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

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9780865479937: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

"If you're ready to graduate from the boy-meets-girl league of screenwriting, meet John Truby . . . [his lessons inspire] epiphanies that make you see the contours of your psyche as sharply as your script."
LA Weekly

John Truby is one of the most respected and sought-after story consultants in the film industry, and his students have gone on to pen some of Hollywood's most successful films, including Sleepless in Seattle, Scream, and Shrek. The Anatomy of Story is his long-awaited first book, and it shares all his secrets for writing a compelling script. Based on the lessons in his award-winning class, Great Screenwriting, The Anatomy of Story draws on a broad range of philosophy and mythology, offering fresh techniques and insightful anecdotes alongside Truby's own unique approach to building an effective, multifaceted narrative.

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About the Author:

John Truby is Hollywood's premier story consultant and founder of Truby's Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught screenwriting to students worldwide.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Anatomy of Story
CHAPTER 1 Story Space, Story Time EVERYONE CAN TELL a story. We do it every day. "You won't believe what happened at work." Or "Guess what I just did!" Or "A guy goes into a bar ..." We see, hear, read, and tell thousands of stories in our lives. The problem comes in telling a great story. If you want to become a master storyteller, and maybe even get paid to be one, you run up against tremendous obstacles. For one thing, showing the how and why of human life is a monumental job. You have to have a deep and precise understanding of the biggest, most complex subject there is. And then you have to be able to translate your understanding into a story. For most writers, that may be the biggest challenge of all. I want to be specific about the obstacles of story technique because that's the only way a writer can hope to overcome them. The first obstacle is the common terminology most writers use to think about story. 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. Let's be honest: they have no practical value for storytellers. Say you are writing a scene where your hero is hanging by his fingertips, seconds from falling to his death. Is that a progressive complication, a rising action, a denouement, or the opening scene of thestory? It may be none of them or all of them, but in any event, these terms don't tell you how to write the scene or whether to write it at all. The classic story terms suggest an even bigger obstacle to good technique: the very idea of what story is and how it works. As a storyteller in training, the first thing you probably did was read Aristotle's Poetics. I believe Aristotle was the greatest philosopher in history. But his thinking about story, while powerful, is surprisingly narrow, focused on a limited number of plots and genres. It is also extremely theoretical and difficult to put into actual practice, which is why most storytellers trying to learn the practical techniques of their craft from Aristotle leave empty-handed. If you are a screenwriter, you probably moved from Aristotle to a much simpler understanding of story called "three-act structure." This is also problematic, because three-act structure, albeit a lot easier to understand than Aristotle, is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong. Three-act theory says that every story for the screen has three "acts": the first act is the beginning, the second is the middle, and the third is the end. The first act is about thirty pages long. The third act is also about thirty pages long. And the second act runs to around sixty pages. And this three-act story supposedly has two or three "plot points" (whatever those are). Got that? Great. Now go and write a professional script. I'm simplifying this theory of story, but not by much. It should be obvious that such an elementary approach has even less practical value than Aristotle. But what's worse is that it promotes a view of story that is mechanical. The idea of an act break comes from the conventions of traditional theater, where we close the curtain to signal the end of an act. We don't need to do that in movies, novels, and short stories or even, for that matter, in many contemporary plays. In short, act breaks are external to the story. Three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic--where the story should or should not go. A mechanical view of story, like three-act theory, inevitably leads to episodic storytelling. An episodic story is a collection of pieces, like parts stored in a box. Events in the story stand out as discrete elements and don't connect or build steadily from beginning to end. The result is a story that moves the audience sporadically, if at all. Another obstacle to mastering storytelling has to do with the writingprocess. Just as many writers have a mechanical view of what a story is, they use a mechanical process for creating one. This is especially true of screenwriters whose mistaken notions of what makes a script salable lead them to write a script that is neither popular nor good. Screenwriters typically come up with a story idea that is a slight variation on a movie they saw six months previously. Then they apply a genre, like "detective," "love," or "action," and fill in the characters and plot beats (story events) that go with that form. The result: a hopelessly generic, formulaic story devoid of originality. In this book, I want to show you a better way. My goal is to explain how a great story works, along with the techniques needed to create one, so that you will have the best chance of writing a great story of your own. Some would argue that it's impossible to teach someone how to tell a great story. I believe it can be done, but it requires that we think and talk about story differently than in the past. In simplest terms, I'm going to lay out a practical poetics for storytellers 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 living body that develops • Treat storytelling as an exacting craft with precise techniques that will help you be successful, regardless of the medium or genre you choose • 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 The main challenge facing any storyteller is overcoming the contradiction between the first and second of these tasks. You construct a story from hundreds, even thousands, of elements using a vast array of techniques. Yet the story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way. In this sense we storytellers are a lot like athletes. A great athlete makes everything look easy, as though his body just naturally moves that way. But in fact he has so mastered the techniques of his sport that his technique has simply disappeared from view, and the audience sees only beauty. THE TELLER AND THE LISTENER Let's begin the process simply, with a one-line definition of a story: A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why. Notice we have three distinct elements: the teller, the listener, and the story that is told. The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience (they keep no score--the studios, networks, and publishing houses do that). The storyteller makes up characters and actions. He tells what happened, laying out a set of actions that have been completed in some way. Even if he tells the story in the present tense (as in playwriting or screenwriting), the storyteller is summing up all the events, so the listener feels that this is a single unit, the full story. But telling a story is not simply making up or remembering past events. Events are just descriptive. The storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments. These moments are so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. Good storytelling doesn't just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience's essential life too. Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices, and emotions that led the character to do what he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of knowledge--emotional knowledge--or what used to be known as wisdom, but they do it in a playful, entertaining way. As a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking the listener to figure it out. The author creates this puzzle in two major ways: he tells the audience certain information about a made-up character, and he withholds certain information. Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller's make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops. Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both. But you can see story forms that go to one extreme or the other, from sentimental melodrama to the most cerebral detective story. THE STORY There have been thousands, if not millions, of stories. So what makes each of them a story? What do all stories do? What is the storyteller both revealing to and hiding from the audience? KEY POINT: All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code. The dramatic code, embedded deep in the human psyche, is an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve. This code is also a process going on underneath every story. The storyteller hides this process beneath particular characters and actions. But the code of growth is what the audience ultimately takes from a good story. Let's look at the dramatic code in its simplest form. In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. The "story world" doesn't boil down to "I think, therefore I am" but rather "I want, therefore I am." Desire in all of its facets is what makes the world go around. It is what propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. A story tracks what a person wants, what he'll do to get it, and what costs he'll have to pay along the way. Once a character has a desire, the story "walks" on two "legs": acting and learning. A character pursuing a desire takes actions to get what he wants, and he learns new information about better ways to get it. Whenever he learns new information, he makes a decision and changes his course of action. All stories move in this way. But some story forms highlight one of these activities over the other. The genres that highlight taking action the most are myth and its later version, the action form. The genres that highlight learning the most are the detective story and the multiperspective drama. Any character who goes after a desire and is impeded is forced to struggle (otherwise the story is over). And that struggle makes him change. So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur. The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways: • Myth tends to show the widest character arc, from birth to death and from animal to divine. • Plays typically focus on the main character's moment of decision. • Film (especially American film) shows the small change a character might undergo by seeking a limited goal with great intensity. • Classic short stories usually track a few events that lead the character to gain a single important insight. • Serious novels typically depict how a person interacts and changes within an entire society or show the precise mental and emotional processes leading up to his change. • Television drama shows a number of characters in a minisociety struggling to change simultaneously. Drama is a code of maturity. The focal point is the moment of change, the impact, when a person breaks free of habits and weaknesses and ghosts from his past and transforms to a richer and fuller self. The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that's why people love it. KEY POINT: Stories don't show the audience the "real world"; they show the story world. The story world isn't a copy of life as it is. It's life as human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works. THE STORY BODY A great story describes human beings going through an organic process. But it is also a living body unto itself. Even the simplest children's story is made up of many parts, or subsystems, that connect with and feed off one another. Just as the human body is made up of the nervous system, the circulatory system, the skeleton, and so on, a story is made of subsystems like the characters, the plot, the revelations sequence, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave, and symphonic dialogue (all of which will be explained in upcoming chapters). We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin. KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements. No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements. STORY MOVEMENT To see how an organic story moves, let's look at nature. Like the storyteller, nature often connects elements in some kind of sequence. The following diagram shows a number of distinct elements that must be connected in time. Nature uses a few basic patterns (and a number of variations) to connect elements in a sequence, including linear, meandering, spiral, branching, and explosive.1 Storytellers use these same patterns, individually and in combination, to connect story events over time. The linear and explosive patterns are at the opposite extremes. The linear pattern has one thing happening after another on a straight-line path. Explosion has everything happening simultaneously. The meandering, spiral, and branching patterns are combinations of the linear and the explosive. Here's how these patterns work in stories. Linear Story The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end, like this: It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens. Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result. Meandering Story The meandering story follows a winding path without apparent direction. In nature, the meander is the form of rivers, snakes, and the brain: Myths like the Odyssey; comic journey stories like Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Big Man, and Flirting with Disaster; and many of Dickens's stories, such as David Copperfield, take the meandering form. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense; he covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way; and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society. Spiral Story A spiral is a path that circles inward to the center: In nature, spirals occur in cyclones, horns, and seashells. Thrillers like Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Memento typically favor the spiral, in which a characte...

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