Notes: John Truby's Anatomy of Story

Let’s take a look at John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

Story is fueled by desire. As Truby points out, drama is not "I think, therefore I am" but rather "I desire, therefore I am." This desire becomes the external spine of the story, driving all action. Without this fuel there is no story movement.

But at the exact same time as a story is a tale of external desire, it is also a tale of internal growth. And the two are intrinsically linked.

Because stories are rooted in desire, they explore the human psychology involved in the goal seeking process--the dramatic code. And true to life as we know it, the process of goal seeking necessarily includes obstacles, challenges, conflict, and failure. We as storytellers are psychologists. We must come understand not only how our characters take action but more importantly why they take action.

The Psychology of Stories

We've all got hang-ups, baggage, flaws, and weaknesses. And much of the time we're content with hiding these flaws from ourselves and from others. But there are some desires that can't be accomplished unless we consciously rid ourselves of these weaknesses.

There's a funny thing about humans, though. When faced with failure, there's one place we are guaranteed to look last: ourselves. We will fail over and over without once questioning if the problem lies within us. We'll criticize those around us, we'll throw up justifications for our actions, we'll debase our own morals, but we won't dare look within. There's little objectivity when it comes to oneself. It's the reason doctor's shouldn't diagnose themselves and it's the reason lawyers hire other lawyers. We become delusional and lack rational thought when it comes to ourselves. Everyone around us can see what ails us, but we're the last to.

Stories are an exploration of this cycle of being human. Desiring, failing, blaming, justifying, spiraling, facing death, giving up, and only then reflecting. And upon introspection, if we're lucky, we have self-revelation. And with that self-revelation we can take new action to right our wrongs, thus overcoming the roadblocks that previously stood in between us and our desire. Then we come up with a new desire. Repeat cycle.

Our delusion and lack of objectivity when it comes to ourselves is the reason that the self-revelation step comes last--because it's the last option we consider.

Perhaps it's unfortunate that it takes so much despair and suffering for us to look within ourselves and realize the source of our problems, but that's what being human's about and it doesn't seem like that's going to change any time soon. That's really what stories are about: an exploration of what it means to be human.

The titular 22 Steps to becoming a master storyteller in The Anatomy of Story are designed to follow the real cycle of personal growth and change. It's a process that accurately reflects human psychology and it's this cycle that connects with the audience. It's the cycle of personal growth--the dramatic code. In some cases, stories are a demonstration of a failure to grow in the face of struggle and the implications of that failure on the hero's life.

Desire and Need

A story exists on two tracks: external and internal. Desire and Need.

The story hero's "desire" is the external, tangible goal that he has throughout the span of the story. The desire may bend and it may amplify but it must not inherently change. A fundamentally changed desire results in a new story. A story is the exploration of one cycle of the psychological process of desire and growth so a new desire would start a new cycle and thus a new story.

To be a viable desire, the audience must be able to pinpoint the moment when the desire is either reached or lost. "Becoming successful" is an example of an ambiguous (bad) desire whereas "winning the semi-finals" is an example of a viable, tangible story desire. The hero's actions are fundamentally driven by this desire and consequently this desire line is the external spine of the story.

The hero's "need" is the need to overcome a core character flaw (a weakness) in order to accomplish his desire. It's important to note that the desire cannot be accomplished unless the hero's weakness is overcome. The hero's need is the internal spine of the story. It tracks the growth that must occur in order to reach the desire. Throughout the story, the hero is undergoing an internal journey of growth to meet this need and overcome his flaw.

John Truby separates the hero's "need" into two categories: psychological and moral. A psychological flaw is one that hurts only the hero himself and no one else. A moral flaw, on the other hand, is one that hurts others. Truby notes that most stories have only a psychological need and usually only great stories give a moral need to the hero. We should, of course, strive to give our hero a moral need in addition to a psychological need.

Desire and growth are a part of the same process. Desire cannot be accomplished without growth and growth can only be initiated through desire.

