Truby and the Moral Argument

Ah, how complex it is to write fiction! To write anything, for that matter. John Truby, in “The Anatomy of Story”, says I need to create moral growth, but how does one know how to grow morally in the first place? That is exactly why I began to write; why I am writing right now — to evolve morally. I need to be acquainted with words so that I can express my life through them, so that I can learn to understand it. The only solution I foresee is to grow as I write. Again, how complex!

You should express you theme, says Truby, in one single line — your theme line — so that it can serve as a signpost to guide your plot. Your plot will eventually be built around it, and you will use it to make sure every action, twist or turn, while surprising and entertaining the audience, expresses the larger theme. Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world — it is your moral vision.

Now you must express the theme line dramatically, and you do so mainly through the character web you created. Each character must be a variation of the theme, who possesses values that clash with the hero’s. It is through this conflict, as they compete for the same goal, that theme is expressed. At first, in the story, it is not clear who will come into conflict and how, but as the story progresses, conflict increases and the story structure begins to converge. At the same time, a difference in values among the characters begins to emerge, so the theme starts to expand. Both structure and theme are epitomized at the hero’s moral decision, a choice between two ways of acting given by his central moral problem, usually during a final battle against his main opponent.

Still, during most of the story, the theme is largely hidden; it is quietly growing in the minds of the audience, and it will hit them with full force only at the end. And because the theme has been expressed primarily through structure, it seems to emerge “from the very soul of the audience, and not as if it had been imposed on them like a tiresome sermon.”

The basic strategy of moral argument has a number of variants, depending on the story form, the particular story, and the individual writer, and advanced writers do well to combine some of these forms in one story. But at the most advanced level of moral argument in storytelling is the writer who creates a unique moral vision. I can’t help thinking of “Atlas Shrugged”, by Ayn Rand. Of course, that’s a philosophical work of fiction, so the moral argument is much more important than in a “normal” work of fiction, but, still, the way she expresses it almost in every sentence through her character web is impressive. She does makes a “tiresome sermon” at the end, through John Galt’s speech, but by then you are so engrossed in the theme that you welcome those explicit words to make it all sink in.

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