John Truby wrote the well-respected “The Anatomy of Story: 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller” in 2007.
When I started my career, it was of the very first screenwriting books I had ever heard about.
You can purchase a copy of Truby’s book on Amazon or Kindle here.
As you guessed from the title, this book walks you through 22 steps that will turn your good story into a great one. So, let’s take a look at what Truby’s book can teach us and what those 22 steps are and mean for you as a screenwriter.
1. Self-Revelation, Need and Desire
The first step on Truby’s list is directly connected to your protagonist.
Your protagonist has a self-revelation that they want something different for themselves than what they currently have. Let’s say your character wants a promotion.
As you write your character, make sure to give them a need and a desire. Your character has a desire that might not be what he needs.
For example, your character’s desire might be to get this promotion, while what he or she truly needs and finds out through the story is love, something your character never let happen to him or her before.
2. Ghost and Story World
What Truby means by Ghost is your character’s back story. What keeps your protagonist up at night? What have they gone through? What haunts them to this day? That is your story’s Ghost.
The Story World is, simply put, the world that your character is in. In your script, you will have the ordinary world (before the inciting incident), the journey (that your protagonist will go on), and the new world (where we leave them off at the end of the movie).
3. Weakness and Need
When Truby talks about Weakness, what he truly means is flaws. What are your character’s flaws? What is one thing they keep on doing/one mistake they keep on repeating that is causing them to get stuck and not be able to live life to its fullest?
The need here simply means what the character needs to do in order to overcome this weakness.
4. The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is covered in this article on screenplay structure.
In Truby’s book, the Inciting Incident is, as we know it, a moment that happens to the Character and takes him or her out of his or her ordinary world.
As covered earlier in the first step, the desire is what the Character thinks they need. It’s not what they truly need. It’s the one thing that he or she wants/desires that he or she believes will make him happy. It can be a promotion, as we had stated earlier.
Often wise, this desire will grow throughout the story, but the character can never get quite to it.
Ultimately, his flaws stand in the way. But the character usually finds out what he or she truly needs (could be a love story or something non-related to his desire). And with what he or she learns through the journey is able to overcome his or her flaws and get what he or she truly needs.
6. Ally or Allies
Who are the characters surrounding the protagonist that have his or her back? These are the ones that will help the Character overcome his or her flaws or that will mentor the character on their journey. They can be a best friend, a co-worker, or even a love interest.
7. Opponent and/or mystery
The opponent is what I also call the antagonist. It’s the bad guy/gal.
Usually, the Opponent has the same desire as the protagonist does. It could be that the opponent also wants the promotion that our protagonist wants. Now your protagonist and the antagonist are fighting each other for it.
The dynamic between the protagonist and the opponent is the most important dynamic of your movie.
Truby also mentions mystery. That’s because your antagonist might not always be revealed early on in the story. Sometimes, your protagonist has to find out who he is truly against. That’s often the case in superhero movies.
I’d like to add that your antagonist is not always human. It can be a monster, a beast, a force of nature (hurricane, storm,…), etc.
8. Fake-Ally Opponent
Many movies showcase a fake-ally opponent. It’s usually a character that the protagonist trusts and confides in. And often, in the “All is Lost” moment, the character realizes that that trusted figure betrayed them, and it hurts the protagonist badly but allows him or her to grow.
9. First Revelation and Decision: Changed desire and motive
This is a moment where the protagonist learns new information and takes a new approach to things. This could be realizing that his ally is, in fact, a fake-ally, or it could be a new approach to how to get what he or she wants due to new information revealed to them.
10. The Plan
This is basically the protagonist’s plan to get what they want.
For example, your protagonist’s plan is to do a bunch of great things for their boss until their boss realizes that your protagonist is the only person for the job.
Usually, the protagonist has to try several times until they get it right. And they fail along the way until they change their strategy or realize that this is not what they truly need.
11. Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
Obviously, you’ve guessed it. The opponent will destroy or challenge this plan. It could be because they truly want the protagonist to fail or because they themselves have the same desire/plan. So, for example, the opponent might try to discredit the protagonist in the eye of the boss to get the promotion and make sure that the protagonist doesn’t get it.
