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172 of 180 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2007
I'm French and it's not easy for me to say in english simply this book is very important for the history of narration.

It's not a basic book about the three-act structure. It's not a "how to book" with a little formula and a couple of advice without interest for a real writer.

I'm a screenwriter in my country and I read a lot of books on writing - maybe hundred. Generally, it's always the same recipe again and again:
A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end; a main character with a goal, then plenty of obstacles in a middle, and a climax at the end, and so on.
OK, and after that?
You are in front of your blank page and...
Just theory!

With this book it's very different. There are many techniques (real techniques, practical techniques) and a real point of view about what the narration should be in general.

What's a story? How to write something clever - not only with "suspens", "mystery", or "action" - but with meaning!
How to develop your theme, your values, your moral, through your story, step by step.
How to write something with your voice, your unique voice, your emotion, your personality, and very important: your own structure!!!

I don't know if John Truby is a "guru" or something.
But I know John Truby is a great "essayist" on writing. John Truby knows his subject very well and you can feel it, page after page.

All serious writers should read this book, a French is telling you.

Good reading

Marc Herpoux
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356 of 385 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2007
Reviewed by C J Singh (Berkeley, California)


The publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) on the book’s jacket says: “John Truby is one of the most respected and sought-after story consultants…”

On page 5, Truby says, "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. I will show that a great story is organic -- not a machine but a loving body that develops; treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques; work through a writing process that is also organic meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea." Promising: organic story that grows "naturally out of your original story idea."

ORGANIC STORY is the core concept of Truby's master storytelling, lucidly emphasized throughout the book as story that's internally logical, arising out of characters' psychological and moral weaknesses or needs. The two kinds are differentiated as needs that hurt the character individually (psychological) and needs that hurt others in the story's world (moral).

In support, Truby presents back-engineered craft analyses of films and literary works. Films like “Tootsie,” “The Godfather,” "Casablanca," "Citizen Kane," “Cinema Paradiso," “Pride and Prejudice," “It’s a Wonderful Life.“ Literary Works Jane Austen's "Emma," Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Emily Bronte's "The Wuthering Heights," Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and James Joyce's "Ulysses."

On the opening page, Truby notes: "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. In fact, 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 -- including stories that present 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 in his book's subtitle.

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 -- he's an elegantly persuasive teacher.)

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 on amazon reviews: "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. Truby's major experience is as a story-development consultant. Very successful professional. And that's the focus of this book as well.

It's Truby's brilliantly illuminating analyses of craft in numerous screenplays, novellas, novels that make this a superb five-star book. As to the book's subtitle, "22-Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller," twenty-two steps portend micromanaging. I have not done the exercises yet.

I believe writing-craft books can help you learn the craft, not the art that raises a story to the "master" level. And Truby's book teaches the story-development craft that only an eminent story-doctor like him can teach. Highly recommended.

-- C J Singh

(After doing the exercises for structuring my short-story.)

The book sequences chapters on "techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story."

Premise: State your story idea in a single sentence. An excellent innovation by Truby is to write down your "Wish List" as Step 1 in developing your premise line: "A list of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater" (p 19).

Weakness and Need; Desire; Opponent; Plan; Battle; Self-Revelation; New Equilibrium.

Create characters from your premise, characters with psychological and moral needs. Psychological need is character’s wekness; Moral need is character’s weakness in relating to others. The four-way opposition in the character-web brilliantly explained.

Outline the theme or moral argument inherent in your premise. Excellent exercise.

Create the story world "as an outgrowth of your hero."

"We'll figure out a web of symbols that highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters, the story world, and the 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 it's micro-managing that'll hinder creativity. Not so. Actually doing these steps can facilitate discovering the organic form of the story as promised on page 15: "Using the twenty-two story structure steps, we will design a plot in which all the events are connected under the surface and build to a surprising but logically necessary ending."

