The Anatomy of Genres: How Story Forms Explain the Way the World Works (2022)
Review by John Fraim
Spartacus Love Theme
After the beginning of laying a three-act structure in Syd Field’s Screenplay (1979), the remainder of the 20th century was spent firming up structure, foundation and principles of screenwriting. The last decade of the 20th century saw key books on principles of screenwriting like Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 (1993), David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible (1994) and John McKees Story (1997). This category of screenwriting books was like the Swiss Army knives version of screenwriting covering all aspects of screenwriting single volumes.
Perhaps the major change in screenwriting books since then has been the increasing segmentation of screenwriting books into various niches. There were books like Claudia Hunter Johnson’s Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect(2000), Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure (2007) and Drew Yanno’s The Third Act (2016). The number of screenwriting books increased at such an alarming rate. It saddened me in a way I didn’t realize at the time but something I later realized in the field of marketing I worked in called market segmentation. The segmentation was not unusual for the evolution of an industry. But in the screenwriting and story creation industry … segmentation in this industry seemed to occur much faster than in other areas of the industry.
One of the major niches to develop during the past fifteen years has been the approach to screenwriting created around what might be called the genre approach. First of all, one might define genre as a category of screenplay (or literary work) characterized by style, form or content. I visualize a story genre as a magnetized group of symbols pulled together into a story form based on key archetypes within the author’s collective consciousness. At a particular time.
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But then, that’s just my way of viewing a genre of story. It’s a very personal and unique thing. That is, the genre of one’s own story they place themselves in. Or, the genre one wants to become in life. Or the genre one wants to escape from. Or, the genre our enemies usually come from. And, the genre our friends and lovers come from. There are so many questions about this mysterious invisible story form forming the context of stories called genres. The greatest of these questions center on the relation of mythology, symbolism and archetypes to story genres. What is this force that attracts us to genres of stories throughout our lives? Is it related to what Jung would term universal internal motifs or archetypes expressed into the external world? When they are expressed outward, they bundle together in story forms with other story forms. All floating around it seems to me by some type of planets.
I’m sure everyone has their own idea or feeling about various genres of stories in life. But it’s never something ever thinks about or can see since it is all around their unawareness of them. The genres of story types and its change is one of the most important aspects of the modern entertainment business. It exists in importance as Marshall McLuhan said in Understanding Media (1964), “The medium is the message.” Much was in this quote when I first read it in the little paperback I carried around in my California high school of the 60s. In effect, the modern version of this “medium” McLuhan identified in the 60s is very much that unseen medium of story genre. Few have little knowledge about genre. Few have any sense of it. But it’s a large topic. Much larger than the content of messages within McLuhan’s quote “The medium is the message.”
An important aspect of control in the modern world is not via direct command but by distraction. As the famous media ecologist Neil Postman so brilliantly summed up in the title of his famous book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). In effect, it is the distraction of the content of media in its constant waterfall of messages. These messages inside mediums. The mediums were the most important aspects of life. The grand context of life. But something that people were distracted from my media. This in effect, might be the real purpose of modern media. That is distraction of the populace from looking at the genres and grand stories of there lives. The stories they were living in and through and towards.
Why do we like genres of stories? Why do we consider ourselves in this genre? Do we know it? Suspect we’re in a particular genre? What does one’s story genre tell them about themselves?
Whatever it tells them, genres seem their continued expansion into various forms of storytelling in modern culture. The number of genres continue to expand into sub-genres and then sub-genres of these sub-genres into smaller niches of genre story in the world.
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As mass culture began to wane with the rise of the segmented culture in the 1960s and 70s, people got news and entertainment from various media outside the old mass media with the one-way broadcast model of communication. At this time, genres and story forms began to increase. The continued segmentation of mass communication was represented in the growth of cable television and niche channels. (The old quote from Bruce Springsteen about “57 channels and nothing on.”) Really, all the niche channels developing followings for their programming to what micro-populations within culture wanted to hear in the way of storytelling or stories. Or their own genres. The relationship of the rise and fall of story genres tracks large swings in symbols more than anyone realizes. A good question is to ask if genres move in cyclic movement that continues to repeat over and over. Are the changes apparent in genre change in major streaming and Hollywood movies?
