If you are an aspiring novelist or fiction writer, may I recommend a good how-to book? It’s not new, but it’s new to me.
John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story; 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller has been around since 2007. I’ve seen it recommended in other how-to writing books, but the “22 steps” part of the title put me off. And after reading the book and rereading parts, the “22 steps” still seem like a juggernaut to an aspiring novelist.
Yet the book is a masterpiece. Several points ring true.
- Every story must have a single pathway to its climax and end. Even stories with as many side steps as Homer’s Odyssey must lead the main character and reader toward a single goal.
- Every compelling story has one main character (hero) fighting along that pathway toward his or her goal.
- If the hero’s enemy is an abstraction (a company, a war or evil) the reader will engage more if that enemy can be embodied into a single human enemy such as Darth Vader or Voldemort.
- The main character must have a flaw to overcome by the end of the story. How he overcomes his flaw is the real story. Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort. But Harry is a meek eleven-year-old at his story’s start. How he overcomes his fears and grows into a man brave enough to defeat Voldemort is the real story.
- If the main character makes difficult moral choices (not just action choices) on his pathway, the story gains depth and the possibility of greatness.
One inclusion I particularly like is the many novels and movies which the author analyzes when he makes his various points. I have long known that I like The Godfather, Shane, Chinatown and Casablanca, but now I know why. It’s because these stories contain so many of the elements which Truby says are essential in great stories.
As for the 22 steps? Because so much else rings true in The Anatomy of Story, I accept that the 22 steps are necessary for a great novel. Nobody said writing a novel is easy, and Truby says writing a great novel is rare. But he has created a formula. If you are writing fiction, check it out.