In preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’m reading writing craft books to help me prepare for the treacherous journey of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. The first one on my list was The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Now that I’ve finished reading, I’m coming to y’all with a The Anatomy of Story review to let y’all know whether it’s worth your time.
Who is John Truby?
John Truby is a screenwriter and story consultant whose students have written movies like Scream, Sleepless in Seattle, and Shrek. As a lifetime Shrek stan, that sold me.
Even though The Anatomy of Story looks like a screenwriting book, it’s marketed to all writers. Here’s a little blurb from the back of the book:
“The foundations of story that he lays out are so fundamental that they are applicable and essential to all writers, from novelists and short-story writers to journalists, memoirists, and those interested in narrative nonfiction.”
It’s marketed as the end-all-be-all of storytelling. The question is: Did it live up to its own insanely high standards?
The Good: The Anatomy of Story Review
The Anatomy of Story has a lot of good information about storytelling that I probably will apply within my writing projects.
For example, I like how Truby goes about idea generation. On pages 19 & 20, he talks about coming up with a no-holds-bar wish list of things you would like to see in a book, on TV, in a movie, whatever. Then, to write a list of every premise you’ve ever thought of. Between the two lists, you could make connections between them and see patterns that could lead to an idea that interests you the most. I thought that was a dope way to think about it and I’ll probably try it in the future.
He brings up a four-point opposition that I liked, instead of having just one main character against one opponent. I also really liked the story world section. Truby goes into how setting, time, and technology can affect how an audience experiences the story.
I even found value in his extensive, 22-step plot structure.
A lot of Truby’s tips get the creative wheels turning. You just really have to dig for it.
The Not So Good: The Anatomy of Story Review
The book is Dense with a capital D. Its language reminds me of books and articles I used to read in college. They were overflowing with flowery language, five-dollar words, and obscure examples. As a result, you have to dig to understand what they’re talking about. Truby is that kind of writer.
Truby is very black and white in his approach to storytelling. He’s constantly saying if you don’t follow his instructions exactly, you’re not going to have a good story. Might as well swear your project to the bargain bin and spruce up your Razzie speech.
At the same time, Truby can be really vague. For example, I could not for the life of me figure out what he meant by the “designing principle.” He explains it multiple times on first reference (pg. 25) but all his definitions are vague. And then, he describes it as the “single most important factor in making your story original and effective.” How, Sway?
The book’s references were another problem. They’re outdated and nowhere near diverse. He also talks about the same movies over and over again. (If you’re planning on picking up this book, you should probably watch Tootsie, The Godfather, and Casablanca so you can have any semblance of what he’s talking about.
The references take up at least a third of the book. As someone who’s never seen any of these movies, that’s a lot of content that’s of no use to me.
From its references to its language, the content of this book is trying its hardest to be inaccessible to the general public.
Final Verdict: The Anatomy of Story review
This book is worth checking out and seeing if its teachings will work well for you. But, it’s not for every writer.
I came into this wanting a book that’ll inspire me to take on the blank page in November and write until the wheels fall off. This is not that.
It’ll be a good reference book to have once I start developmentally editing my novel. But, I would never follow Truby’s extensive, painfully detailed process to a T. I would be tired of my idea before I write the first words.
Also, you’ve got to remember that writing advice isn’t end-all-be-all (even though Truby may want you to believe otherwise). It’s all about picking and choosing what methods interest you. Don’t let the condescending tone of The Anatomy of Story push you into methods that you aren’t interested in.