Monday, January 13

John Truby And The Anatomy Of Story

John Truby And The Anatomy Of Story

Yesterday I read John Truby's, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. I've had the book for ages, many people recommended it, but something was always more important than sitting down to study it. Or so I thought. 

Big mistake! 

Today I'm going to talk about John Truby's answer to the question: What is a story and what do we want it to do?

(Note: I was going to post the third and final part of my "Narrative Setting" series today. I will post that on Wednesday instead.)

What Stories Are

Imagine you're telling a story to a group of people. Truby writes that if the story you tell is a good story, two things will happen:

1. Your reader/listener will be emotionally enmeshed in the life of the protagonist.

In other words, a good story makes the reader identify with the protagonist. 

But, more than this, the reader will (ideally) be so caught up in the story they will experience her emotions, they will feel her both her happiness and her pain. This is what happens when we cry at the end of a sad story.

Truby writes that:

"[...] 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. [...]

"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. [Emphasis mine]"

2. Your reader/listener will be engaged in a verbal game you are playing.

Truby writes:

"The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience."


"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."

Why withholding information is important:

We've all heard this advice before: Don't overexplain! (Often there are several exclamation marks.) And it's great advice. But why

Why is overexplanation--and it's cousin, the premature information dump--such poison to a reader's enjoyment of a story?

Truby offers this cogent explanation:

"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."


These are the two main parts of story:

1. Feeling: Character Identification

Members of the audience--the audience as a whole--must feel as though (this is the goal) they have lived through the events of the story with the protagonist. This is part of character identification.

Truby holds that three things must happen for an audience to identify with a character. The audience must:

a. Understand the forces that led the protagonist to do what he does.
b. Understand the choices that led the protagonist to do what he does.
c. Understand the emotions that led the protagonist to do what he does.

2. Thinking: A verbal game or puzzle

We need to give the audience enough information about a character to identify with them, but withhold enough so that they are still curious, so that they want more."

We need to force the audience to:

a. Figure out who the character is.
b. Figure out what he is doing.

Change: The heart of story

Change lies at the heart of every story. 

What causes change? What inspires it? What drives it?

Truby writes:

"... change is fuelled by desire."

Desire 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."

"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."

"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."

The Climax Of A Story

At the end of a story we have the culminating event. This is what everything so far has let up to, all the character identification, all the verbal puzzles. Truby writes:

"The focal point [of a story] 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."

A word of caution

I agree with Truby that, generally, usually, the culmination of a story is that point--usually toward the end of the a story--it is that point of internal change, when the hero goes through an internal transformation.

That is, I agree with him to a point. I think it depends on the kind of story one wishes to write. 

Take Indiana Jones And Raiders of The Lost Ark as an example. The movie did very well at the box office and enjoys high reviews (for example, it ranks at 95% at

Indiana Jones didn't have a focal point. He didn't have a moment of change. He didn't have a transformation of any sort. At least, not that I could tell. (Perhaps, though, I enjoy the movie so much as an action tale I've missed it. That's possible.)

I'm sorry, I have to say this: The ark was the only arc in that movie!

(Sorry, couldn't resist. Won't happen again.)

I read somewhere that Raiders was intended to be a homage to the pulp heroes of the 40s and 50s, and pulp heroes, in general, didn't have character arcs. (At least, the few that I've read didn't.) That movie was just about being a terrific action tale and, of course, answering the question: What will happen if they open the ark?

Truby focuses on internal change--and so he should. I'm not arguing with that. 

Really, I'm not. 

I'm just pointing out that not all financially successful and well loved heroes have both an internal and an external arc. Some, like Indy in Raiders, only have an external one.

That's it! On Wednesday I'll finish up my three part series on narrative setting by talking about how setting can help build conflict. Also, at some point in the future I'll discuss Truby's Seven Key Structure Steps.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Ellipse" by Daniele Zedda under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Actually Indy does change. At the start of Raiders he has no belief in spiritual/higher power. During the early setup scene with Brody and the government agents, Indy dismisses the Ark's power as fantasy mumbo-jumbo. Yet at the end when he and Marion are tied up, he tells her to shut her eyes in order to be spared from the power of supernatural judgment.

    1. Thank you! That's an excellent point. You're right.


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