The internal growth of the hero while seeking his desire covers a period referred to as the "character arc" which Truby also calls the "character range." Truby notes that in general the larger the character range, the more interesting the story but also the riskier because humans do not tend to change drastically in short periods of time. A change too drastic and too quick becomes unbelievable to the audience.

Although character change is gradual over the course of the story, there is one moment of final change where the hero recognizes the core error of his ways (his psychological and moral flaws). This moment is instantaneous and is called the "self-revelation". This self-revelation is the "end-goal" of the hero's inner journey and it is analogous to the moment that the desire is attained in the external journey.

Around the time of the hero's self-revelation, the audience usually has its own revelation. If the storyteller has done their job correctly, the audience understands the moral of the story. The "moral of the story" is also known as the moral argument. It's the storyteller's answer to the question, "How should one live to get the most out of life?" and is embodied in the character change of the hero (or the lack thereof).

The Theme

John Truby takes a foundational approach when it comes to a story's theme. That is to say, the theme is the very structure of the story and other elements grow out of this theme.

Often writers are afraid of coming off as preachy when trying to inject a theme into a story, and rightfully so. It can be easy to be seen as overbearing when delivering a thematic message. To this, Truby offers the notion that "structure is content" and that a theme can be delivered through the structure of a story. This philosophy informs much of Truby's advice when it comes to characters, plot, story world, and symbolism. As he points out, we as writers want theme to be told through the story, not by the story.

First of all, what is a story's theme exactly? The growth of the hero throughout the story and in particular at the moment of self-revelation is a moral argument laid out by the storyteller. It's the answer to the moral question "What's the proper way to live in this world?" It's the story's theme. In essence the storyteller is saying, "to live your best life and to attain your desires, you must rid yourself of the hero's flaw."

Characters as Theme

In John Truby's method of building a story organically, characters grow out of theme. Each character in a story is a moral argument for a certain answer to the moral question. The story does not just exist to argue one point, but rather it plays devil's advocate and explores all (or many) possible answers to the moral question. Only after having explored all possibilities can the audience arrive at what the storyteller would argue is the proper answer.

The hero is usually the embodiment of the "correct" answer to the moral question. Although in some cases the hero's failure to correct his moral problem is used as a cautionary tale and the implications of his failure to live morally reveals to the audience the dangers of following in his footsteps.

A character expresses a moral argument through action. The saying “actions speak louder than words” is axiomatic in storytelling. Only through action can we truly come to understand what a character really values. A character is only defined by those beliefs he’s willing to defend through action (and in the face of potential loss).

The change in the hero (and in some cases the opponent) of the story, of course, exemplifies the main moral argument of the story. Truby says, “True character change involves a challenging of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero.”

The Character Web and Comparative Values

Truby offers a writing tool called the “character web” to assist in the full exploration of all sides of a story’s moral question. The technique is to draw a rectangle and then place your characters at opposing extremes in their approach to life. The hero exists in one corner of the web, with 3 opponents at the other corners (one of which is the hero’s main opponent). Each character should be as different from the others as possible. This also means opponent 1 should be as different from opponent 2 as he is from the hero.

This technique of placing each character at an extreme raises a concept that runs throughout the entirety of the book: values are best demonstrated through relativity. That is to say, the best way for us as humans to understand a value, a flaw, a way of life, a belief, a weakness, a world, a character, etc. is to see that value relative to something else.

And that’s what the character web accomplishes. It provides a straightforward technique for the writer to ensure that the audience will fully appreciate a character’s approach to life. We appreciate the selfless character if we can also see the selfish character. We appreciate true loyalty if we can see deceit.

The web also does something else. It ensures the creation of the lifeblood of drama: conflict. When you’re forced to intentionally place characters on opposite ends where their values and morals are in direct opposition, you can’t help but ensure that meaningful conflict will arise.

