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What is genre, and how can transcending it improve your fiction? How can you effectively write cross genre? John Truby gives an overview of the Anatomy of Genres.
In the intro, the PRH acquisition of S&S is over [The Guardian]; Amazon Advertising Everywhere [Vox]; Spotify expands audiobooks to more markets [TechCrunch]; Plus, 20BooksVegas recordings; Machines Behaving Badly: The Morality of AI by Toby Walsh; A16Z podcast with Neal Stephenson; Jane McGonigal on Moonshots and Mindsets;
Join me for this Webinar on Amazon data and trends for 2023 – 1 Dec. Plus, my mermaid images on Midjourney @jfpennauthor.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at draft2digital.com/penn
John Truby is the founder and director of Truby's Writers Studio, and teaches story principles and techniques through books, courses and audio programs, as well as speaking and story consulting. He's also the author of The Anatomy of Story. And today we're talking about his new book, The Anatomy of Genres.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How John became an expert on story
- Defining genre — and examples from science fiction
- Genre vs. Amazon Subcategories
- How to transcend genre
- How to successfully write cross-genre stories
- Tips for editing and rewriting
- The importance of advanced theme and complex plot
- The future of storytelling as an immersive experience
You can find John at Truby.com
Header image by Joanna Penn on Midjourney.
Transcript of Interview with John Truby
Joanna: John Truby is the founder and director of Truby's Writers Studio, and teaches story principles and techniques through books, courses and audio programs, as well as speaking and story consulting. He's also the author of The Anatomy of Story. And today we're talking about his new book, The Anatomy of Genres. So welcome to the show, John.
John: Well, thank you so much, Joanna. I can't tell you what a thrill it is for me to be here on this podcast with you. This is one of the top podcasts in the world, and I couldn't be happier to be here with you.
Joanna: Thanks so much.
Before we get into the meat of the book, tell us a bit more about you and how you came to be so enmeshed in the world of story.
John: It's interesting. When I first started writing stories, there were no books I could find about how to do that, if you can imagine that. It was that long ago. So I had to be self-taught. And what I did was I read as many great novels and saw as many great films as I could over about a three-year period. And I broke them all down to see what works and what doesn't work.
I found that about 90% of what works came from the deep story structure under the surface. So I came up with a theory of story that was based on the organic development of the hero as they move through the plot. I then translated that into specific practical techniques. I began writing my own work and helping other writers fix their work. This led to a lot of story consulting jobs, and I started getting a reputation for being really good at story.
Now, as you probably know, Hollywood is a small town. So that reputation got around very fast. And based on the techniques I was using, I decided to teach a course called The Anatomy of Story, which is also the name of my first book. By now, over 50,000 writers have taken my story courses. And those students have sold over $15 billion worth of books, films and television. The book, The Anatomy of Story, has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide in nine different languages.
Now, if I may, just to give you some background on how this new book came about, a lot of times when I talk to writers about what I do, they say, oh, I know all about story. And they say, I use three-act structure or hero's journey or Save the Cat. And they think, that's all I need.
Well, here's the problem. These books are great for beginners, but they have very few practical story techniques and certainly nothing that can tell you how to write a great story at the professional level. Because remember, we're talking about being in the top 1% of writers.
So when I wrote The Anatomy of Story, my goal was to include all the professional story techniques a writer would need in order to write a best-selling novel. But the one subject it does not cover, which is now crucial to writing a best seller, is how to write to different genres that make up 99% of popular story today.
That's why for the last five years, I've been writing The Anatomy of Genres. And now that book, I'm happy to say, is finally here. And I really believe it's going to change how writers tell their stories going forward.
Joanna: Indeed. I think I saw you speak–I don't think I've told you this–I saw you speak at London Screenwriters Festival, a number of years ago now, and I came to one of your workshops. With this book, The Anatomy of Genres, I feel like we're in the vanguard, because you're going to be talking about this for a long time. And I'm like, yes, we're getting it first! And as I mentioned, before we started recording, I got the copy you gave me to review, but I've bought it in hardback because it's such a great textbook.
I know a lot of people listening will probably already have The Anatomy of Story, but I think this book is quite different. And I almost think it's more practical because it's in genres, and most of the people listening write in genres. And in fact, we know that we want to write best-selling books in genres.
Before we get into it further, let's start with a definition.
How do you define genre? Is it just a subcategory on Amazon?
John: Well, it's a good question. The answer to that is no. In the beginning of the book, I say that there are three rules for success and story today in every medium. And if you don't know these rules and don't play by them, you have no chance to succeed.
Rule number one is the storytelling business buys and sells genres. That's their business. Now, genres are types of stories, but they're a lot more than that. I call them the all stars of the story world. And they've achieved huge popular success over hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, in the particular case of myth.
