Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story”: A Closer Look

 : The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (Hardcover) by John Truby, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted November 13, 2007 (319 of 348 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews
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To date, several reviews have praised this book uncritically. This review takes a closer look. Truby presents excellent analyses/anatomies of numerous films and literary works. The book also includes some repackaged story-writing techniques. Several other earlier books, examples listed below, have explained these techniques succinctly.
On page 5, Truby writes: “My goal is to explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one…. I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.” Promising. He goes on to present very engaging analyses of films and literary works: films like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Hannah and her Sisters,” and “Lord of the Rings”; literary works like Jane Austen’s “Emma,” Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Emily Bronte’s “The Wuthering Heights,” Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”However, several of the techniques Truby presents — such as starting with a one-sentence premise, developing the story line from the premise, creating contrasting characters, weaving in the inside emotional story — are also the techniques in Lajos Egri’s clasic, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING; Syd Field’s pioneering book, SCREENPLAY, James N. Frey’s witty books, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL I & II; Linda Seger’s MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT; and Robert J Ray’s THE WEEKEND NOVELIST.
On the opening page, Truby says: “Terms like ‘rising action,’ ‘climax,’ ‘progressive complication,’ and ‘denouement,’ terms that go as far back as Aristotle, are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless.” And on the next page, “The three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic.” (On page 287, Truby trashes the three-act structure as “lousy plot with no chance of competing in the real world of professional screenwriting.”)
In the above quotes, the phrases “almost meaningless,” “nothing to do with its internal logic,” “lousy plot” sound strident. During drafting, structural guidelines do contribute — contribute interactively — form to content, content to form. Moreover, the classical three-act structure is invariably the audience’s psychological experience of conflict in any dramatic story: beginning, middle, end — even when the plot-design presents the conflict in a different order. Truby, I think, meant to say that citing the three-act structure is not one of the 22 steps touted in his book’s subtitle. Granted, simply citing the three-act structure wouldn’t be helpful. That would be like the king’s unhelpful advice to the white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s wondrous tale: “Begin at the beginning,” the king said, gravely, “go on to the end; then stop.” None of the craft books listed above just cite the three-act form and then say as Truby imputes: “Got that? Great. Now go and write a professional script”(p 4). The books listed above discuss premise, theme, character, characterization, goal, conflict and so on. Truby slipped into the straw-man fallacy here.

From the questions I asked the author at his reading this afternoon at Mrs. Dalloway’s, a Berkeley bookstore, I learned that he also markets a writing software, Truby Blockbuster, upgraded to match this book. (In his presentation, none of the above stridency — elegantly persuasive presenter.) At home, I looked up the amazon software-reviews of Truby Blockbuster. The software is expensive: three-hundred bucks upfront plus hundreds more for add-ons. One reviewer of Truby’s software, Razzi “the working screenwriter,” writes : “You have to take Truby’s ideas with the knowledge that Truby himself was never able to successfully apply them. His sole pro credit is as a tv writer on a series made over a decade ago. But that doesn’t stop Truby from pontificating on all the ‘mistakes’ made by writers far more successful than himself.” Well, well, Mr. Razzi: A craft teacher can be effective without being a high performer in the art. I feel that in fairness to Mr. Truby, we must not forget that Aristotle, the pioneering guru of the drama-writing craft in Western literature, did not write any drama.

It’s Truby’s brilliantly illuminating analyses of craft in numerous screenplays, novellas, novels that make this a five-star book. As to the book’s subtitle, “22-Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller,” I find “Master” as hype. But then is it not hype for academia to title the graduate degree conferred on apprentice writers “Master” of Fine Arts? [Stanford University, one of the two pioneering universities to offer a Creative Writing Program, dropped its MFA program years ago — I found this as I was about to apply for admission. Instead, I completed a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford.]

Writing-craft books can teach only the craft, not the art that raises a story to the “master” level. And Truby’s book teaches the story-development craft in a “masterly” manner. Highly recommended.

— C J Singh

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More details? Please read on.

The book sequences chapters on “techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story.” Nine of the ten chapters end with detailed exercisese book’s nine exercises are:

EXERCISE #1: CREATE YOUR PREMISE.
Premise: State your story idea in a single sentence. (Earlier books by authors such as Lajos Egri, Syd Field, James N. Frey, Robert J Ray also urge this as step one.)

EXERCISE #2: USE the SEVEN KEY STEPS of STORY STRUCTURE.
Weakness and need; Desire; Opponent; Plan; Battle; Self-Revelation; New Equilibrium. (These are repackaged concepts from Aristotle.)

EXERCISE #3: CREATE YOUR CHARACTERS.
Create characters from your premise. (Lajos Egri, Syd Field, Robert J Ray and others.)

EXERCISE #4: OUTLIINE THE MORAL ARGUMENT.
Outline the moral argument or theme inherent in your premise. Excellent exercise.

EXERCISE #5: CREATE THE STORY WORLD.
Create the story world “as an outgrowth of your hero.”

EXERCISE #6: CREATE A WEB OF SYMBOLS.
“We’ll figure out a web of symbols that highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters, the story world, and the plot.”

EXERCISE #7: CREATE YOUR PLOT.
Create your plot by following the 22 steps of the book’s subtitle. “The steps… provide the scaffolding you need” to create an organic story design. Truby presents persuasive analyses of “Casablanca,” “Tootsie,” and “The Godfather.” My initial reaction to this exercise was this is micro-managing that’ll hinder creativity. Truby’s suggestions to include four-corner opponents, fake-ally opponent, and fake-opponent ally help develop a dramatic plot.
It’s actually an excellent exercise.

EXERCISE #8: CREATE THE SCENE WEAVE.
To prepare for writing scenes, first: “Come up with a list of every scene in the story, with all the plotlines and themes woven into a tapestry.” Truby presents a brief example comparing scene weaves from an early and the final draft of “The Godfather” as well as fuller examples from “Prideand Prejudice,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” Highly instructive exercise on using jumpcuts for screenwriters as well as novelists.

EXERCISE # 9: SCENE CONSTRUCTION AND SYMPHONIC DIALOGUE
Construct “each scene so that it furthers the development of your hero. We’ll write dialogue that doesn’t just push the plot but has a symphonic quality, blending many instruments and levels at the same time.” The chapter includes instructive brief examples from “The Seven Samurai,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and a detailed example from “Casablanca.”

In sum, Truby’s THE ANATOMY OF STORY is a sophisticated story-development book, equally applicable to writing screenplays, novels, novellas, and short stories.

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