Of course, many in Hollywood know about genres today as the world of storytelling becomes divided into a particular number of story forms. In the early 80s, the study of film genres began moving into the modern age. Perhaps the most important book to move forward the study of modern film genres was Thomas Schatz’s Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System (1981). Schatz was professor of communication at the University of Texas, Austin and his book explored the formal and aesthetic aspects of feature filmmaking but also explored various cultural aspects as well. Schatz noted that the genre approach treats movie production as a dynamic process of exchange between the film industry and its audience embodied by the Hollywood studio system. He argued that the system has been sustained primarily through genres and popular narrative formulas like the Western, Musical and Gangster films, which have dominated screen arts through the first half of the 20th century.
The central thesis of Hollywood Genres was that a genre approach provided the most effective means for understanding, analyzing and appreciating Hollywood cinema. It was perhaps the first argument made to Hollywood to understand this medium of story types of genres that they were really operating in. Most of the time, having little sense of the dynamics of this genre system of story symbols. The great story genres of a particular time related to the collective, mostly unexpressed feelings of the general population of a culture.
Hoppy When There Was Only One Genre in the World
But much has changed in the 45 years since Schatz’s book on genres. The old classic film genres have multiplied into new genres and sub-genres and today film genres are not only something to help analyze and appreciate films but also an important element in creating films. In fact, some leading screenwriting gurus like John Truby argue they are the most important element.
During this time, some screenwriting teacher/gurus like Blake Snyder have started to focus on writing screenplays for various genres. Braking off from his Save the Cat (STC) brand there was Save the Cat Goes to the Movies with matched STC brand structure to story forms. While genre screenplays have the same general principles as all screenplays, there are distinct differences in writing stories for various genres.
The great book on story genre for our time has just been published. It represents the ideas of one of the most advanced thinkers I’ve ever encountered in all my reading of screenwriting books. One who make much sense but also one I have had a hard time applying. Since publishing his well-known Anatomy of Story in 2007, leading story guru John Truby has been moving more towards a focus on genre as the key aspect of screenwriting. In storytelling in fact. He has created software programs for various genres and lectures about them in his seminars. Since 2015, he has been working on what might well be his magnum opus about genres titled The Anatomy of Genres: How Story Forms Explain the Way the World Works (2022).
The title claims much for the book. But coming from one of the leading screenwriting gurus in the world, at over 700 pages and 5 years in the making, the book delivers something truly new and unique to the screenwriting industry. Not another screenplay structure book laying claim to a particular number of steps in a story. As if telling stories was not already divided up enough already.
And maybe, even beyond the industry. The is, the topic of genre story-making and it has only increased with the segmentation and diversity of modern culture. In much of the 20th century, the populace was listening to the same news networks in the era of mass culture and media. Mass culture expressed itself in Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s when the key genres were Westerns, musicals, screwball comedies and film noir.
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The book might very well begin a new period of screenplay writing where the old chicken or egg riddle is revised to ask “Which comes first the gender plot or character.” In effect, straight plot without adequate consideration to genre might become a thing of the past. At least Truby argues this is so in his important book on story genre.
First identified in a major way in modern cinema history by Thomas Schatz and his Hollywood Genres of 1981. But now, the spirit of Schatz and his focus on story genres reinterpreted into the modern cinema word in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Genres.
The book raises ideas for seeing the world in a different way. It offers various categories of stories in the various genres in his system. They have a set number and have an evolution about them. Perhaps more than anything else, the book offers one of the most philosophical reflections on modern storytelling ever written. It starts with the bold claim “Everything you need to know about life can be found in stories.”
Truby says that the reason for this is that stories are not simply taken from life but rather “Stories define life. And the philosophies developed over the course of human history inform and respond to both. As a result, he says, understanding the anatomy of a story is about much more than writing. It’s also about knowing how to live.” Truby provides a few examples of popular story genres to illustrate what he means.
• 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 us 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.
He notes that 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.
The idea sounds simple, yet it marks a radical shift in the way we see the world today. As Truby says, “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.” For Truby, story is more than a certain structure or theme of a screenplay. Rather, “Story is a philosophy of life expressed through characters, plot, and emotion. It shows life as art.” In effect, “Stories are maps of humanity.”
Paraphrasing Truby in the following few sentences, most people think genres are simply categories on Netflix or Amazon that provide a helpful guide to making entertainment choices. Most people are wrong. Genre stories aren’t just a small subset of the films, video games, TV shows, and books that people consume. They are the all-stars of the entertainment world, comprising most popular stories worldwide. That’s why businesses – movie studios, production companies, video game studios, and publishing houses – buy and sell them. As Truby says, “Writers who want to succeed professionally must write the stories these businesses want to buy. Simply put, the storytelling game is won by mastering the structure of genres.”
