1The World as Story
Everything you need to know about life can be found in stories. Why? Stories define life. And the philosophies developed over the course of human history inform and respond to both. As a result, understanding the anatomy of a story is about much more than writing. It’s also about knowing how to live.
In these pages you will find in-depth discussions of the fourteen major story genres that give shape to human existence. You will learn how to write them—and how to live them—in a way that transcends the ordinary.
Genres are types of stories: Detective, Love, Action, Fantasy, or Science Fiction, for example. When we understand how genres work, and what they tell us, we can apply their lessons in writing as well as in life. For example, did you know:
Action is about being successful, not morally right.Myth represents a journey to understand oneself and gain immortality.Memoir is not about the past; it’s about creating your future.Fantasy is about finding the magic in the world and in ourselves to turn life into art.Detective fiction shows us how to think successfully by comparing different stories to learn what is true.Love stories reveal that happiness comes from mastering the moral act of loving another person.As we struggle to make sense of our place in the world, we think we have a clear grasp of the problems. But the problems we face today are based on how the world appears to work. Plato referred to these appearances as shadows. When we don’t understand how the world truly is—its deep structure—how can we fit into it?
The solution is to use stories as a model.
Story is innate to human beings. It’s how we learn. It’s how we process the world and how we find our place in it. If you understand story, you’ve got a framework for life.
Story has always been fundamental to passing information from one generation to another. Whether it’s oral storytelling around the fire or parables in the Bible, story is how we record and communicate life lessons.
The earliest hunter-gatherer societies understood the tremendous importance of story in their everyday lives. But as societies developed agriculture and technology advanced, a different mindset began to take over. Human lives became dominated by the work required to eat, and later to turn a profit. Once people started living in large enough groups, religions formed to give people ethical guidelines for how to live together. Stories were considered a means to that end.
This move from the primacy of story to an art practiced only by the lucky few is expressed in this famous comment by John Adams:
I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.1
This quote describes an “order of operations” that has been a fundamental tenet of Western societies for centuries, if not millennia. It shows up in the work of Aristotle, arguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time. I began my first book, The Anatomy of Story, with Aristotle, because he was the key figure who established our modern division of knowledge. He first wrote his Metaphysics and then, among other works, his Ethics and later his Poetics.
Since metaphysics is the study of first principles, this order makes perfect sense. Ethics is about how to live a moral life. Poetics is the theory and practice of storytelling. For Aristotle, that included exploring the main genres of his time: epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy.
A version of this hierarchy of knowledge is what we’re taught to this day. We’re told that math and science are essential for our future success, while painting, music, and theater are extracurricular activities. Stories are diversions, something to take our minds off our troubles after a long day. They are something a few creative people write, and even fewer get paid for, while the rest of us enjoy stories in our spare time.
Yet there’s a different way of looking at things. Stories don’t just serve as forms of entertainment; they encapsulate everything from the basic organizing principles of the world to how we should live our lives in it. In this sense, everything is about poetics.
KEY POINT: Seeing the world through the prism of story marks a revolutionary change in how we look at the world, and it’s the reverse of what we’ve been taught.
All the things we thought were bigger than story, like morality, culture, society, religion, sports, and war, are simply different kinds of stories. We humans are essentially storytelling animals.
Consider this quote from Richard Flanagan’s novel First Person (2018). Scam artist “Ziggy” Heidl explains the reason for his success:
I made it up. Every day, just like you. Like a writer … What do you think a businessman is? A politician? They’re sorcerers—they make things up. Stories are all that we have to hold us together. Religion, science, money—they’re all just stories.
Story is a philosophy of life expressed through characters, plot, and emotion. It shows life as art. That’s why stories are the universal building blocks of religion and always have been. Story transcends specific religions, each of which is a collection of stories about how to live an ethical life. We find these stories in the Old Testament (Judaism) and New Testament (Christianity), the Koran (Islam), the Upanishads (Hinduism), the I Ching (Confucianism), and many other texts. The universal religion of story is why the novels, television series, films, plays, and video games we encounter today define the culture of the secular world.
