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March 30, 2008

book review: the anatomy of story

by sven at 1:15 am

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby (2007) is just about 420 pages long. I recommend the first 100... And then to skim the rest.

The core idea of the book is, in my opinion, a good one: In order to create a compelling story, don't simply sit down and start writing... Instead, construct a well-reasoned architecture of story structure -- and then progressively flesh it out.

Frustratingly, though, the book's title is deceptive. The "22 steps" are not steps in your own personal progress toward becoming a storyteller, as one might infer. Rather, the "22 steps" are moments that occur in an archetypal story -- steps that Truby believes your protagonist must go through during the course of their adventure.

And, frankly, these steps are no huge revelation. Here is the grand list:

  1. Self-revelation, need, and desire
  2. Ghost and story world
  3. Weakness and need
  4. Inciting event
  5. Desire
  6. Ally or allies
  7. Opponent and/or mystery
  8. Fake-ally opponent
  9. First revelation and decision: Changed desire and motive
  10. Plan
  11. Opponent's plan and main counterattack
  12. Drive
  13. Attack by ally
  14. Apparent defeat
  15. Second revelation and decision: Obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
  16. Audience revelation
  17. Third revelation and decision
  18. Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
  19. Battle
  20. Self-revelation
  21. Moral decision
  22. New equilibrium

If you understand what each of these steps in the protagonist's journey represents, how is that going to help you? Well, you can use them to inspire you -- the list might suggest scenes that you hadn't thought to write yet... Or it could be used as a check-list, so you can check to see if there's anything important that you might have left out of your outline...

But in general, I feel this list is too formulaic to be of much real use while actually generating a story. It's an editing tool -- and not a particularly sophisticated one, at that.


As I said at the beginning, the first hundred pages of the book are quite worthwhile, though. Here are a few of the insights that I thought were useful:

These ideas all occur in the first four chapters. Chapter 9 had another useful idea, "scene weave" -- an editing method, where you reduce the main action of each scene in your story down to a single sentence and review the sequence. [Throughout the book, Truby seems to be in love with the idea of boiling your various concepts down to single-sentence "mission statements."]

I had high hopes for the rest of the book... Chapters titled "Moral Argument," "Story World," "Symbol Web," and "Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue" all sounded quite promising -- but instead were painfully tedious.

For wide sections of this book, it is quite obvious that Truby had a book outline that he was working from... He dutifully fleshed out each section that was in his outline... But just because you think you ought to include a topic in your book, doesn't necessarily mean that you have anything insightful to say about it! In these areas of the book, there's no sense that even Truby is excited about what he has to say -- he becomes the most boring sort of lecturer.

Mechanically fleshing out an outline is perhaps a forgivable sin. Worse, though, is that Truby analyzes the same films over and over and over again. Instead of illuminating his ideas, it ultimately feels like Truby is padding his book with synopses.

In the penultimate chapter, pretense of analyzing the films seems to disappear entirely, and the discussion degenerates into mere film appreciation... With Truby heaping praise upon:

...And so on.

The author spends no time discussing more modest films, or looking at how to take a particular flawed script and improve it. The book blurb claims that Truby has taught his classes to more than "twenty thousand students worldwide." In my imagination, I see this man watching the same great films year after year, developing ever greater appreciation for them... But never writing an original script himself. How could an original work ever live up to the films he seems to worship?

I'm sure my fantasy of Truby is inaccurate and unfair. But I'll say for myself that at the end of the book I was genuinely mad at the author. He abandoned his task of guiding the writer who must generate new, imperfect material, and indulged in simply praising history's "perfect films."

If I'm going to stick with you for all 420 pages, you'd better make it worth my while!


Based on the form-factor and title of the book, I strongly suspect that the publishers want to create a feeling that "The Anatomy of Story" is the unofficial sequel to Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (1997).

I read McKee's book recently, and while I have minor criticisms about it, I feel that it is overall a fantastically clear book -- the first place I'd send anyone who's interested in constructing stories. It's 480 pages -- but it delivered just what it promised.

From what I gather, McKee's book has become something of a bible in Hollywood... I offer a mote of evidence, by quoting a critic of McKee, Mystery Man on Film:

"When people in the biz talk about character arcs, they are talking about a change to the inner nature as defined by the Grand Poobah of gurus whose obscenely invasive influence all throughout HW spans well over a decade now. Right or wrong, love it or hate it, we have to go by Robert McKee’s definition, unfortunately."

Given McKee's standing, it shouldn't be surprising that there will be other story consultants vying to be the next guru... But, in my opinion, after reading "The Anatomy of Story," I believe McKee's book should still be the primary text for aspiring story makers.

Truby's book is an interesting supplement to McKee. Both books share the same core philosophy, which is that story should begin with constructing a solid structure...

My hopes that Truby could build upon McKee's foundation, translating solid story analysis into a trustworthy method for story generation were largely disappointed, though.

posted by sven | March 30, 2008 1:15 AM | categories: writing