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The 700-page book is divided into 14 chapters. Chapter One titled “The World as Story” offers an excellent introduction to Truby’s revolutionary way of working with story genres. Each of the following chapters is based around one of the key genres in the book. In Chapter One Truby notes there are three unwritten “Rules of Play” for successful writers today and all relate to genres.
Rule 1. The storytelling business is all about selling genres.
Rule 2. Popular stories today combine 3-4 genres.
Rule 3. To rise above the crowd, the writer must transcend the primary genre.
He notes three ways to transcend genres: 1) the screenwriter must twist the story beats by such things as changing their order 2) express the genre’s life philosophy in the theme and 3) explore the story forms of life unique to the genre. Regarding this last way of transcending genre, Truby observes each major human activity such as morality, culture, business, sports, war, religion, politics, justice, society are some of the grand activities that make up human life. They are also complex works of art expressed through the emotional and dramatic form of story. At its best, each genre explores one or more of these story forms of life.
One of the most interesting things in Truby’s book is the creation of an order of genres or what he calls a “genre ladder” illustrated in Figure 1. As he says, “For me, the most revelatory part of coming to understand genres was the realization that they exist in a hierarchy of their own, or what might be called a “ladder of enlightenment.” He mentions the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel here noting that “Hegel’s greatest insight is that every step up the ladder of human enlightenment also reveals the flaw that holds someone back. Like sand in the oyster, that flaw is what creates the next step of growth.”
Myth: Life Process
Memoir: Creating the Self
Coming of Age: Creating the Self
Science Fiction: Science, Society & Culture
Crime: Morality & Justice
Comedy: Manners & Morals
Western: Rise & Fall of Civilization
Gangster: Corruption of Business and Politics
Fantasy: Art of Living
Detective: Mind and the Truth
Thriller: Mind and the Truth
Love: Art of Happiness
Truby’s Genre Ladder from The Anatomy of Genres
Truby notes the hierarchy in the genres in the “Genre Ladder” is based on three things: 1) the primary character flaw the hero must overcome; 2) the quality of the life philosophy the form expresses and 3) the major art/story form it explores. Viewed this way, he notes the first and most primitive genre is Horror, the story of escaping death in this life or the next. From there, the sequence moves from least to most enlightened, from Action to Fantasy, Detective and Love stories. At the end of each chapter of the book, Truby explains what is missing from each genre’s life philosophy, or, the thing that leads us to take the next step up the ladder.
One of the three ways to transcend a genre laid out in Truby’s unwritten “Rules of Play” above is by expressing the genre’s life philosophy in the theme. As he says, “Hidden below the surface of these beats is a philosophy, an entire way of seeing and living in the world. This is expressed through the theme, which is the author’s view of the best way to live. Truby calls this this life philosophy embedded in each genre as the “Mind-Action” story view. This refers to how the human mind sees the world and then acts accordingly.
He says, “Like the slides of a kaleidoscope, each genre has a different point of view about how the world fits together. Each offers a unique philosophy for how to live well. Expressing the genre’s philosophy is the key to any story you write. This unique Mind-Action story view is what really hooks the reader. In turn, drama infuses the genre’s lesson for how to live with tremendous emotional power. This is the story gold.” Each genre’s recipe for how to live well is based on its fundamental concern shown in Figure 2 below.
• Horror: Confront death and face your ghosts from the past.
• Action: 90 percent of success is acting.
• Myth: Seek immortality by finding your destiny in this life.
• Memoir: Examine your life to create your true self.
• Coming-of-Age: Examine your life to create your true self.
• Science Fiction: Make the right choices now to ensure a better future for all.
• Crime: Protect the weak and bring the guilty to justice.
• Comedy: Success comes when you strip away all facades and show others who you really are.
• Western: When you help others make a home, you create a civilization where everyone is free to live their best life.
• Gangster: Don’t be enslaved by absolute power and money or you will pay the ultimate price.
• Fantasy: Discover the magic in yourself that makes life itself an art form.
• Detective: Look for the truth and assign guilt despite the danger.
• Thriller: Look for the truth and assign guilt despite the danger.
• Love: Learning how to love is the key to happiness.