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 "Pride and Prejudice," and "It's a Wonderful Life," Highly instructive exercise on using jumpcuts for screenwriters as well as novelists.

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 truly sophisticated story-development guide, applicable to writing screenplays, novels, novellas, and short stories. I am using it for planning short stories and, later, for a novel.

12 July 2014

Today, I heard a live 2-hour Webinar by John Truby and Leslie Lehr on structuring novels. In the opening thirty minutes, Truby presented a lucid overview of his acclaimed book THE ANATOMY OF STORY and explained the benefits and drawbacks of using multiple narrators in novels. Next, Leslie Lehr explained 15 different techniques used in contemporary novels to strengthen the benefits of multiple narrators. She began by citing her novel "Wife Goes On." Among the many other examples, she cited: Caroline Leavitt's "Is This Tomorrow," Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and Michael Cunningham's "Hours." The webinar included questions from the online audience and is a great complement to Truby's book.
-- c j singh
30 Aug 2015
John Truby and Leslie Lehr will be presenting their Novel Class in San Francisco on 19 September 2015.
Look for details at Truby's book will be the focus-text in the no-fee meetup "CreativeWritersBerkeley." (I started this meetup in Dec 2013.) Accessible at The eleven weekly Sunday meetings will be from 27 Sept. to 13 Dec 2015.
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110 of 116 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 15, 2007
This is easily one of my favorite writing books. Since other reviewers have taken this from a screenwriter's perpsective, I'm going to be different and come at from a novelist's.

So many books focus on fill-in-the-blank forms, checklists, and "hero's journey" archetypes (and its many variations), that you begin to feel like you're just spinning your wheels, piling up unconnected plot points and factoids about characters, but getting nowhere. It seems like you're doing all the right things, but somehow it's just not working.

What makes this book effective is its true emphasis on 'story.' Truby makes a sound case against relying on the 3-act theater paradigm for structure, including questioning its value for novelists - and he makes a good case. Abandoning that constraint opens up far more plotting possiblities to fill 250 to 400 pages. He also uses a variety of examples, from popular films to classic novels. Not being the hugest of movie buffs, I found that helpful.

His character-building gets away from the usual checklists and forms (those never really work for me), with a more organic, story role-based approach that makes you take a hard look at what significance each character has in your story, if the character's role needs revising to better fit that role, or even whether you need that character at all.

The emphasis on story means there's nothing really on page counts or screenplay formats or selling to Hollywood, so there's more grist in here for the novelist. Even if you're an experienced, published novelist, this book will give you a new way of looking at your current project.

I struggled haphazardly with a fiction project for over a year. This book helped me look at it in a new way so that I can finish it rather than abandon it. Now I feel it's getting back on track. "The Anatomy of Story" is a thick book, to be sure, but very readable, and it's a must-read.
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63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2012
Let's get something clear right up front: this book is worth your time if you're serious about the craft of screen writing. There is much solid information between its covers. What's absolutely maddening about it is the dumbed-down way in which it is presented. If ever there was a case where the advice to "take it with a grain of salt" applies, this is it.

One example: Truby lists seven key "steps" of story structure at the beginning of chapter 3. He describes them as the minimum number of steps for a story to be complete. The use of the word "steps" suggest that they are essential actions to be taken, in order, as part of some magic recipe of story construction. Indeed, he presents them as such. Novice writers, knowing his reputation and background, will dive right in expecting some sort of alchemy to shape their ideas into screenwriting brilliance. Here's the problem: they are NOT PRESscriptive instructions, they are DEscriptive observations. They are not steps to follow, in some secret writing algorithm that spins gold from chaff; they are ELEMENTS that many stories commonly yield under close observation.