Writers who want to succeed professionally have to write the stories that the business — in other words, the publishers and the readers — want to buy.
That means the storytelling game is won by mastering the story structure of genres.
That means first of all, mastering the 15 to 20 story beats that are unique to each form. These beats must be in your story, I can't emphasize that enough. Those 15 to 20 story beats must be in your story if you're to tell that genre story properly. But the bottom line is genres are plot systems. They are extremely popular and writing them is how you win.
Joanna: Just on the subcategories on Amazon. So for independent authors, like myself, when we publish, we have to put a book in several subcategories, between two and 10 subcategories.
So do genres and Amazon subcategories overlap in some way? Because all our books do go into these things.
John: Absolutely. Absolutely. Some of the categories on Amazon are the major genres I talked about, but many of them are subgenres of the major genres. And I go into that in the book for each of the genres. I tell what is the main genre and then what are the most popular subgenres of that form.
Strictly speaking in Amazon, because they're basing it on the marketing of these books, they want to break down the subgenres into his fine a distinction as possible.
The real trick in terms of writing the story is to know what your main genre is and what the main subgenre might be. Then when it comes to marketing it, that's knowing what that book is going to work best on Amazon.
Joanna: Okay, great. So you cover loads of genres in the book. That's why it's a great handbook, but we can't go into them all in this. So I thought we'd take science fiction as an example because it's not a genre I write or really read much of. So I thought this would be super interesting.
As an example, what are some of the key elements of the science fiction genre that can help authors listening to write a better book?
John: I'm really glad you're asking me about science fiction because it's one of the most complex and ambitious of all genres. The chapter on science fiction is full of techniques for writing a really good one. So let me just give your listeners some overview of how science fiction really works.
Science fiction shows social and universal evolution. So it's usually an epic, and that's why science fiction is sometimes referred to as social philosophy in fiction form. The key question the genre asks– and every genre asks a key question which defines basically the theme– in science fiction it's, how do you create a better world.
But to write great science fiction, we first have to get past the big misconception that a lot of science fiction writers have, which is science fiction is not about predicting the future. It's about looking at the present world through different eyes, and then focusing on the choices we have to make now to avoid the world that will come if we don't change.
So a lot of the techniques for writing great science fiction focus on how you set up the story world, especially the society and the technology of the story.
Now, the single biggest reason that many science fiction stories fail right off the bat, is that the writer creates this bizarre, unrecognizable, futuristic world. And what that does is it alienates the reader by making them an intellectual observer, not an emotional participant. In other words, they're draining all the emotion out of the story, and that is a huge mistake.
So the first technique is to create a recognizable future world.
So the reader can see that it's different from my world, but it's still my world that we're commenting on. Another technique: give the hero a severe weakness, and especially a moral flaw. In science fiction, often the hero's weaknesses turn on what it means to be human. And we see this in films like Blade Runner, 2001 and Ex Machina.
Another technique: the world that you create isn't just the future in time, it should be a new evolutionary stage. In other words, the society is a new vision of how the individual connects to the society. So for example, in The Matrix, society has moved to a new stage where machines rule and create this fake human world to keep people enslaved.
Now to transcend science fiction, which I talk about in every genre, this is the key to setting yourself apart from the crowd, to set yourself apart from everybody else who is writing in that form, you can't just do a big adventure story. No, you have to focus on how to make a new world. And you can see right there how ambitious the science fiction form is because that's massive.
You have to give a new vision of how the world works and how it can grow. This means at some point in the story, the hero must have a cosmic revelation.
One last point on science fiction: transcending this form almost always involves combining it with myth or horror.
And in the book, in the section of each chapter where I talk about how to transcend, often you transcend by connecting with another form, by creating some kind of hybrid. And in science fiction, some examples of science fiction plus myth are The Foundation Trilogy, Star Wars, 2001, Interstellar, The Stars My Destination and Arrival.
Combining science fiction with horror, the greatest examples are Frankenstein, Ex Machina, and Westworld.
Joanna: And Alien. Surely, Alien.
John: Alien is primarily a horror story. It's a horror story in space. But yes, it is a combination of horror and science fiction. And I mentioned Alien quite a bit in the horror chapter.
Joanna: It's so interesting. And you talked there about transcending the genre, which I think is really interesting.
But I did want to circle back to what you mentioned earlier about story beats. So some people might not know what story beats are. You've mentioned they're the sort of bigger things that you have to tackle within a science fiction book or in a particular genre.
How do the story beats fit into these bigger aspects?
Like you mentioned a moral flaw for the hero, but how does that work with the story beats that are expected within a genre? Just give us a couple of examples within science fiction.