Storytelling influences every aspect of a person’s life. Consider how business runs through advertising. Everything we buy and sell is part of a story. Parenting is full of storytelling. We tell stories to our kids at bedtime. We tell stories to our teenagers to prevent them from doing drugs. And we need to be better storytellers than the others who try to influence them.
At work, we need to tell a compelling story to drum up business. A good story can determine whether we can pay the rent.
Politics uses story to exercise power. Adlai Stevenson once observed, “In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke’—but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, ‘Let us march.’”2 Turning words into action is the central distinction in communication.
KEY POINT: Stories are maps of humanity.
Why have some ancient myths endured for centuries? They’re not just entertainment; they’re instructional. First, they explain the physical world. For example, the story of Persephone and why we have winter. Do we still think the seasons work that way? No, but it helps us to make peace with colder days and longer nights.
Myths also give us social structures. An epic is classically defined as the story of an individual or family whose actions determine the fate of a nation. Homer’s epic poem the Iliad shows how monarchical rule combined with personal alliances and jealousies caused a ten-year war that destroyed everyone caught in its grinding slaughter.
KEY POINT: If human life is poetics, the knowledge we get from story is the greatest knowledge of all.
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.
Each of the various genres—Detective, Love, Fantasy, and the like—is a unique window onto how a particular aspect of the world works and how best to confront it. Writers have a unique perspective because it’s their job to think in terms of different worlds and deeper structures. If they want to write stories that will achieve critical and popular success, they need to consider elements such as morality and point of view. Morality refers to how a character’s actions affect others. That’s why, in the Crime chapter, we discuss the moral code of both the hero and their opponent. While all stories require a point of view, the Detective genre explores the way this fact variously limits and empowers the human mind.
The purpose of this book is to reveal to the world the deep structures of story and genre. That’s why this book can be read on two levels. The first provides specific, technical information about how to write great stories that sell. The second explores philosophical issues with the kind of X-ray vision that can enrich and change everyone’s life.
Rules of Play
The only way a writer can be successful in any medium is to play by the three unwritten rules that define storytelling today.
The Storytelling Business Is All About Buying and Selling Genres.
Genres are far more than types of stories. They are the all-stars of the story world that have achieved immense popular success over centuries. Writers who want to succeed professionally must write the stories the business wants to buy. Simply put, the storytelling game is won by mastering the structure of genres.
Each major genre has fifteen to twenty specialized “beats,” or key plot events, that determine that form. These plot beats have more to do with the success of a story than any other element by far.
These beats are also why people choose to read or watch a particular genre again and again. If these classic plot beats are not present, the story will not be popular. Period. For example, a Love story without the “first dance” beat will have Love story fanatics up in arms.
Genres Are Story Systems
At the professional level, the game is won or lost by how well the writer executes their particular genre. This is a major challenge. Many writers believe they can master their genre simply by tossing in a few “tropes” of the form. A trope is an individual story element such as a character, a plot device, a theme in variation, a recurring image, or even a tagline of dialogue. The best authors understand that tropes are just the sprinkles on top. The real mechanism for a compelling bestseller is the structure beneath the tropes.
The genre beats connect under the surface to form an entire story system that expresses a unique philosophy of life. Each beat is effective because it has been set up as part of a deeper structure through which the writer is leading the audience. The sequence of plot beats is what knocks the audience out.
KEY POINT: You have to hit all the plot beats of the particular genre(s) you’ve chosen.
Each genre uses a specific strategy to express its philosophy. The great architect Louis Sullivan referred to this as “form follows function.” Philosophically speaking, genres are the Platonic forms, the structures beneath the “shadows” that truly explain our lives. Every story presents a particular challenge; the genre provides the structure for solving it.
KEY POINT: The main function of the genre beats is to express the unique theme/life philosophy of that form.
The Never-Ending Diversity of Genres
Story has evolved and diversified over thousands of years. Genres are the product of various influences: the human mind, the nature of the medium (novel, film, or television), and the particular culture where the genre first developed.
Depending on how one classifies genres, there could be six, seven, thirty-two, hundreds, or even thousands. Here, we will work through what I believe to be the fourteen most influential of them.
