A Book and a Breakthrough

The Anatomy of Story Cover

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

I’ve already shared the books that kept me reading the last six months of 2017. (If you missed that post, you can read it here.) Of those twenty-five books, I knew I wanted to write a review for one fiction book and one non-fiction book, but I vacillated quite a bit while trying to decide which non-fiction book I wanted to talk about. I finally settled on The Anatomy of Story even though I know Truby’s book isn’t the most accessible or engaging non-fiction on my list. For example, Queen Bees and Wannabes would be much more applicable to the parents out there. It was a helpful and insightful read. Son of Hamas was fascinating. I learned so much about Israel and Palestine and the history of the conflict there, and the story was told in a gripping autobiographical account of a spy working for the Israelis. It was a non-fiction book that taught me a lot, but I was so engaged, I didn’t want to put it down. The memoir I Have Lived a Thousand Years was touching. I love books that make me cry, and I Have Lived was definitely one of those.

To be honest, of all the books I read this year, John Truby’s book was probably the most difficult for me to get through. It took forever to finish. It was so dense that I’d read one or two chapters and then have to put it down and read another book that was light and easy. Yet I always found that I’d finish the fluffy reads and then I’d go back to Truby and read another chapter. (It went on like this for months.) His book is very high level writing advice and his analysis of published work is so complex that I have to confess that a fair bit of it went completely over my head . . . there are pages in which I just couldn’t understand the points he was trying to make.

And yet . . . I had more aha-moments reading this book than any of the other writing books I’ve read in the last several years. And of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the only one that I’ve gone back to countless times to look something up. In fact, it’s earned itself a spot on my desk because I can’t be bothered to get up and walk three steps to my bookshelf to grab it when I need it.

I’ve read a lot of books on novel structure over the last couple years . . . so many that it seemed like all of the writing gurus were saying exactly the same thing . . . just using different language to say it in—different vocabulary to refer to the same steps on the hero’s journey and giving the same formula for structure but calling it something else.

[As a side note, it turns out I was right about this. Ingrid Sundberg’s website has a really incredible post which culls the information “from a variety of different sources, each of whom give arch plot design their own title (i.e. classic plot, the hero’s journey, etc.), but at its core they’re all talking about the same design.” Finding this link was another eureka moment for me. The graphic in the post is amazing and extremely helpful.]

Truby doesn’t do that, though. He doesn’t regurgitate the same formula with different vocabulary. In fact, he criticizes the traditional arch plot structure as being too rigid. Instead he recommends steps for creating what he calls an “organic” plot and then gives the caveat, “these steps are a powerful tool for writing but are not carved in stone. So be flexible when applying them. Every good story works through the steps in a slightly different order. You must find the order that works best for your unique plot and characters” (269). He also explains that some stories would have fewer than twenty-two steps, and others more.

I suspect that when I finish my book and analyze its structure, it will end up more or less following the main steps in the typical arch plot structure. I do confess that studying and trying to follow the arch plot structure taught me a lot about what a plot is meant to do. But what I loved about Truby is that his method doesn’t make me force-fit my story into a predetermined puzzle. I haven’t finished my book yet, and for all I know it may very well end up garbage a practice novel that sits in the drawer untouched for years (kind of like the last two I wrote), but I can honestly say that at least the process feels, like he says, organic rather than forced. And I like to think that in the end, my story will be better for that.

It’s not often that I read a book on writing, use it as reference so frequently, and still feel pretty confident that at some point I’ll probably read it again in its entirety. But I’m pretty sure that I’ll grow as a writer, learn more, and then I’ll read Truby’s book again and probably still have the same number of breakthroughs the next time through it.

It’s true . . . this book is not easy to get through. It’s dense. But I also think Truby is a genius. And this is the most helpful writing book I’ve read in a very, very long time.