Truby and the World of Story

The world of story, John Truby explains in “The Anatomy of Story”, is “a complex and detailed web in which each element has story meaning and is in some way a physical expression of the character web and especially of the hero.” He uses the term “condenser-expander”, because the story world condenses meaning and then gradually expands it into the minds of the audience, like subliminal messages working in the background. Like we say in SpecOps jargon, you must try to conquer the “hearts and minds” of your audience, and with the right world for your story, you do just that.

You will find the story world in your designing principle. What you do is take the rough sequence of the story line and expand it three-dimensionally to make the story world. You should try to find a single arena where your story will inhabit. And just as you convey theme and moral argument by dramatizing the oppositions within your character web, so do you define the story world within your arena by dramatizing visual oppositions. And you do so by combining three major elements: the land (natural settings), the people (man-made spaces), and technology (tools).

You must be diligent in procuring natural settings for your story because they (as well as weather) carry a multitude of hidden meanings that can provide powerful physical representations of the inner experiences of the characters, as well as evoke strong feelings in the audience. Man-made spaces, in turn, are usually used to physically express, as a microcosm, the hero and the society in which he lives. Tools extend human capability and power, becoming part of the character’s identity, and helping him manipulate and connect to the world.

Time is a fourth major element used to construct your story world, and there are a number of techniques for it. The cycle of the seasons and holidays with their rituals, or a single-day or a ticking clock are all modes of the passing of time that can be used to express meaning, pacing, and story development, as well as to function as backdrops to emphasize change and drama.

But the most important gem in this chapter, in my opinion, is that just as your hero is not static, but develops following the character arc, so too must the world develop. The world is a physical expression — a metaphor — of who your hero is at the beginning of the story, and who he will become at the end. Therefore, the world should embody, highlight, and accentuate your hero’s weakness, and do the same for his renewed self after the battle and his moral revelation and choice.

But the connection between your hero and the story world does not happen only at the endpoints of the story. You have to connect the world with the hero, following his overall development, at every step of the story. And you do so by creating a sort of visual seven steps. Each of these is a unique visual world within the overall story arena. Truby proposes a similar list to the one we already saw at The Story’s Skeleton, namely:

  1. Weakness or need;
  2. Desire;
  3. Opponent;
  4. Apparent defeat or temporary freedom;
  5. Visit to death;
  6. Battle;
  7. Freedom or slavery.

The bolded elements form the subworlds you should concentrate on. To this seven-step structure you attach physical elements of the world, like natural settings, man-made spaces, technology, and time. This is how characters and world intertwine organically to tell a better story.

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