Taken as such, they are valuable to understanding how stories work. As guideposts to use in developing your own ideas, they are worthy of study. But trying to reverse-engineer a new story from them is much more daunting, a fact Truby - unforgivably in my view - glosses over. Good writing is hard. Constructing a brilliant story is more than just a matter of working backward from a great example, or imitating the underlying logic of what has been known to work before. While doing these things can help, they are no substitute for the often painful process of actual creativity. Worse, they suggest limiting yourself in ways that could actually stunt your growth as a writer. Artistic limitations are good - they force a writer to overcome obstacles, exercising needed muscles in the process. The wrong kinds of limitations, though, can prevent you from seeing a unique path that may be worth taking.

That said, many of Truby's observations and much of his practical advice is quite sound. The chapters on character work provide clear guidance for developing an ensemble of unique personalities (what he calls a "character web") to support your protagonist(s). Material on plot elements, archetypes, and symbols is concise, written for maximum usability and minimum pontification. It would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

In sum, "The Anatomy of Story" is worth checking out of the library first, then purchasing if you find it worthy of keeping about as a reference. But don't take all its assertions at face value. There is gold to be found, but it requires some patience to pan out.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2007
Back in the Dark Ages, when cassette tapes were all the rage in after-hours education, I took Truby's "Story Structure" course, which featured the 22-Step Story Structure Method. The 22-Step tapes were very helpful, but this book is far and away superior.

For one thing, the 22-Steps don't appear until Page 267. From Page 1, Truby presents loads of practical information, all useful and necessary in building solid stories (screenplays or novels). By the time you reach the 22-Steps, you'll be thinking like a pro because the text is lavishly documented with the titles of movies that illustrate the points he's teaching. While I am chiefly interested in writing exciting action novels for middle-graders, studying his recommended films is easier than hunting down novels that illustrate his objectives. For instance, to see the difference between Need and Desire, he illustrates the differences with "Saving Private Ryan," "The Full Monty," "The Verdict," and other films.

John Truby also highlights Key Points in every section, for example: "Your Hero's true desire is what he wants in this story, not what he wants in life."

My bookcase groans under a load of craft books on writing! You can save money and bookshelf space by buying this fine book by John Truby and reading it carefully.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2011
I have hundreds of writing books. I went to college to be a writer and got my degree, but my attempts at writing novels based on what I had learned proved to be lacking. The fact was, that in my experience, colleges only taught you how to read and interpret classic prose, and not how to tell stories. So, less than a year out of school, I embarked on a journey to educate myself. I have spent hundreds of dollars on book after book, attended seminars, and online blogs. Everyone seemed to be telling me that a story hinges on either character or plot. But this balancing act seemed unnatural to me. I knew that there was more.

I purchased this book on a recomendation from one of my former teachers because this was the book he had wanted to teach from instead of the "approved" one. This book changed my entire way of understanding the structure of a story. The story wasn't a balancing act between the various threads but simply the outgrowth of a single unifying theme. This concept is thrown around in many different books but simply forgotten after a few sentences. This book teaches the truth. You come up with a theme. Then you choose characters who embody that theme. Then a plot that personifies it. Then a setting. Then symbols. The list goes on. And when everything is tied to that thread, the reader is left with a story that stays with them for years to come. And that, I what I want as a writer.

I would recommend this book to everyone who struggles to balance character and plot and is looking for a better way of weaving a story.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2012
I have spent a lot of money on screenwriting and novel writing books. I have had recommendations for books that were different, or foolproof; formula based, character based, plot based, etc. In my experience, the screenwriting books do it better than the novel writing ones, but it still takes some searching to find something really useful. I first used John Truby's book for a screenplay I was writing. I followed the first few chapters religiously and discovered I was solving problems I didn't even realize existed, creating deeper characters and stronger arcs all as part of the process. It wasn't formulaic and didn't give me a standard plot, but it did adhere to a few fundamental truths about story and character that cannot be ignored. As with any book, you need to use your brain and alter the rules to fit your story, but trust me, don't stray too far. It's very easy for someone to think that their character or story is "too good" or "above" the rules of conventional story telling but trust me, even the most obscure stories follow this basic format (if they are any good). It gives you relatable examples from a variety of movies, and the exercises are actually practical (none of the tired clichés such as "write about an experience you had where..." or "tell a story using these key words as a starting point"). All the exercises are specifically designed to help you develop YOUR story, not just any random plot.

