I read a lot of books about writing. Most of them are not very good. I’ve already done one post on the writing books I’ve read that actually taught me something. Today I add two more books to the pantheon: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller and Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. They are two very different books, but they complement each other well. One is great for story planning and the other is great for understanding the deep patterns of story telling.
Seven Basic Plots is a massive book, stretching 800 pages. It digs deep into the essential patterns that underpin all stories. In many ways, this book unearths monomyths, a la Joseph Campbell, but unlike Campbell, the author covers all kinds of stories from myths to fairy tales to modern screenplays and novels. This makes a big difference. It allows us to see the ancient patterns at work in our own times. The patterns he uncovers apply to all stories. They help you understand why you resonate with particular types of characters or particular story patterns over and over and again. More importantly, it explains why we tell stories. There is something intrinsic about these patterns, something that slices deep. The fact is we want to see the same types of stories again and again.
The author goes even further though, driving beyond the surface, elucidating aspects of story I’ve never seen before, in any other book. For instance, he talks about the Quest plot, a well known plot that some of our favorite stories conform to time and again. And yet, he is the first author that I have seen that shows the quest plot almost never ends with attainment of the object of the quest. Searching for the object only covers half of the story. The second half of the story is about keeping or maintaining or losing the object. Odysseus gets home and yet we have half the story left, as he puts his kingdom to rights. The rabbits in Watership Down make it to the new warren, only to have to defend it against invaders. These are the type of insights that flow from this book. On the surface that may seem simple, but breaking down stories to their most elemental buildings block is not simple at all. In another example of brilliant insight, the author outlines the four types of hero teams that accompany the hero on the quest. They are either a faceless mass, like in the Odyssey, humble and loyal, like Samwise in LOTR, opposites/antagonists, or a group of flawed, well drawn heroes that together make up a unified whole. You’ll think about what the author lays out. You’ll try to fight it. You’ll try to come up with examples that defy the pattern, but I’m betting you won’t find any of your favorite stories in the outliers. It’s funny how much we’re all programmed to like the same types of messages again and again. Embrace it. Don’t fight it.
Anatomy of a Story hits you differently. This is a series of action steps. I’ve seen a lot of outline books and I usually hate them with a passion. They have scene diagrams and trackers and methods of outlining that are not organic in the least. They are structures you impose on a story. The genius of this book is the incredible insight Truby brings to the table about stories. There is not one aspect of telling a story that he has not considered, from the most basic questions of how to form a premise, to creating a design that will hold that premise to naturally discovering the characters that spring from that premise. This is a plan for non-planners. This is a plan for planners. This is a way to really understand the design of a story. If Seven Basic Plots is about understanding the stories themselves and why you are attracted to them. Anatomy of a Story is about building them with a clear blueprint. Both are invaluable resources for new and skilled writers alike. I wish I’d read them a long time ago. I needed both of these books. My current story just went off the rails at some point and lost focus. As I work through these, I understand why. More importantly, I can fix it.