Truby also suggests extending the character web to elements in society larger than the individual such as families, institutions, tribes, etc.

Truby also brings up this concept of relativity and comparison when it comes to subplots. A subplot character has a specific function: to show us how someone else in the hero’s shoes handled his situation differently. The subplot is used as a point of comparison. The hero’s choices become more poignant when we see how it might have played out if he had made a different decision (for better or worse). Brian McDonald (the author of Invisible Ink) proposes a similar concept and calls the characters Clones.

The web is a tool of comparison and a tool of conflict. Truby also uses it when constructing story worlds as well as when laying out symbols.


Characters Drive Plot

Just as characters grow out of theme, plot grows out of characters. It's easy to see why this is. Plot is simply the events that occur as a result of characters chasing their desires. So naturally plot is a direct (or indirect) consequence of a character’s choices in their pursuit of their desire.

Plot, then, is also a byproduct of theme. This goes back to the concept of expressing the story’s theme through its structure. If the story’s characters are all expressions of its theme then naturally so is its plot.


Story World

The Story World is the simply the world (a term here used broadly) in which the story takes place. Truby goes on to define an Arena as the physical boundaries in which the drama takes place. At the end of the day, the action will necessarily take place in one or more particular areas in the story world (even if your story word spreads across galaxies).

We’re probably most all familiar with the concept of worldbuilding—the process of fleshing out the story world in which our story will take place. It’s easy to get immersed and lost in this process to the point where little writing actually gets done. Instead of building a world and then setting a story inside of it, Truby proposes building a story world in which all elements serve the story. The world is created as a physical expression and manifestation of the various elements of the characters.

Creating the world to serve as a physical expression of a character or a society paves be way for opportunity. A selfish, seedy character will have more than enough opportunity to express his moral weaknesses and decay in a similarly dark and seedy bar or cantina. Each character has a different environment in which their flaws, weaknesses, values, beliefs, skills, and needs are best on display. For example, what better place to show an emotionally lost, impatient, and anxious Luke Skywalker than in the middle of a remote dessert, forced to look on as the galaxy terms with opportunity and action?

Truby also stresses the importance of expressing characters through the visuals of the story world. He notes that as a storyteller you’re really speaking two languages to your audience: a language of words and a language of visuals. Keeping the visuals of the story world congruent with the journey of the characters helps ensure that comparison between characters plays out in the story world visuals just as it does in action and dialogue. If a character is undergoing a journey from slavery to freedom then the visuals of the world should express a similar feeling (unless, of course, you’re going for irony).

The technique of the web can again be utilized for your story world. Identify the oppositions between your characters in the character web. Then ensure that the physical locations of your story also allow for visual opposition or an expression of the opposition in character values.

Your story world must also perform another structurally important role. The story world must mirror the hero's development at each of the key stages of a story. The story world that corresponds with the hero's desire must provide a unique opportunity for the hero to express his goal. The story world of the opponent must make provide a uniquely suitable place for the opponent to exercise his ability to attack the hero's weakness. When all hope is lost and the hero is facing the whiff of death, the story world must reflect this desperation. And Truby suggests that the final battle of the story "should occur in the most confined place of the entire story."



You're probably noticing a pattern in that all of these elements seem to point back to the story's theme. Truby wants to include as many thematic elements as possible to ensure the theme of the story expands in the audiences mind over the course of the story and even after they’ve left the theatre or have stopped reading. He explains, “The more meaning you condense in the story, the more the story expands in the minds of the audience, with story elements mentally ricocheting against one another in almost infinite ways.”

With characters created as an expression of theme, the story world as an expression of characters, and plot a manifestation of character desire, it’s clear that every element  of the story is meant to be an expression of theme. Again, Truby’s intention here is to let the theme of the story be told through the structure of the story, rather than obtusely through the dialogue. The idea is to let the theme grow in the mind of the audience throughout the course of the film until it hits them like a load of bricks during the hero’s self-revelation, without the hero needing to utter a single word.



