on 23 March 2013
First a quick note about me: I'm a ghost writer by profession with more than thirty-five novels under my belt at this point, some of which have done quite well. I need to understand the craft of writing to do my job, and this is as good a starting place as any.
I first read this at university, when I was working on one of my first novels. I liked Truby's emphasis on using the strength of the premise to keep other story elements such as plot, character, setting and so on coherent. I still find his seven basic structure steps quite useful when I'm in a hurry and if you're looking to learn how to approach structure in a formal way, this is a clear, straightforward, reasonably practical guide that offers a valid alternative to options like the Hero's Journey approach.
In terms of voice and presentation, I generally like the book. Most of what is here is quite clear, and most of it makes a certain amount of sense. Seemingly inevitably in this kind of structure book, Truby suggests that his approach is the only one that 'really' works, which is one of my pet hates, since people can and do produce beautiful works with all kinds of different approaches. More than that, I don't think anyone can ever really claim they're giving you a magic paint by numbers set with which to produce Old Masters.
So there are the usual general warnings with this sort of thing. Remember that when writers like this analyse stories and find their own system at their heart, you could just as easily turn around and find several others. Remember that an analysis of great storytelling does not necessarily equate to a guarrantee that by following those steps you will produce great work. Remember that like all books in this genre, this one is necessarily general. And remember that you can overdo it.
Having said that, I do like this book a lot, both because its approach is slightly less formulaic than some others, encouraging you to think about your story for yourself until at least the back end of it, and because it shows that there are other analyses out there beyond the standard ones.
on 26 August 2013
In understanding how the puzzle of storytelling works, others have managed to put many of the main pieces together. This book puts them ALL together. I haven't seen any other book or theory do this.
Some of the pieces include: premise, theme, plot, character, arc, symbols, dialogue. You may have just read those terms and thought to yourself "yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm familiar with those words", but it's likely that you along with most theorists have fallen at the first hurdle of not defining each word in a way that allows them as moving parts to fit together into a clear and integrated whole. A synchronised and beautifully-designed organism. For me, 'theme' has the most enlightening definition...
That's why his model is definitive. It is the ONLY comprehensive model out there.
Shouldn't that seem enough, Truby excels at tackling a huge puzzle piece that others are consistently vague about: genres (by the way, what I'm telling you now goes beyond the contents of this book). Genres aren't covered here because they overstretch the scope and length of the book. The way they work, however, is by taking the basic storytelling code (not formula) explored in this book and then by elaborating on or twisting certain 'beats' of the code to make that genre what it is. This is vital for your own originality, which is achieved first through gaining awareness of what might be derivative and why. All producers are looking for this. It's similar to knowing the basic structural elements common to all buildings, which can then allow you to create different types and variations of building. The 'beats' for each genre are sold separately - a good business decision by Truby - but if you are serious about seeing any film and understanding the full storytelling code, they are a must buy.
P.s. I have read virtually every criticism about the book, and am yet to find one that can't be easily rebutted. I would be more than willing to respond to any criticisms put forward or even about this review itself :)
on 9 September 2015
Reviewed by C J Singh (Berkeley, California)
THE CRAFT OF MASTER STORYTELLING
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)
The book sequences chapters on "techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story."
EXERCISE #1 (p 37): CREATE YOUR PREMISE.
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).
EXERCISE #2 (p 52): USE the SEVEN KEY STEPS of STORY STRUCTURE.
Weakness and Need; Desire; Opponent; Plan; Battle; Self-Revelation; New Equilibrium.
EXERCISE #3 (p 102): CREATE YOUR CHARACTERS.
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.
EXERCISE #4 (p 140): OUTLIINE THE MORAL ARGUMENT.
Outline the theme or moral argument inherent in your premise. Excellent exercise.
EXERCISE #5:(p 210) CREATE THE STORY WORLD.
Create the story world "as an outgrowth of your hero."
EXERCISE #6 (p 254): 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 (p 325): 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 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."
EXERCISE #8: (p 341) 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 "Pride and Prejudice," and "It's a Wonderful Life," Highly instructive exercise on using jumpcuts for screenwriters as well as novelists.
EXERCISE # 9: (p 416) 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 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.
ADDENDUM # 2
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
ADDENDUM # 3
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 trubywritersstudio.com. I've enrolled and will post my review here as the next addendum here.
Truby's book will be the focus-text in the no-fee meetup "CreativeWritersBerkeley." (I started this meetup in Dec 2013.) Accessible at www.meetup.com/CreativeWritersBerkeley. The ten weekly Sunday meetings will be from 27 Sept. to 6 Dec 2015.