Mind Action View of How to Live Well
Truby breaks down several stories from novels, film, television, and theater that exemplify a particular genre using recent examples where appropriate. He notes his main criterion is always which one is best. “This is especially true when discussing transcendent genre stories,” he says. “My choice is typically a classic that defines the form itself. The following best express the techniques needed to write a great story in each genre.”
HORROR/Religion: Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol, Alien, Get Out, Psycho, Ex Machina, Westworld
ACTION/Success: Mad Max: Fury Road, Die Hard, Seven Samurai, the Iliad, The Thomas Crown Affair, Rocky, The Hustler
MYTH/The Life Process: Star Wars: A New Hope, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Black Panther, Avatar, the Odyssey
MEMOIR AND COMING-OF-AGE STORY/Creating the Self: The Liars’ Club, Into Thin Air, Moonlight, Cinema Paradiso, CODA, To Kill a Mockingbird
SCIENCE FICTION/Science, Society, and Culture: Arrival, The Matrix, Inception, Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey
CRIME/Morality and Justice: Breaking Bad, The Dark Knight, The Usual Suspects, Crime and Punishment, In Bruges
COMEDY/Manners and Morals: Seinfeld, Little Miss Sunshine, Groundhog Day, Wedding Crashers
WESTERN/The Rise and Fall of Civilization: Shane, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Once Upon a Time in the West
GANGSTER/The Corruption of Business and Politics: The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, The Great Gatsby, Mad Men, Network
FANTASY/The Art of Living: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Big, Pleasantville, Mary Poppins, It’s a Wonderful Life, Alice in Wonderland
DETECTIVE AND THRILLER/The Mind and the Truth: 1) Detective: L.A. Confidential, The Collected Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, Vertigo, Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express, Chinatown, Rashomon 2) Thriller: The Silence of the Lambs, Michael Clayton, The Sixth Sense, The Conversation, Shadow of a Doubt
LOVE/The Art of Happiness: Silver Linings Playbook, 500 Days of Summer, When Harry Met Sally, The Philadelphia Story, Sideways
Genre Examples in Novels, Film, Television and Theater
All of the above is just in Chapter One of Truby’s groundbreaking new book. I just outlined one of the chapters in his book for a story genre I want to write in using Truby’s genre forms presented in The Anatomy of Genres.
Any writer who reads this chapter should be very excited about learning how to apply all of this to individual genres in the following 13 chapters of the book. As Truby says at the end of Chapter One, “This combination of technique and thematic life philosophy provides tangible, advanced strategies that few other writers now possess. It will help you write powerful stories that achieve both critical and commercial success.”
Truby has been quoted as saying Hollywood is all about buying and selling story genres. Truby certainly delivers on his promise in the remaining chapters of the book with a radical new interpretation of story genres few have ever seen before containing themes and beats for the particular genres as well as ways to transcend them and create something unique and different that will grab audiences in new ways.
But before opening the door into the magic world of story genre he has created, Truby again reminds of a larger purpose that has driven him over the years this book was in creation. “I believe there is a craving in everyone for deeper understanding in their lives. That’s why the broader intention of this book is to give people more profound models of the world. By exploring philosophical issues and ideas, we can learn how to grapple with them in ways that will enrich us on our life’s journey.”
Before one turns the page to find new revelations about the Horror genre, the least “enlightened” of the genres, before one finds out its fundamental recipe of how to live in the world by the “confronting death and facing one’s ghosts from the past” as in stories like Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol, Alien, Get Out, Psycho, Ex Machina and Westworld, before we turn the page door to embark on an exciting journey into a new way of writing, Truby notes his concerns that spread far outside the film business.
As he says, “The Anatomy of Genres takes us from the poetics of storytelling to the poetics of life. Join me in exploring the multidimensional maps of humanity that help us navigate our lives.” The exploration is one of the most enlightening journeys one can take.
My Favorite Genre & Book
More than anything else, Truby’s book means opening a new dimension in entertainment knowledge. That is, the important symbols and symbolism related to leading story genres in culture at times.
If culture increasingly directs its gaze in the direction of genres, Truby’s book is something that general readers should have. It identifies patterns and beats in the various genres. It classifies the genres in the evolutionary ladder above. All new ideas and thinking about story genres. However, in the movement towards genres one needs to be on the lookout for number of genres further dividing the world up into pieces. Never uniting it. Is there more money in division or in consolidation? It’s not a bad question by itself.