A symbol is the ultimate form of the “condenser/expander”. It’s a physically small or subtle thing whose significance becomes clearer over time, especially with repeated use. Truby refers to the technique of “refer and repeat”. A symbol is seen in the story, then see again in a slightly different context, then again, and again. The repetition in slightly different contexts or forms gives the audience hints about its importance and about its expression of an idea in the story.

Just like with characters, Truby recommends using be web to take advantage of comparison and opposition. Each symbol is at least partially defined by its contrast to other story symbols.

Symbols express characters and thus theme. Symbols can also be used to express values in society and thus theme. A character or place can be a symbol of a higher-order concept or institution.


The Plot

According to Truby, a story walks on two legs: "acting and learning." The hero acts, learns, readjusts, and then acts again. Each time the hero “learns”, he is having a revelation that helps him further understand the best way to go about getting his desire. Sometimes the revelation is that his current plan isn’t going to work, sometimes it’s about the true identity of his opponent, and sometimes it’s about what’s really at stake. After each revelation, the hero synthesizes the new information and adjusts as necessary in order to act to bring his desire closer.

A revelation is a “reveal” to the hero and usually the audience (and in some cases it’s a reveal to the audience but not the hero). John Truby notes that a good sequence of revelations over be course of a story must follow 3 rules:

  1. The order of the revelations must be logical. In other words, It must make sense that the revelations would occur in this order.

  2. The revelations must build in intensity (usually meaning that the impact of the revelations on the hero’s external or internal journey grows stronger and stronger).

  3. The revelations must come at an increasing pace.

The hero’s self-revelation is a special introspective revelation that occurs near the end of the story (if it occurs).


The 7 Elements of a Story

Truby distills a story down to 7 key elements that he argues every story must have. This includes any subplot that may exist within the main story.

These 7 elements are the basic components of the psychological process of growth (The 22 steps follow the same process but are more fleshed out).

  1. Weakness and Need

    • The hero has a flaw or a weakness. He does not recognize its existence at the beginning of the story. The hero's need is to overcome this flaw--a necessary step in order to attain his desire. In good stories, a hero has both a psychological and moral flaw. A psychological flaw is one that affects only the hero while a moral flaw is one that also affects others. Truby notes that the moral need "usually comes out of the psychological need. The character has a psychological weakness that leads him to take it out on others." It is only at the self-revelation that the hero overcomes his psychological and moral weakness.  The weakness and need are internal elements.

  2. Desire

    • The hero has a goal. This desire provides the backbone of the story and is the driver of the hero's actions. If the desire fundamentally changes at any time in the middle of the story (rather than just bending), you've started a new story. This desire is an external goal and the audience can definitively recognize whether it’s been won or lost at any point in time. The desire is an external story element.

  3. Opponent

    • Without a proper obstacle, there is nothing standing between the hero and his desire. Without an opponent there is nothing forcing growth. Without an opponent, there is no reason for the hero to correct his moral flaw.

    • The opponent is a necessary piece of the hero. The opponent exploits and attacks the hero in just the right way to cause the hero to reevaluate his approach to life. Without the opponent, the hero would not be forced to look inside. And in this way, the opponent is a catalyst for change.

    • Some writers create opponents that are inherently evil. An inherently evil opponent is immoral by nature, not out of flaws or wounds. An inherently immoral opponent is incapable of recognizing the error of his ways and thus incapable of a self-revelation. Truby lays out a more advanced technique called the "double reversal" where both the hero and the opponent learn from each other and both undergo a self-revelation.

  4. Plan

    • The hero creates a scheme to reach his goal given what he knows at the time. External revelations occur and obstacles arise, forcing him to update his plan along the way. The plan need not necessarily be laid out in detail. Sometimes the hero has only a rough idea of the general direction he needs to head in order to reach his desire.

