Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of writing craft books out there. Some are literary and a pleasure to read (Stephen King's On Writing, Jane Yolen's Take Joy). Others are purely practical instruction manuals, complete with graphs and exercises (James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel). By the way, I would highly recommend all of the above!

But I think it's hard to find The Right writing craft books, ones which speak to your individual thinking and writing style, and meet you at the stage where you need to be met.

So I'd like to share my thoughts on John Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. For me it was an incredibly useful read, and a book I look forward to keeping close by on my reference shelf. And hopefully my thoughts will help you know whether it might serve useful for your writing as well.

Firstly, to define genres, Truby is definitely in the "practical instruction manual" camp of craft books. As my writing friend Elisabeth (blogging at FictionForge; she reviewed The Anatomy of Story here) told me, if you like lists, you'll like Truby. That's it in a nutshell.

Truby breaks stories into different elements, plot, setting, character, etc., then dissects those elements further. For example, in his chapter on character, he breaks character types into hero, main opponent, second opponent, third opponent, ally, fake-ally opponent, fake-opponent ally (yes, those are two different things), and sub-plot characters.

Each chapter ends with a list of exercises, and an example of those exercises as shown in another story (frequently a classic movie; his favorites are The Godfather, Tootsie, and Casablanca).

Truby covers most aspects of a novel, plot, setting, character, theme, dialogue, symbol. And better yet, each chapter builds on the one before, so if you read through the book step by step, and do all of Truby's exercises, by the end you will have a thoroughly mapped out guide to your book. And not only that, but each element will be connected to each other element. Your characters' weaknesses will be intrinsically connected to their opponents' hopes, for example.

Nothing is simplistic about Truby's analysis, either. He takes much of what is organic and inherent in storytelling and spells it out explicitly. Frequently I found myself nodding at his directives, thinking I had done something similar in Project Demo, but never even realized I had done it. For example, here are some of his instructions on creating an opponent:

"Remember, the opponent should want the same thing as the hero. That means that the hero and the opponent must come into direct conflict throughout the story... The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold. By the way, don't think of the opponent as someone the hero hates. He may be, or he may not be. The opponent is simply the person on the other side. He can be a nicer person than the hero, more moral, or even the hero's lover or friend."

Good stuff, huh?

However, while Truby has an excellent understanding of storytelling, I have to say he's not the best writer in the world. At times his book was like reading a TV manual. Which is fine, if that's what you want, except sometimes (though infrequently) he skipped steps, and once he changed a term's name halfway through. He reminded me of a brilliant professor racing through a lecture, refusing to stop to take questions. Maddening, but okay, because after all, eventually we need to make our stories our own.

Truby encourages his readers to use The Anatomy of Story to initially create stories, and he walks you through developing an idea to writing a detailed, scene by scene outline. However, I used The Anatomy of Story at a rough point in Project Demo, and it was tremendously useful for helping me see the forest instead of the trees, and making sure my motivations, themes, and plot were all streamlined and consistent throughout.

I worry, for a pantser like me, that Truby might be too prescriptive for developing my next story. However, Project Demo has been such a mess, I could use a bit more order in my life. So I'm intending to re-read the book with my new project in mind. I doubt I'll get as far as a scene by scene outline. But if I could figure out a few basics before I dive into the writing, I think it could only be a good thing. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. I think it's so true, not just finding the right book, but finding the right book when you need it. I've had Truby's book on my shelves for a while now. I think it's time to pull it down and take a look. Thanks for shining a light on The Anatomy of Story, Anne!

  2. Andrea: Oh, I hope it's useful for you, too. I've been reading through Truby just this past week, and really been struck by how helpful his step by step approach to story development is.

    It is funny, isn't it, how we can have a book on our shelves, or even have read it, but if we weren't ready to learn from it, it wasn't useful.

  3. Wait, you're a pantser?! I don't think that ever registered on me. I would have had you pegged as a strict outline gal. Hmmm. . .

    I love lists, so I'm thinking I've got a craft book to pick up. Appreciate the tip.

    Eager to hear more about your Project Demo progress.

  4. Bridgette: Hah! Yes, a total pantser! I'm one of those weirdos who has a head like a sieve, constantly loses things, and forgets everything. And I make up for it by being an intense list and organizational freak. So maybe perhaps I masquerade as a plotter. ;) But we'll see if this time can go differently...

    Oh, glad I could give you the tip! And yes, will say more about Project Demo soon... for once I have so much to blog about!

  5. Interesting to hear your perspective. I just got a copy of this book last week, and I'm planning to use it as I start brainstorming my next project. I'm a panster at heart, too, but I've found that screenwriting books have really helped me make my plots stronger. Hopefully it'll work for us both!

  6. Ohhh, anxious to hear what you think of it, Anna! So far it's been really helpful to me, but I really am nervous figuring out too much before writing the story, so it's been a bit of a tug of war recently! Hope it works out well for you, too!


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