Writing Tips: How To Design and/or Craft An Outstanding Story 1

By Charles Opara

Here’s something I came across two years ago or so while reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s called the designing principle. The other terms you’ll need to be familiar with to fully grasp it, Although Mr. Truby did a marvellous job of explaining it, I’d rather quote parts of the book and break down parts of it in my own words rather than quote it in its entirety.


So let’s begin.


No surprise. Crafting a story is a systematic process, that means organised or structured. I’m talking rule book. I’m talking about not just writing by instinct, but about understanding what you want to write on and deciding how to tackle it.


The design principle is an abstract concept that you’ll have to come up with to decide how to tackle your story. Other terms like the premise line and theme line, which we’ll come across will help you understand your story.


I’ve chosen to focus on the designing principle because I think a lot of times we write by instinct. We know what we want to write on but because we have no design principle we pick the first thing that comes to us, which is usually the easiest way out. And this is usually leads to stories that don’t feel organic; it doesn’t answer the hows and whys, not convincingly.


Here’s John:


“The problem with telling a great story is you need to show the hows and the whys of human life. This means you have to have a deep and precise understanding of the biggest, most complex subject there is. And then you have to be able to translate your understanding into a story.


  1. Stories are organic. Unlike a machine, they develop like a living body.


  1. Storytelling is an exacting craft with precise techniques that lead to success, regardless of the medium or genre you choose.


  1. Characters and plots need to grow naturally out of the original story idea.


The main challenge facing the storyteller seems to be constructing a story from a vast array of techniques and making it feel organic. It must feel like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to be a great storyteller, you must master this technique to a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, even though you are the one making them act that way.


Simple Story Definition

A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.


There are three distinct elements from the above definition.

The teller

The listener

The story


Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices and emotions that led the character to do what he did.


Stories are really giving audiences a form of knowledge, emotional knowledge, but in a playful, entertaining way.


As a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking them to figure it out.


The author creates this puzzle in two major ways.


  1. He tells the audience certain information about a made-up character,


  1. and he withholds certain information.


When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, the story stops.


Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both.


Key Point: All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code, an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.”


Thank you, John.


Here’s what he has to say about the dramatic code.


“The dramatic code

In the dramatic code, change is fuelled by desire.

Desire is what makes the world go around. It is what propels all conscious living things and gives them direction.


A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.


Once a character has a desire, the story ‘walks’ on two ‘legs’, the legs being acting and learning.


Anyone who goes after a desire and is impeded is forced to struggle (take actions and learn from his actions). And that struggle makes him change (or grow).


The ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.”




Here’s John again.


“Each story has its own unique set of rules, or challenges, as well. These are particular problems that are deeply embedded in the idea, and you cannot escape them. Nor do you want to.


Most writers, if they identify the problems at all, do so after they’ve written the complete story. That’s fat-too late.


The trick is to learn how to spot inherent problems right at the premise line.”


What is the premise line? Well let’s ask John Truby:


“The premise line is your entire story condensed to a single sentence.

The premise line will suggest the essence of the story, and we will use that to figure out how to develop it so as to get the most out of the idea.”


Let’s look at Tootsie to see the difference between the premise line and the designing principle.


Premise line

When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.


Designing Principle

Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman. You’ll have to show in a structured way (through story scenes) how a male chauvinist is transformed. This will decide your plot. But


if you just start to write, you might not come up with Tootsie the classic.


How do you find the designing principle in your premise?


You find the designing principle by teasing it out of the simple one-line premise you have before you.


Don’t make the mistake most make. Instead of coming with a unique designing principle, they pick a genre and impose it on the premise and then force the story to hit the beats (events) typical of that genre. The result is mechanical, generic, unoriginal fiction.


There are many possible designing principles or forms that you can glean from your premise (the designing principle is neither one per idea nor is it fixed or predetermined) and by which you can develop your story.


Each gives you different possibilities of what to say, and each brings inherent problems that you must solve.



Step1. Write the premise line for the story you plan to write.


Step 2.

Look for What’s Possible


Let’s hear John:


“One of the biggest reasons writers fail at the premise stage is that they don’t know how to spot their story’s true potential. This takes experience as well as technique. What you’re looking for here is where the idea might go, how it might blossom. Don’t jump on a single possibility right away, even if it looks really good.


Key Point: Explore your options. The intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one.


One technique of doing this is to see if anything is promised by the idea. Some ideas generate certain expectations, things that must happen to satisfy the audience if this idea were to play out in a full story. These ‘promises’ can lead you to the best option for developing the idea.


A more valuable technique for seeing what’s possible in the idea is to ask yourself, “What if…?” The ‘what if’ question leads to two places: your story idea and your own mind. It helps you define what is allowed in the story and what is not. It also helps you explore your mind as it plays in this make-believe landscape.


The point here is to let your mind go free. Don’t censor or judge yourself.”


This post is already long enough. I’ll ‘see’ you in Part 2 of this series.

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