  5. Battle

    • The battle is the final match up with the opponent and the forces of antagonism. It's where the hero and the opponent come to a head, use what they've learned along their respective journeys, and duke it out to determine who will exclusively win the goal.

    • It's worth mentioning that John Yorke believes that how a hero wins the battle is the storyteller's argument for the theme. Remember the Paradox of Animosity: "Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them." In other words, pick your enemies carefully because the way you fight those enemies is who you become. This is why the hero's actions become more and more immoral leading up to the battle. The hero stoops to the moral level of the opponent, even against ally protests. It's only at the battle that the hero can prove he has learned his lesson (during his self-revelation) and can fight a fair battle against the opponent. The way that the hero ultimately chooses to fight the opponent in the final battle demonstrates who he has become (whether for good or bad).

    • Regarding the battle, John Truby says "In the conflict of values, the audience sees clearly for the first time which way of acting and living is best." In other words, the battle is where we see the theme play out.

  6. Self-Revelation

    • The hero recognizes the error of his ways and comes to understand how his moral weakness has been negatively affecting others and preventing his own ability to reach his goal. In this moment, the hero meets his need and overcomes his psychological and moral weakness. Because the self-revelation stage is necessarily introspective, the hero must be intellectually and morally capable of having a self-revelation. Many times villains are written as inherently evil characters that are morally incapable of recognizing the error of their ways and thus are not capable of self-revelation.

    • In some stories, the hero does not have a self-revelation. In this case, the self-revelation is usually reserved for the audience. The audience understands, through context, that a revelation should have occurred and its absence is highlighted. Many times these stories are warnings about the dangers and implications of not overcoming a moral weakness.

  7. New Equilibrium

    • The hero has attained his goal, overcome his psychological and moral weakness, and is now, the theme would argue, a better person and more capable of living a more rewarding life. Or the hero has failed to attain his goal, failed to recognize his internal weakness, and serves as a cautionary tale to the rest of us.



Storytellers are given a lot of freedom. They can choose to retell any moment in any timeline in any location. And for that reason, storytellers must necessarily decide which bits of a set of events are important and which are not. John Truby notes: "Good storytelling doesn't just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the *essential* life, just the crucial thoughts and events."

The reality of a story is a sort of stripped-down, pure, hyper-reality that the storyteller has constructed to highlight the moments of desire, struggle, and change (the dramatic code). When you choose to include an element in a story, you are creating an implicit agreement with the audience that this element is significant to the story.


The 22 Steps

John Truby notes that while the minimum framework of a story need only contain the 7 key elements listed above, many fleshed out stories have far more elements. The following list contains the 22 stages and elements that are in some way a part of the process of a character seeking a goal and the psychology that goes along with it. Not every step is necessary (except for the key 7) and the order of the elements can be changed (with caution).

  1. Self-Revelation, Need, and Desire

    • Start your planning by determining the hero's desire, need, and self-revelation. By starting here, you'll know exactly how the story will end.

  2. Ghost and Story World

    • The "ghost" is the root cause of the hero's psychological and moral weakness. It's the thing that opened the wound in the hero. Many times the ghost is an event from the past but sometimes the "ghost event" occurs during the opening of the story. As a quick example, in Finding Nemo, Marlin's ghost from is the loss of his wife and children to a barracuda attack.

    • The story world is the environment in which the story takes place. See the previous description of the story world for how the story world should integrate with the characters.

  3. Weakness and Need

    • As mentioned before, the psychological weakness is the behavior that negatively affects the hero. The moral weakness is the behavior that negatively affects those around the hero and prevents the hero from attaining his desire (although the hero doesn't understand this). Truby notes that "the hero has one or more character flaws that are so serious they are ruining his life." The hero's moral need is the thing he needs to fulfill in order to overcome his moral weakness.