Because of the success I had with this method, I used the book again for planning my novel. Now, with a novel there are a few changes that need to be made. More happens in a novel, and of course things like "the audience reveal" are generally strictly cinematic tools and don't translate well to literature. However, I found the same successes with it for novel writing. Same problems being solved, same richness added to the plot and character.

I would recommend this book to anyone writing something with plot. I bought this originally in paperback and purchased the kindle version so that I could just carry around my iPad. Use in conjunction with your favourite other texts (I like Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" beat sheet for pacing. I cross referenced this with my favourite novels from the genre I was writing in to find the appropriate pacing for the novel).

There is no such thing as a magic book that will make you a great writer, BUT if you have skills and a great idea, this will help you workshop and develop the idea to give you something you actually start writing.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2008
Truby's book treads the same ground as Robert McKee's STORY, but with less emphasis on aesthetics and theory and more attention to "what works." Truby gives concrete examples and solid explanation for every baby step of his process, and draws his examples from a few films that most people know or can easily rent (The Godfather, Tootsie, and Casablanca carry a large share of the load).

A review I read before purchasing the book made much of Truby's iconoclasm and his debunking of several cherished traditions such as "three-act structure." Well, yes, he questions them, but "debunking," attacking," and rejecting" are too harsh. He doesn't reject the idea(s) as much as offer expanded alternatives.

The best part of Truby's approach is that every idea relates to every other one: character, plot, setting, dialogue, etc. This builds a strong unified script (or novel) and makes for characters and stories with consistent depth. His writing exercises take the reader through the whole process in short clear steps. He even points out potential problems.

An excellent book for anyone who wants to write solid fiction.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2008
In this book John Truby presents us with a 400+ page distillation of his well-known screenwriting instruction, which lays out virtually everything you need to know to become a master storyteller. Not just a screenwriter...but a storyteller.

Truby's goal is to help you to write an organic movie that doesn't feel like something mechanically assembled from a list of first principles. To do this he walks you through all sorts of exercises designed basically to tease the story out of your logline and build it up naturally -- devising characters as natural expressions of the story, placing those characters in opposition via weakness, need and desire, and bringing the story to a climax that proceeds logically from all that's come before.

The book's a great way to flesh out an idea -- before you know it, you'll have a web of characters, a designing principle and moral argument, landscapes and symbols which express what you're trying to achieve, and a plot which follows the 22 steps.

The titular 22 steps are the 22 beats of the ideal movie plot. They are expanded from 7 more fundamental beats which chart the motion of any good story from beginning to end. It's a very useful paradigm, and will be enlightening to story neophytes and experts alike.

[Excerpted from our full review at StoryPros.]
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40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2010
I bought Truby's book because it seemed to overflow with a terrific step-by-step system for crafting a great story. Well, after trying to get through the book a few times, I can tell you that it certainly does overflow, and there certainly is a step-by-step system, but ... there's really no way to craft a great story with the impenetrably complex system in this book. Truby bangs you over the head with the SUPER-IMPORTANT warning that if you don't do all of his steps in order (and correctly: he helpfully points out that "9 out of 10 writers FAIL at writing a good premise." Thanks.) BEFORE starting to write, than your story will eventually crumble into a hopeless mess. But it dawned on me about halfway through the book that the stories he analyzes are already finished! He's telling you to do the work of an expert analyzer on a story that hasn't even been written yet!! (And I should mention that one of his examples is the story of Moses - it cracks me up to imagine the person writing down the Exodus story going through these 22 steps first.)
I felt a great sense of relief by putting this book down. I found it to be pretentious, and worrying about all those cryptic steps was paralyzing.
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