A Top Novelist Explains How to Use “The Anatomy of Story” to Write Your Novel

By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

corkboardBehold, the outline to my next book: 

Since posting this image a few days ago, I’ve had a few fiction writer friends ask me how I ended up with just an overt outline. It looks very definitive up there, doesn’t it? Like I know what I’m doing or something (ha!). The truth is, thanks to a book called The Anatomy of Story, by a script-guru named John Truby, I actually do know a lot more what the next book is shaped like than I did only two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, this idea was a jumble of notes and rejected pages, a pile of characters and a daunting list of research.

I’ve learned that I write better, and have more fun doing it, if I have a roadmap. And using a roadmap like Truby’s, which offers up the reassurance that I can make my story stronger by thinking about all of its elements in a calculated way in advance of writing it, is particularly useful to me.  I find that because Truby is written for screenwriters, the book’s tone is very direct in a way that many books for fiction writers aren’t. Truby believes that there is a method to writing a good story, and that the method can be taught.  

Truby posits that good films (and he gives plenty of convincing examples) include most, if not all, of what he calls the “22 building blocks,” essential elements that keep a story strong. Truby is structured so that if you follow it from chapter one, by the end of it, you’ll have a detailed “scene weave” in hand (see: my trusty cork board), which he describes as “a list of every scene you believe will be in the final story,” based upon these 22 building blocks. Now, screenplays are much shorter than novels, so I adjust this final step to be not so much a concrete scene weave as a detailed description of each moment or beat that I know must happen in the story.

At the end of the given chapter, there is a worksheet, which reviews everything that chapter has covered, with plenty of questions and prompts. He fills out each worksheet himself, which I find to be very helpful when getting a hold of how my own work feels murky.

A few notes:

  • Don’t be fooled by the word “sheet” in worksheet; I often end up with twenty-five pages for each worksheet! But all this generated work and research into my project ends up coming in great use as I start to work on the novel, because I’ve already put in so much thought about the characters, the place, the ideas behind the story, etc.

  • What I like about accumulating so much work is the fact that Truby has me reiterate and revise and rethink elements over and over again. Premise, for example, is something he asks us to retype and reexamine in nearly every chapter, which means that I almost always end up honing and sharpening what my book is “about,” so that by the time I put together the outline, I have a much better idea about the central conceit of the story than if I’d only thought about it once.  

Worksheet 1 – What the Novel is Aboutbittersweet

Worksheet 1, at the end of Chapter Two, is where Truby invites us to state what the book is about. As a literary novelist, this was a radical idea- so much of what I’d learned before I started working with Truby was all about denying that there is such a thing as a single truth of “aboutness” when it comes to writing fiction. There are surely many novelists who write brilliant, perfectly crafted books without thinking about this. But I’ve learned that I’m not one of them!

By the end of Worksheet One, you’ll have stated your premise, brainstormed some strong ideas about what will happen in your story, outlined the basic conflict, and gotten a good idea of who your main character will be.

Worksheet 2 – Main Character’s Arc

Worksheet 2 will help you focus in on your main character’s arc, from their weaknesses and needs at the beginning, to the new equilibrium of the universe at the end. You’ll start to think about aligning your main character’s arc with the arc of the story, so that they’ll be working together, instead of at cross purposes.  

Worksheet 3 – Character Web

In Worksheet 3, you’ll get to know your protagonist much better. But you’ll do that by getting to know the other characters in the story too, including the antagonist (in my new novel, there’s more than one protagonist and more than one antagonist, so never fear if you don’t have such a black and white tale- the method can definitely be modified for your uses). You think about the Character Web, and how all the characters in your story can (and must) interact and illuminate each other.

Worksheet 4 – Deeper Moral System

Truby presupposes that every tale is about a deeper moral system, and that, as he puts it on page 109, “you, as the author, are making a moral argument through what your characters do in the plot.” By the end of Worksheet 4, I always have a much deeper sense of the moral arc of my tale, and a sense of how all my characters will be woven into this moral arc as they live through the story themselves.

Worksheet 5 – Story World

Truby wants you to think intentionally about the metaphors and symbols of place you’ll be employing- from seasons, to weather, to the landscape- and the degree to which they have a profound influence on the kind of story you want to tell.  In Worksheet 5, you look at much of the work you’ve already done through the lens of your Story World. This is the chapter where I usually end up feeling as though things are really falling into place.

By the time I get to the outline phase in a novel, round about Chapter Eight or so of Truby, I’ve already got a thick notebook of what I’ve discovered by working with him. Here’s what I know:

  • My premise- what my novel is “about,” specifically what its moral argument is, and how every moment/character in the novel works in consort with that argument

  • My characters- their weaknesses, their desires (what they think they want), their needs (what they need to learn), how they work in connection with all the other characters in the novel, and much more.

  • My setting- how place and time influences every major moment in the novel

  • My novel’s basic arc- who is battling whom for what, where they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and how it’s going to end.

See how much I didn’t know I knew? This is when I feel a little thrill! I didn’t know I knew so much, and I’m chomping at the bit to start writing.

I’m sure there will be parts of this outline that will change. That’s why it’s called an outline- not an immutable straitjacket. That’s why it’s on note cards (although I’ve transcribed what’s on them into a word document in case of apocalypse, I don’t think of that document as an unchangeable thing). What I have now is some help. The bravery to move forward with writing, because I know
where I’m going.
BittersweetMirandaBWMiranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of three novels: Bittersweet (Crown, May 13, 2014), The Effects of Light and Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont.  Bittersweet received A Starred Review from Kirkus –“Beverly-Whittemore has crafted a page-turner riddled with stubborn clues, a twisty plot and beguiling characters.”  Bittersweet was featured as the lead book review in People Magazine, garnered a rave in Entertainment Weekly (grade of A-), and is #3 on Entertainment Weekly‘s Must List for the week. 

Here is Miranda’s blog on her book process


About THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): anatomyofstory

“A comprehensive guide to writing stories of all kinds, Truby’s tome is invaluable to any writer looking to put an idea to paper.”

—Kristine Huntley/BOOKLIST

“Hollywood story consultant Truby commits his vast knowledge of screenwriting and storytelling to the page in this handy guide for aspiring writers of all types. Truby delves into the setup, from basic structure to the premise and the depth behind it. From there, he moves into character, emphasizing the importance of not only the hero but also the characters in the story who aid and oppose him. Truby illustrates the importance of setting to the story and how careful plotting is needed to weave the elements of the story together. He cautions that plot is not incidental and requires careful management and timely revelations. Although most of his examples are from movies…Truby also draws from novels and plays, and his advice is applicable not only to the hopeful screenwriter but to the aspiring novelist as well.”   

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