  4. Inciting Event

    • The inciting event is, easily enough, the event that incites the desire in the hero. It's the thing that plants the seed. It's the catalyst for the desire and consequently the external journey that the hero will take to reach that desire. Truby says, "The best inciting event is one that makes your hero think he has just overcome the crisis he has faced since the beginning of the story." Of course, the hero doesn't know that the inciting event and the journey that follows will get him into the worst trouble of his life. The inciting incident is some external happening that awakens something internal.

  5. Desire

    • As noted previously, the desire is the external goal that the hero chases throughout the course of the story. The desire cannot fundamentally change over the course of the story or else you've just glued together two separate stories. The desire must be readily identifiable by the audience to the point where they can tell you the moment that the hero attains the desire or fails to do so. In almost all cases, the hero cannot attain his desire until he overcomes his moral weakness.

  6. Ally or Allies

    • An ally is a character that will provide assistance to your hero throughout their journey. As we saw in the character web, the ally also helps to define your hero by contrast in their own unique approaches to life.

  7. Opponent and/or Mystery

    • The opponent is the character that wants the same desire as the hero (where only one character can attain the desire). Because of this fundamental, structural opposition, the hero and the opponent are guaranteed to come into contact over and over again as they both vie for the same goal.

  8. Fake-Ally Opponent

    • A fake-ally opponent character is a character that appears to be an ally (appearing to offer help to the hero) but later is discovered to be an opponent and working with the forces of antagonism. Not all stories have a fake-ally opponent.

  9. First Revelation and Decision: Changed Desire and Motive

    • At a certain point, there is a major reveal that alters the hero's plan. The new information usually bends the desire by either amplifying it or raising the stakes (not that the object of the desire does not fundamentally change). The hero's motive for seeking the desire, however, may change or may be amplified.

  10. Plan

    • The plan is the scheme the hero has come up with in order to reach his goal. This plan may be specific or general and it will most likely need to be altered over the course of the story as new revelations occur.

  11. Opponent's Plan and Main Counterattack

    • Since the opponent is also a desire-driven character, he has his own plan to attain the desire. The opponent usually goes about attaining the desire by trying to foil the hero at the same time as seeking the same desire. Sometimes the opponent's plan is revealed to the audience but not the hero. The plan of the opponent need not necessarily be revealed to the audience.

  12. Drive

    • The "drive" stage is usually the longest section of the plot. It consists of the actions that the hero takes as he enacts his plan and seeks his desire. As revelations occur and new information is discovered, the hero must adjust his plan and take new and different actions in order to reach his desire. Over the course of this drive, the hero's desire is growing stronger and stronger. Consequently, the hero is becoming more and more desperate to reach his desire and thus sometimes falls victim to the temptation to forgo his morality in order to fight the forces of antagonism. He sometimes feels that he must fight dirty in order to have a chance.

  13. Attack by ally

    • In the hero's desperation to reach his desire, he sometimes takes immoral actions or steps in order to fight the forces of antagonism and get closer to his desire. The hero justifies these actions to himself. At this point, the hero usually chimes in and criticizes the hero for his immoral actions. The ally recognizes that stooping to the opponent's level is not the answer to the hero's problems.

  14. Apparent Defeat / Victory

    • About two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the story, the hero is met with defeat. It feels like an absolute defeat where no hope is left. This is only an apparent defeat, however, and the hero will collect himself and try again.

    • In stories where the hero fails to reach his goal in the end, this stage is met by an apparent victory instead of an apparent defeat.

  15. Second Revelation and Decision: Obsessive Drive, Changed Desire and Motive

    • This stage brings about another fundamental revelation. The hero realizes that the apparent defeat was only temporary and that there's reason to have hope. This new reveal causes the hero to become even more obsessed with his desire and his obsession becomes absolute. 

  16. Audience Revelation

    • This stage is one of dramatic irony. The audience is given the upper hand and discovers a piece of information that is hidden to the hero. This is usually a revelation about the truth of the forces of antagonism. Sometimes that means their identity becomes known and sometimes it means the magnitude of their power becomes known.

