REVIEW: THE ANATOMY OF STORY
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John Truby: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
– Nov. 4, 2023
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller is a method book for writing stories. Truby teaches screenplay writing, and you can smell that in the text, but the book is meant to apply to any medium. (And he uses films, novels, and plays as examples.) However, Truby makes a distinction: he is not going to talk about what constitutes a story in general, he is going to talk about what constitutes a "great" story (3). That is his aim: to show what makes for a "great" story, and how to get there.
How he does this, how he gives a method to making "great" stories, what makes his book interesting, is he is trying to generate a method to write organic stories as opposed to mechanical stories. Mechanical stories, stories created by mechanical means, and most stories are mechanical stories; mechanical stories, because of their nature, tend to be "episodic," "hopelessly generic, formulaic," and "devoid of originality." Organic stories, however, are "not a machine but a living body that develops," with "characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea" (4-5). They are internally as opposed to externally logical (84). In part, with mechanical stories he is talking about ideas like writing out of three- and five-act structure, and such methods as (though he does not say it directly) Save the Cat. (Or so I presume. I have not read Save the Cat, but what I have seen about it makes it sound mechanical and formulaic, not to mention a lot easier. And it must be recognized that his method predates that book.)
How Truby works his organic method is by starting small, from the inside, and working out. He begins with writing a premise then moves out through ten steps that include finding a design principle for the story, finding what challenges and problems exist at the start, what moral argument is being made, and finding who would be the logical main character. He did not start at the beginning of a plot structure, but with general ideas about the future text. He is trying to get you to grow the story, not mechanically lay it out like so many lengths of railroad track. Creating characters is not merely creating a list, it is creating a character web, where characters relate to each other and have influence on each other. When you generate the story world you are creating it out of the premise and what comes from the premise, not merely inserting characters into a pre-fab world. The approach is very interesting in what it is trying to accomplish.
Central to his method are the seven key steps that he says exist in every great story: weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, and new equilibrium. To Truby, every great story has those seven steps. Indeed, for Truby, every successful scene has those seven steps. To the end of story creation, they serve to generate a structure of the story not dependent on cause and effect. If you can get those seven steps into working order, you are ostensibly generating something organically interrelated. And, remember, everything must derive from the premise et al. It is all working outward. And it is not until you have a framework, a character web, a world, etc. that you finally get to writing a plot. That is generated out of the titular twenty-two step story structure.
There I had problems with his method. In part, it felt a little hand-waving that every "great" story followed those twenty-two steps. Second, ultimately, when you get to the twenty-two steps, you are applying a formula, even though Truby says that list of steps is greatly – and by necessity – flexible. I believe with the twenty-two steps he lost a small part of his bid for purely organic structure and created limits on what kind of story his method will generate. Now, that I do not believe Truby's assertion that every great story has his twenty-two story points does not mean that I think that by using his method you cannot get to a "great" story. It just means I do not believe he has wholly escaped formula. I accept that he is presenting a viable method; I do not accept that he is presenting something fundamental to the nature of the organic story. Too many stories break his mold.
For example, Truby is very heavy on the idea that the main character must experience change in the story, change that has implication both in the plot and in the story's moral sphere. I do not agree with that at all. Cinema is replete with stories that do not involve change. To say it is a necessity is pretty much say that every horror story – which is mostly not about change but about being put to a test – is by definition not a great story. Maybe Truby would say horror movies are inherently not "great." As a more specific example, I disagree with his continued stating that Star Wars involved change in Luke. Luke does not change until in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The whole plot involving Luke in Empire depends on that: he comes racing into the Cloud City firing from the hip and full of bravado just like in Star Wars – he has not changed at all, and for it he loses his hand and ends up hanging by an antenna. There is no character change in Star Wars, and yet it is a "great" movie. I would say it speaks that not every plot structure fits his seven and twenty-two points.
As well, too often I could think of counter examples to his points. For example, he says: "A purely evil opponent is someone who is inherently bad and therefore mechanical and uninteresting" (138). Yet, is not Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men "purely" evil? And many people consider that film to be among the Coen brothers' best. Truby's dictum is actually a very un-organic idea. (To say, I do not believe that movie involves change, either, and if it is considered by some a "great" movie, it can also be considered a "great" horror movie.)
It is to note that The Anatomy of Story is not universal in that it only applies to long form. It does not apply to short stories; and, many short stories – like Poe's stories – speak against his ideas – particularly as regards change. Which can be turned backwards to say if a great story – like "The Cask of Amontillado" – can work without following Truby's structure, then could you not write long form texts written on the same principles? In fact, I would argue that if you want to study organic form you study such as "The Cask of Amontillado," which are written to generate a single, unified effect. And you can speak of a lyric novel without speaking of structure in Truby's sense.
Which gets to my main criticism of The Anatomy of Story: I did not learn much from it; though, granted, I am not new to the idea of the organic text. Still, one would think a book about writing organic texts would teach out of the idea of the organic text in the abstract. This does not. It begins, ultimately, outside, in method, if one that is aimed toward generating organicism. And it does work to that end: You are, for example, asked to think the end as a microcosm of the whole. That is a good, organic idea. And Truby's method does seem a method that probably would work well to generating interesting stories, but it is not one that is universal to the idea of the organic story. Which is not to say I do not find his method interesting, and there is a part of me that would like to give it a try. While reading it I could not help but compare my present book project to its ideas. It is to say, however, it does have its limits. A far more interesting text, for me, would begin in the idea of the organic story and work backwards. But, The Anatomy of Story has its purpose: to present a method. And that is what it successfully does.