KEY POINT: The fourteen major genres in this book, alone or in combination, compose 99 percent of storytelling forms today, including novels, film, television, plays, and video games.
The fourteen major genres are: Horror, Action, Myth, Memoir, Coming-of-Age, Science Fiction, Crime, Comedy, Western, Gangster, Fantasy, Thriller, Detective, and Love. Note: the order of presentation is critical.
Many of these genres cluster into families that share certain characteristics: Myth (Myth, Action, Western), Crime (Detective, Crime, Thriller, Gangster), and Speculative Fiction (Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy).
Each of the fourteen major genres can be broken down into subgenres, and we will discuss the most important. For example, the Caper (Heist) story is a popular form of Action and Crime. These subgenres diversify into hundreds of sub-subgenres, but the main beats are the same.
KEY POINT: Writers should know how all the major genres work.
Why? First, having some knowledge of all the forms helps you write your specific genre better. Second, you can combine genres in a way the world hasn’t yet seen. This increases your odds of success.
Popular Stories Today Combine 3–4 Genres.
Mastering one genre used to be enough. No longer. The problem with that strategy is that there are few stories today limited to a single form. Instead, most stories are a combination of two, three, or even four genres.
Mixing genres is how the game is played in every medium, no matter how smart you are, how hard you work, who you know, or how you market your work. The storytelling strategy of mixing genres has been responsible for the success of hit movies and bestselling books since George Lucas used it in Star Wars.
Imagine, if you can, a pre–Star Wars world. In the summer of 1975, Jaws was released in movie theaters throughout America. This realistic Horror story was based on a bestselling book. When Jaws turned out to be a monster hit, the film industry saw that the game went beyond the U.S. market. It was now about worldwide box office.
What was Jaws’ storytelling strategy? A single genre done extremely well. Then, in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope hit theaters. There was a paradigm shift in popular storytelling strategy.
My Star Wars Epiphany
Let me tell you about the revelation that changed my writing life. I was sitting in a packed theater munching on popcorn. Then a massive space battleship came over the top of my head. I stopped eating and gasped, as did everyone else in the audience. That moment had such grandeur and power that everybody there knew we were in for the ride of our lives.
Surely, this is where the expression “blown away” was born. Yes, I was watching Star Wars for the first time. And while it played, the strangest thing happened. I experienced a feeling of pure delight. In 95 percent of stories, I could predict what would happen three beats ahead. But not with Star Wars. Here was one story beat after another I didn’t see coming. This was nonstop excitement.
Better yet, these beats were coming at top speed. I was totally overwhelmed. The recognition began to dawn on me about what was really happening. I began to understand what writer-director George Lucas was doing under the surface.
This was obviously a Fantasy in outer space, which meant elements of Science Fiction. But that wasn’t all. I loved the classic Western, but it had long since died. Now I was seeing all the Western beats in outer space. It was wild! And who doesn’t love King Arthur, one of the great Myth stories? I noticed some of those beats as well.
Ever wonder where all those ever-popular lightsabers came from? They’re from the samurai movie, a subgenre of Action. Since college, I’d been a big fan of Japanese films like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.
As a result, the plot was dense. And instead of getting the beats of one genre, like Fantasy, we were getting beats of Science Fiction, Myth, and Action, in rapid-fire succession.
KEY POINT: Star Wars was exciting because the writer was weaving beats from multiple genres in a single movie.
A revolution for writers unfolded right in front of my eyes. BSW (Before Star Wars), it was a single-genre story world. ASW (After Star Wars), Hollywood knew we were in a multigenre universe. Popular stories from then on were going to be all about mixing genres.
In the last twenty years, this has only intensified. Giving the audience more “story” for their hard-earned dollars has been one of the major trends in worldwide storytelling in every medium.
As important as this strategy is, mixing genres is tougher than it looks. Combining the beats of every genre can create chaos. Sometimes the beat from one genre will prevent the writer from being able to use the beat from another. The trick lies in how you combine the beats and which beats you choose.
Copyright © 2022 by John Truby