  17. Third Revelation and Decision

    • A third revelation occurs which again forces the hero to update his plan to defeat the opponent and the forces of antagonism. As Truby notes, "This information makes the hero feel stronger and more determined to win because he can now see all that he's up against."

  18. Gate, Gauntlet, Visit to Death

    • First of all, Truby notes that this stage is the most movable of all of the stages. "For example, the hero may visit death during the apparent defeat. He may pass through the gauntlet during the final battle."

    • During this moment, the hero tastes death, whether physically, spiritually, professionally, romantically, etc. The hero is faced with the prospect (or the apparent reality) of the permanent loss of life or something he holds dear. This moment is usually about actual death.

    • In terms of the psychology of goal-seeking, Truby says "It is not your actual death that allows you to understand your life because you can finally see it whole. It is acting as if you will die that creates meaning by motivating you to make choices now. Finding meaning is an ongoing process of living."

  19. Battle

    • The battle is the final match-up between the hero and the opponent. It will determine who is the winner and who is the loser.

  20. Self-Revelation

    • The hero has an introspective self-revelation which causes him to realize the error of his ways and thus overcome his moral weakness.

  21. Moral Decision

    • The moral decision is a choice that the hero must make in order to demonstrate that he has truly learned his lesson and that the self-revelation has stuck. The hero must make the decision to live morally and take an action to demonstrate his new morality.

  22. New Equilibrium

    • The hero has synthesized his self-revelation and is now a morally superior character. If the hero did not overcome his moral weakness, he is a testament to the dangers of living immorally.


The Scene

The scene, of course, is the basic building block of a story. It's where the action happens. When all is said and done, the story actually occurs scene by scene. So the ability to write a great scene is fundamental to being able to write a great story.

Truby envisions a scene as an upside down triangle. He sees scenes as starting generally broad and continuously narrowing until they come to a point. That point is the purpose of the scene. He recommends that the final point of the scene be an important word or line of dialogue.

Every scene must be a good mini-story. This means that the scene must have all of the necessary elements to make a good story. There must be a protagonist (one who has a desire in the scene and drives the scene's plot forward) and there must be a force of antagonism. Note that the protagonist of the scene doesn't necessarily need to be the same hero as the hero of the overall story. There must be a problem, tension, complications, a plan, and a battle. There must also be a reveal or some new piece of information uncovered, though it need not necessarily be fundamentally significant.

One of Truby's most important points when it comes to conflict within scenes is that "great drama is not the product of two individuals butting heads; it is the product of the values and ideas of the individuals going into battle."

Truby diverges from traditional wisdom that all dialogue should be subtextual. He notes that subtext is "not always the best way to write the scene. … Subtext characters are usually afraid, in pain, or simply embarrassed to say what they really think or want." He advises that if we want maximum conflict then subtext should in fact not be used. Of course, there is inherent tension between the implicit difference in what someone says and what someone means. The audience can detect that gap.



According to Truby, there are three different types of dialogue.

  1. Story Dialogue

    • Story dialogue is about what's going on in the story. It's talk about what the characters are doing.

  2. Moral Dialogue

    • Moral dialogue is discussion about what's right and what's wrong. It's a discussion about how one should live one's life. In moral dialogue, values and opinions are most likely to be expressed.

  3. Key words, phrases, and taglines.

    • These are repeated phrases or words that are used by one or more characters. Like symbols, their meaning becomes clearer and more impactful with repeat use and changing context. The words and phrases become motifs of their own and carry more and more weight as they are used.


Truby underscores that if you've done your job right with the structure of the story, the dialogue can be a harmonious symphony and need not do any of the heavy lifting. Many writers try to force the dialogue to do the job that the structure is meant to do in imparting the theme of the story. This is the fundamental difference between a theme being told by a story (i.e. via dialogue) versus through a story (i.e. via structure).

You can learn more about John Truby and his software “Writer’s Studio” here.