In effect, is there a particular genre of story that might unite all the current genres into one? Use Truby’s advice through Anatomy to create stories mixing at least three genres. The only slight problem one might have is trying to weld Truby’s structure in his Anatomy of Story in 2007 with Anatomy of Genre in 2022. There is the short seven step Truby structure and the longer 22 steps he lays out in the great Anatomy of Story.
But I continue to monitor the world of story genres. A world in my thinking that John Truby pretty much owns right now. Buy Anatomy of Genre whether you’re a screenwriter or not. What the heck. We’re all really screenwriters.
In the genre medium out there, something that perhaps more might see themselves within, it is important to consider the number of mediums or genres out there. Planted by those in power? Defined by those in power? But so important to know the great stories are still possible to be lived in the world today. Huge, genre transcending and mixing genre stories (as Truby suggests) that create the DNA of our new genre form of storytelling.
The Great Study of Literary Genres in the 20th Century
This seems such way of stating things for me today about this topic. Within the movement to genre storytelling have we moved to niche storytelling with few attempts to connect with other story genres? Is there a market in differentiating brands built on story genres? Will the bold and brilliant genre approach to modern storytelling laid out in Truby’s bible of modern writing in genres called The Anatomy of Genres. A very fitting bookend to his brilliant The Anatomy of Story.
A brilliant book. The symbolism and beats in the various major twelve genres today expressed with the precision of a scientist as Truby seems in some ways. Still, I’m holding back my comments about the number and structure Truby defines story genres today. How much connection to the past definers of genres does his Anatomy of Genres have?
The greatest definer of genres during the 20th century was Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism of 1957. The book became one of the most influential critical works of the mid-20th century. He challenged the hegemony of the New Criticism by emphasizing the modes and genres of literary texts. Rather than analyze the language of individual works of literature, as the New Critics did, Frye stressed the larger or deeper imaginative patterns from which all literary works are constructed and the recurring importance of literature’s underlying archetypes.
Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, is a work of literary criticism and generally considered the author’s most important work. The greatest work from one of the 20th centuries greatest literary critics. In his introduction, Frye explains that his initial intention was to examine the poetry of Edmund Spenser. But this, he says, had given way in the process to a broader survey of the ordering principles of literary theory. The four essays in his book address these broader ordering principles of literary theory in modes, symbols, myths and genres.
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All of these have a close connection to what Northrop Frye sees as the historical, ethical, archetypal, and rhetorical dimensions of literary expression. It is also something found by John Truby in The Anatomy of Genres. A literary critic was the grand definer of story genres in the 20th century. It seems part of the purpose of Anatomy of Genres is to bring back the old academic rigor that Frye approached his subjects with.
The ideas of the two need some type of observation as acknowledgement at least. It’s somewhat of a funny reunion between a screenwriting theorist and literary critic. But there seems to be one.
Again, the question is never necessarily within the content of steps on any ladder of steps. Rather it was always about one’s identification of the number of steps on this ladder. This said more than they knew about views of storytelling.
Truby has written an important book and presented ideas about future story genres having a symbiotic relationship with the major archetypal genres in story forms. Frye has presented his own idea of four forms of stories. The relationship between the four of Frye and the twelve of Truby seems a relationship worth taking time to study a little. By some research group out there. Perhaps its already the topic of research? It would be naïve to think not.
A quote from French theorist Jean-François Lyotard comes to mind in all of these considerations of genre and story. As Lyotard said, “The grand narratives that sustained whole societies … have lost their force. We are left with many mini narratives everywhere.”
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It’s hard for me to disagree with Lyotard. There are mini narratives everywhere out there. Buzzing all around you like mosquitos at a summer picnic. But then we live in a mini culture all the time and everywhere. Like water surrounding fish. There is no longer any grand narrative (as Lyotard says) that used to sustain whole societies.
In effect, the problem with genre and story today might not be that there are the wrong genres of story forms out there. But rather that there are simply too many genre forms out there. Like everything else, perhaps this genre theory is another disrupter of society, another divider of it into different stories. Different genres of stories.
Truby feels the new mix-up of genres is crucial to the future of storytelling. Will a new mixture of genres wield some new powerful story form or story genre? Are the current twelve genres that Truby has defined genres the story world will see for years to come? Or will the twelve genres evolve into more or less genres?
(A section from the upcoming new book titled Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Theory by John Fraim. Write firstname.lastname@example.org for a review PDF of the book. See About John on the page from his Midnight Oil Studios website at https://midnightoilstudios.org/about/)