So, we now know that your protagonist’s plan is to win the favor of the boss. But how? This is what the drive it Truby’s structure would be.
What cards will your protagonist play? Are they going to work overtime? Are they going to get their boss a signed copy of their favorite book? What will be the steps to achieve the plan?
13. Attack by Ally
This is the moment where your protagonist starts to lose their moral compass. And their true friend(s) call them out on it, which usually leads to a fight where the protagonist first continues or worsens until they realize that they were wrong and their friends were right. More often than not, they will apologize, and the ally or allies will forgive them.
This could be the protagonist starting to play a dirty game as well. The same dirty game that the opponent plays. The protagonist purposely sabotages the opponent’s work presentation leading to an embarrassing moment, or maybe the protagonist exposes something about the antagonist that is embarrassing. But the protagonist doing that leads his/her ally to be alerted.
Because of his/her ally/allies, the protagonist realizes he/she crossed a line and will not do this again. They get their moral compass back.
14. Apparent Defeat
This is the “All Is Lost” moment I mentioned earlier. It’s usually the lowest point in the story. Something happens that brings the protagonist down or ten steps back. It seems like there are no ways out of this and no ways for the protagonist to win and get what they desire.
But this is usually when the next step happens…
15. Second Revelation and Decision: Obsessive Drive, Changed Desire and Motive
The protagonist realizes something they’ve been doing wrong all along, and they decide to try one last time (this will be the successful time).
16. Audience Revelation
This is a moment in the story where the audience gets information that the protagonist doesn’t have. It’s a vital piece of information that changes everything but that the protagonist isn’t aware of yet.
It could be that the opponent was promised the promotion after the boss’ believes the accusations the opponent told them against the protagonist.
17.Third Revelation and Decision
The protagonist has all the new information that he or she needs to complete the circle. It means they know who the mystery opponent is if they hadn’t known until now, and they know that piece of information that the audience had that they didn’t have.
Now, the protagonist knows the full picture and all that is left for them to achieve their desire.
They are ready to go against the opponent, fully equipped with all the knowledge necessary.
18. Gate, Gauntlet, Visit to Death
The Protagonist is tested again. The tension between the Protagonist and the Opponent is at its highest.
The Protagonist battles the Antagonist. They are each fighting for their side, and it needs to be extremely clear by now which side they are on.
Usually, the subplot converges with the main plot at this point.
Maybe in our story, the protagonist uses the Christmas Party, where the Opponent will be named as the one who won the promotion, as a moment to try and expose the opponent.
But in doing so, the protagonist disappoints another co-worker (the love interest), and that co-worker leaves the party in a hurry.
The love story here would be our B Plot but also what the protagonist truly needs (love) versus what he/she desired (the promotion).
Someone wins the battle. It could be the protagonist (victory) or the antagonist (which results in a false defeat for the protagonist). It’s a false defeat because while the protagonist might not get the promotion, they will get what they truly need (love).
This is the moment after the epic battle, where the protagonist realizes something about themselves. Something deeper.
The protagonist realizes that what they truly need was not what they thought they wanted.
The Self-Revelation must be something meaningful. Like realizing that they’re about to miss out on love because of how obsessed they’ve been with this promotion.
But there is value in the journey the protagonist went on since it taught them all they needed to get to this moment of self-revelation.
21. Moral Decision
The protagonist acts on this newly learned information about themselves. This could mean our protagonist finding his or her love interest and telling them how he or she feels about them, which leads to a kiss.
22. New Equilibrium
This is the new normal. The place we leave our protagonist at.
We started with the ordinary world, got into the journey, and this now is the new normal.
It could mean our main character marring his/her love interest, and maybe the company he/she wanted a promotion at goes under.
The story doesn’t need to end in a happy place, but it needs to end with a clear understanding of what the new world is.
And that is it for John Truby’s 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller. These steps will definitely make your story stronger and give it more layers.
Now, these steps might not all work for your story, but I’m sure you can think of many stories that use a version of this John Truby story structure.
Happy Writing, one step at a time!