I recently read The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby and now I understand story more deeply than if I had read for a thousand years.
I could never have afforded any kind of college or graduate level course in creative writing. And the few books I bought on the subject were mostly creative writing exercises. Which is fine. But I never stuck to them, never finished any of them.
The Anatomy of Story takes a different tack. Instead of giving writing prompts, instead of comparing the merits of short stories vs novels, it breaks down STORY.
Truby – and if you know anything about good writing you probably knew this stuff already – delves into the structure of stories: what works and why, what doesn’t and why, moral argument, theme, symbols…. so, so much. He breaks down all the elements of a good story, giving clear examples from cinema and literature, in an incredibly detailed way. It’s like an autopsy of story. Here’s the spine, heres the beating heart and over there, that’s the nerves With it you can build your own story. Without it there will always be something missing. It will only ever be hum-drum.
For example, Truby talks about the world as a reflection of the hero. I had never thought about it before, but in a good story the hero lives in a world that exacerbates his or her great weakness. Why do detectives and superheroes always live in densely-packed unforgiving cities? Why do the Ghostbusters also live in a city, but a much more friendly one (demon attacks notwithstanding)? One with gadgets and fireman poles to play with? In Mary Poppins, he points out, the house is a restrictive, unhappy place, reflective of the unhappy, rule-bound Mr. Banks. In Meet Me in St. Louis, the sad times of the family occur in Winter, with the happy ending coinciding with Spring, the time of joy and renewal. So much of the book was like this to me – I sort-of knew but couldn’t have explained it to you. Seeing each aspect laid clear helped me understand it more thoroughly.
(By the way, did that ever happen you you before? Did you ever “just know” something without really knowing it? I was never taught the passive voice in school, I just “sort-of knew it”. Then as an EFL teacher I was once tasked with teaching the passive voice. I was stumped! What even is the passive voice? When do we need it? Why do we need it? I had to research something I would have guessed I already knew. When writing I would have (mostly) written the passive voice at the appropriate time, but I couldn’t have told you how I knew. I had to do a lot of research for that lesson!)
Truby writes of the hero’s self-revelation and subsequent character change as pivotal to the whole story. Again – I’d never thought of it in such clear terms before. This change must be intertwined with the character’s desire and need (which are 2 separate things) or the story falls flat. These are the things that make a story believable, that make them seem REAL, even when they’re set in a fantasy world or the far distant future.
The hero herself must be the one person in the world who can do defeat the opponent, and your opponent has to be the one person in the world who is best able to attack the hero’s weaknesses. The conflict between the hero and opponent in pursuit of the same goal, but for different reasons, must bring about a moral change in your hero. That has been my biggest takeaway. It has been eye-opening for several of my stories. Once I have that relationship fixed I have an axis on which to spin my story. (Huzzah!)
With the tools contained in this wonderful book I can now analyse a story when I think it falls flat, or is missing something. It has helped me already with my own stories. One sprawling, complex story I have, that always gets away from me, seems manageable now. I can see at last where I need to step up. For example, the hero and the main opponent never met until the very end, and I see now that was causing the story to feel flat. In the same story my hero has her self-revelation early on, which is the reason it seemed to drag. Too early and you lose narrative drive. (Too late and you have a tragedy.) I can go over these structural elements now – now that I know they even ARE structural elements!
These aren’t strict rules, of course, and you are free to spin your story any way you see fit. Many stories have little to no plot. But even Ulysses, one of the hardest books in the world to read, follows many of the structural elements Truby describes. Even teen romances and kids adventure stories follow some of the elements. And I think knowing the elements gives you more to work with. You won’t paint yourself into a corner, story-wise. You’ll know just how to weave sub-plots in. You’ll find that these structural elements are just that – structure. A framework for story, plot, symbol, character, story world, moral argument, scenes and dialogue.
The book is subtitled 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, but until page 267 we are only allowed in on 7 of those steps. That’s quite the buildup. But I see why he did it. The first 268 pages we learn the structural elements. After, we learn how to put them together in 22 steps. The final two chapters discuss dialogue, and how to structure scenes and weave scenes together.
Also, I now have a long list of films to watch, that Truby used for illustration. He loves The Godfather (why do so many men revere The Godfather?) and The Usual Suspects, but I don’t know if I’ll ever watch those. (I’m not good with dark or graphic stories.) But he also loves Tootsie, which is now on my list. He says it is a perfect example of the 22 steps of storytelling. He likes The Great Gatsby, and I feel like my arm is finally twisted enough that I’ll sit through it. (In the past I have dismissed it as “poor whiny rich kids”. According to Truby, I am mistaken.) He loves Casablanca, a film I wish I had seen, but it has so far eluded me. He likes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I am already halfway through. Heart of Darkness and its modern equivalent Apocalypse Now. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Cherry Orchard. L.A. Confidential. Pleasantville, which I have seen already as by happy coincidence was a 99c rental last week. (Baby Tobey Maguire!) And Moonstruck. He references, of course, a great many more films and books, too many for me to ever get through. As the book was published in 2007 my only wish is to have an updated edition with more recent films for reference. The bulk of the films mentioned are from the 80’s and earlier, with a very few more recent ones, eg Finding Nemo from 2003 and Syriana from 2005. What I’d prefer is to sit in a room with Truby and watch him break down some of my favourite stories. But I suppose the point of the book is that I now have the tools to do it myself.
I loved so much about this book. I have made copious notes and will be returning to it often I am sure. The Anatomy of Story is the book to study if you cant afford a degree in creative writing. Even if you can, read this book. Your writing will be better for it.
Have you seen any of the films on my watchlist? Any more you care to recommend as sterling examples? Have you read The Anatomy of Story? What do you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.