Should You Read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Genres?

The Anatomy of Genres

If you’re looking for a different approach to genres, consider reading John Truby’s latest book, The Anatomy of Genres: How Story Forms Explain the Way the World Works..

John Truby’s 3 Storytelling Rules

Truby gave this simple definition:

“Story is a philosophy of life expressed through characters, plot, and emotion.”

He later added:

“Stories are maps of humanity.”

He cut to the chase with this statement:

“Once we understand that all of human life is a form of story, the next step becomes clear: genres are the portals to this world.”

The author cited three rules for successful storytelling today:

  1. The storytelling business is all about buying and selling genres.
  2. Popular stories today combine 3-4 genres.
  3. To rise above the crowd, the writer must transcend the primary genre.

The third rule hints at the potential value waiting to be discovered in Truby’s latest book.

Is this Book the Best on Genres?

Many Amazon reviewers believe Truby fulfilled his introductory promise:

“If you’ve picked up this book thinking you will be able to impress your friends at cocktail parties, congratulations, you’ve come to the right place.”

My take: You’ll find practical advice, but you’ll have to slog through his remarks to find them.

Before reading The Anatomy of Genres, I thought Robert McKee’s Story followed by Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid (supported by posts at storygrid.com) had explained genres thoroughly. To Truby’s credit, he added significant details based on his lifetime of screenwriting, giving writers value with spot-on examples of genre beats and implementation techniques.

Unfortunately, at 722 pages, Truby’s volume of commentary forces you to pan for the gold nuggets before you can apply that value to your writing.

Tiny Beats, Remarkable Results. A Proven Way To Structure Your Novel or Script!

The 14 genres detailed in Truby’s book give in-depth descriptions of the beats expected by audiences.

For example, the Detective Story and Thriller genre alone had 20 beats and dozens of related implementation techniques. The book described how you can “transcend” the primary genre by cherry-picking beats and techniques from other genres, and based on the book’s examples, I added the Horror and Myth genres to my study.

To make sense of Truby’s book in relationship to my work in progress and the three genres:

  • I created a spreadsheet that listed the Story Beats structure for my story’s 74 scenes.
  • Next, I marked how each scene intersected with the main plot and subplots.
    • M1: Murder Mystery (Main plot)
    • S1: Character Arc (Subplot 1: Character’s choice to pursue her calling)
    • S2: Bookend Story (Subplot 2: Prologue and Epilogue story)
    • S3: Community Conflicts (Subplot 3: Relatable small-town intrigue)
    • S4: Setting/Storyworld (Subplot 4: Rich texture and vision of storyworld)
  • Finally, I aligned Truby’s “genre beats” with my scenes to create writer’s actions and clarifying notes.

Results Example

Here’s one example of how you can apply Truby’s advice to your novel or script.

Story Beat

Wrangle
(Scene 12)

Genre Beat

Myth: Hero — Searcher (Stay or Go?)

Plot / Sub

M1; S1

Action & Notes

Truby’s Advice: You can transcend the Detective Story and Thriller genre by pairing with the Myth genre. For example, a hero like Jason searches for the Golden Fleece, but Odysseus searches for home.

Writer’s Action: In the process of the sleuth’s search to solve the mystery, foreshadow via her internal and external debate whether the main character will “stay” (not investigate) or ultimately “go” (find the meaning of life — her calling — through her efforts to identify the killer).

Clarifying Notes: The Myth hero’s search almost always takes her on a dangerous physical journey in which she must fight her way through the world. This struggle will highlight the meaning of her life.

A Small Investment Can Lead to a Giant Outcome

For the $13 Kindle Edition of The Anatomy of Genres, plus studying and applying the advice, I benefited from the near equivalent of a story-development edit.

The exercise produced:

  • Over 50 writer’s actions that will update two-thirds of the scenes.
  • Many “aha” moments (e.g., changes to characters, main plot, subplots, and themes).
  • Additional ideas on how this story could spawn a series.

Is The Anatomy of Genres Right for You?

No shortcuts in this book, and it requires effort to make actionable. For example, I had to separate Truby’s philosophical remarks (smelting slag) from his practical how-to advice (pure gold).

Conclusion

The Anatomy of Genres* will take its rightful place in my reference library, adding to the lessons learned from Truby’s The Anatomy of Story*, McKee’s Story* and Coyne’s Story Grid*.

To see if this book is right for you, check out the Amazon reviews and download a sample.

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If you bought a copy of Truby’s The Anatomy of Genres, what are your key takeaways?


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10 Comments

  1. You definitely intrigued me, Grant. I love investigating genres (as anyone knows who reads my blog) so this sounds well-aligned with my interests. Thanks for the intro.

    1. Mixing 3 genres requires rolling up the sleeves. I’ve got my wide-screen monitor filled with 3 windows: A. The scene in Scrivener; B. Customer Metadata Spreadsheet (fields and definitions for everything I want to see in the scene); C. Essential Beats for Story and Genre (the scene by scene “implementation list” that leverages what I learned from reading Truby’s book). It takes lots of work, but the effort is paying off big time.

  2. I thought Truby’s The Anatomy of Story was helpful but had a lot of verbosity to get through. It sounds like The Anatomy of Genres is the same way.

    1. Spot on, Priscilla! Yet the effort was worth it! You may find his take on the Horror Genre of interest.

      I treat Truby’s latest book like a haircut: first the rough cut, then the fine trim, and finally, the styling.

      Out of 722 pages, my notes would have filled about 15 pages in his book. But my takeaways serve as catalysts for story development, essential edits to 50 of 74 scenes.

      To be clear, I took the extra time to codify the lessons learned. First, in a spreadsheet. Then I embedded the Genre Beats in my Custom Metadata for Scrivener. This way I can use the lessons each time I fire up Scrivener for this series.

      Now, I’m working through my notes and changing each scene.

  3. I read Truby many years ago when I was first studying screenwriting, eventually mixing and matching what worked best for me. Hadn’t heard of this one, though.

    1. I read Truby’s books like I enjoy watermelon: eat the meat and spit out the seeds. You nailed it Mitch: mixing and matching what works best for each writer.

  4. 722 pages is intimidating, Grant. Kudos to you for panning for the gold and applying it. I really liked the 3 rules for success, particularly the recommendations to layer genres and provide something fresh. Some genres (like fantasy) are sooo broad that they can benefit from the structure of other genres to guide them and ground them. Sounds like a great read. 🙂 I wish it was shorter, though.

    1. Like a great tasting steak that’s a bit chewy, getting through the book takes some effort. Your point about fantasy would be a great reason to invest the time in reading Truby’s book. In my next post, I’ll show how I’m applying what I learned from Genres.

      1. Oh, you’re right about how helpful it would be to fantasy writers. Argh. I’m going to save it to my wishlist, so I don’t forget about it. 🙂

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