Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moral weakness

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


KaseyQ said...

Last night I was watching “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen” (needed to channel my inner teenager for my YA novel) and I think that was a perfect example of a moral flaw. The main character had a serious problem with lying- actually in a way it was a retelling of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (in fact, the pivotal crisis is when she claims to have met a rock star named Stu Wolfe and nobody believes her because of all the lies she’s told thus far, even though this one is actually true). She likes to “embellish” her life for various reasons (she wants to be accepted, mostly). In the end, she ended up hurting her best friend, and almost letting down people who were counting on her because she was so self-involved wallowing in her misery and embarrassment that she doesn’t want to perform in the play she’s got the leading role in.

Anyway, there are ways to do it- maybe try watching “Girl Meets World” for ideas- they’re middle school age, so it might work. ;-)

Bruce Luck said...

I had never heard of "Girl Meets World" and had to Google it. Will give it a try one of these days. Thanks, Kasey.

Bruce Luck said...
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Julie Daines said...

Very interesting and good food for thought.