The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (book review)

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby (Faber & Faber, 2007) is an excellent, in-depth look at the requirements of good fiction, whether told through literature, film, or theater.

Types of Fiction Story Lines

In the short first chapter, Truby describes different types of story lines: linear, meandering, spiral, branching and explosive. It’s interesting to read his list of examples for each and recognize how it fits – a learning experience in itself for writers to compare their own stories to.

Story Premise and Story Structure

The next two chapters are meaty, and can be read and re-read (and highlighted) as writers understand more and apply it to their own work.

The story premise is a single statement that contains the starting event, a sense of the main character, and the general outcome. Truby gives examples, then states, “One last reason you must have a good premise is that it’s the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based.” Writers can build characters and have great plot and dialogue, but if the premise isn’t strong, the story won’t succeed.

He follows that with more succinct insights, the steps to developing a story premise, and examples ranging from Beloved, The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman, to Citizen Kane, Star Wars and The Godfather.

The Anatomy of Story gives seven steps to a story’s structure:

1. Weakness and Need – every character has a weakness, and a need to meet to overcome that weakness.
2. Desire – his psychological and moral needs may be different from his desires.
3. Opponent – not just any opponent, but the right opponent.
4. Plan – the characters plan(s) to accomplish his desire.
5. Battle – the “punch-counterpunch” between hero and opponent, which may be physical or verbal.
6. Self-Revelation – not to be an instant epiphany, but actions should show the realization coming.
7. New Equilibrium – things are settled and the hero has either risen to a higher level, or fallen and is destroyed in some way.

These don’t fall easily into the traditional “three-act structure,” and aren’t necessarily following the steps of a “hero’s journey.” Instead, the story is built organically, starting from the premise. If done properly, the story will push itself to powerful originality.

Character, Theme, Setting, Plot, Scene

In further chapters of The Anatomy of Story, Truby gives an in-depth look at character, moral argument (theme), story world (setting), plot, and scene.

In the chapter on character, for instance, he discusses character archetypes, relationships to each other, building conflict with opposition between characters, character growth, etc. In the “Story World” chapter, Truby talks about designing a world (contemporary, historical, fantasy, etc.) to fit the character and the premise. He suggests finding the oppositions within the world, symbols, choosing physical elements, vehicles, cultural elements, and discusses how to connect these to the hero.

Each chapter includes a multitude of examples for the reader to see how the story-telling methods can be applied, and each chapter after the first ends with a set of focused exercises for writers to apply to their own stories.

While the chapters can be dipped into for nuggets of advice, the most learning will come from proceeding in order. There’s no point in having a great villain if the earlier foundation isn’t in place.

Which Writers will Benefit from The Anatomy of Story?

Unlike the ever-present “how to write a novel” books, The Anatomy of Story is not written for beginner writers. Truby’s methods go far beyond “every story must have a beginning, middle, and end,” or “give the protagonist a problem to solve.” There are no chapters on manuscript formatting, writing for a particular market, working with agents and editors, etc.

Truby assumes that his readers have a story they are already working on. Writers who have some short story or novel writing experience under their belts, or who at least have analyzed fiction to see what works and what doesn’t, will learn a great deal from Truby’s book. Writers with some experience and who have the beginnings (or a complete rough draft) of a novel to work with will benefit tremendously.

Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Jensen


The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (book review) — 1 Comment

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