t even exist — mixing personalities here and there, adding whatever details I find interesting, I might actually be able to analyze my life instead of forever evading the task. The problem is that I know next to nothing about the craft of writing fiction.

That’s why I am eagerly reading “The Anatomy of Story”, by John Truby. I guess he is hitting the right notes with me because he equates story to a moral argument,  to “showing the how and why of human life”. Thankfully, he admits that’s a “monumental job”.

It’s funny how I’ve never thought about storytelling per se. I’ve never watched a movie thinking about how and why it works. I’ve never read a book thinking about that either. In fact, I’ve read very few fiction books. I use to say that real life is so crazy and fascinating already, so why should I read about something someone has invented? There are so many incredible persons around the world that I have never heard of, so why reading fiction? I still can’t answer that question in a way that is more profound than just “Because it’s fun”, but I feel that Truby is going to help me find such an answer.

Storytelling, he says, is about the “essential life”, the crucial thoughts and events that must be conveyed to an audience in the form of “emotional knowledge”. I like that. Tell me it’s all about feelings and I ignore it. Tell me there is knowledge involved and I pay attention. I like to read for knowledge, and I especially like to write for knowledge. Emotional knowledge is a concept I can work with.

Storytelling is also about constructing a puzzle, when you tell certain information while also withholding certain information about a character. I know that’s the case and I understand that’s a huge part of why we get riveted to a movie or a book. But I have no idea how it’s done, how you decide on what to show and what not to. It feels artificial to me, such decision. I hope to find a “logical method” for deciding on that.

What is common to every story, Truby explains, is that they convey a dramatic code, a code of growth, a process hidden beneath particular characters and actions. The character wants something and acts to get it; in the process, he learns and evolves as a person. I am sure this is obvious for most people, especially for those who like to read or watch movies, but not for me. It’s enlightening to read about it.

“Stories don’t show the audience the ‘real world’; they show the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.”

Condensed and heightened. I am beginning to see the why of fiction. And I like it.

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