John: Absolutely. It's a great question because it is so important to distinguish story beats, plot beats, from tropes. This is a mistake I see writers making all the time. They think writing in their particular genre is all about, “I grab a few tropes from this form and I put them together and I have a good story.” Absolutely not.
People use the term story beat all the time. What a story beat is, is it's a plot event with major structural importance. And the reason that genres work the way they do, and the reason why you have to know your genre and transcend your genre to be successful, is that a genre is first and foremost a plot system.
It is a sequence of plot beats, story beats, that connect together and allow you to build a story from beginning through middle to the end.
So if you're not working with all of the plot beats of that genre, as I mentioned, each genre has 15 to 20 plot beats that are already predetermined, and so if you don't hit them, then you're going to have readers of that genre, be very unhappy with you.
For example, I sometimes give the example in a love story, in a romance, if you fail to have the first dance, your romance readers are going to be really unhappy with you. So you have to hit these beats. And this gets into the third rule from when I was mentioning about the three major rules that you have to follow.
The third rule is you have to transcend those beats. In other words, you can't just hit the plot beats. That's necessary, but not sufficient in any way. You have to transcend them. And transcending means two things.
One, you twist the beats, you do them in a different way, or you do them in a different order than they're normally seen.
And the other way that you transcend, is you express the deeper life philosophy that each genre has because genres are not only plot systems.
That's what most writers understand, they understand that these are different kinds of plots. What they don't understand is that genres are also theme systems.
Theme is what brings the reader back again, and again. It's the theme that the reader loves.
Because readers who love romance novels, for example, they know what those beats are. They may not put a name to them, but they know what those beats are.
So you're not going to surprise them with the plot. What you're going to do is reaffirm the values that that theme, that life philosophy, and that genre expresses. Because that's the life philosophy that they want to live their life by, and that they try to live their life by.
Joanna: And I know that some people, myself included, we can sometimes feel like we do not want to be hemmed in, and it feels like that. It's like, well, you're saying these are sort of predetermined story things we have to hit, story beats or whatever, and we have to hit those in order to be successful.
And yet we come up with these stories, and maybe they don't quite fit. To be fair, I have not written like a blockbuster novel or a movie, so that could be the reason why!
How do we keep these things in place as a structure, but also use our originality so that we don't feel like we're hemmed in?
John: It's exactly what I was just saying in terms of transcending. Because if you just hit those beats, you're doing what everybody else is doing, and that is generic writing. I mean, to use the word genre, generic writing is the worst thing you can do. So you absolutely don't want to be hemmed in by it.
At the same time, you have to hit those beats, otherwise, it's not that genre. And so what do you do?
You have to find a way to be creative with the beats that you have.
And that's why I said, it is absolutely essential that you take a genre story that is more or less familiar to your readers, but you do it in such a way that they've never seen before.
You do it either by flipping what happens in the beat or you do it by changing the order. And changing the order of beats is a huge thing. It's really, really powerful because in the back of the readers mind, they not only know the beats, they know how those beats are going to build, they know how they're going to sequence.
So if you play with that sequence, you totally short-circuit their expectations. And they love it. That's what they want you to do because what you're basically doing is you're letting them have their cake and eat it too. You let them have the beats that they love so much, but you also do it in such a way they've never seen before. So I liken it to the analogy, “you still got the structure, but you've added new skin on top.”
Joanna: Exactly. And it's so interesting, isn't it? Because when you break it down, you think, “oh, yeah, like 20 beats. Yeah, I can write that.” And then it's the bit on top of that that becomes difficult.
I wanted to ask you, so from the book, you say, “mixing genres is tougher than it looks.” And as I read that I was like, yeah, I have to ask you about that, because I write cross-genre, I read cross-genre, and I write that way, and that's what I want. But it does seem much easier to sell clear-genre stories.
“Mixing genres is tougher than it looks.” How can we successfully write cross-genre?
John: Well, it is tricky. And if you don't know how to write it, you're going to get story chaos. And a lot of writers when they try to mix genres, this is rule number two, that the most successful stories in every medium are a mix of two to four genres.
So when writers tried to do that, they don't know what they're doing, and so they end up with story chaos. They have too many heroes, too many opponents, too many desire lines, too many story spines, and so on and so forth.
So the solution is to choose a primary genre because that gives you your main hero, your main opponent, it gives you a single desire line, it gives you the primary plot beats, and it gives you the main thing.
Then what you do is you add the beats from the other genres, but only when they work with the main genres. So if they contradict a beat from the main genre — and one reason that genres are different from each other is their story beats sometimes are in direct opposition to each other. So when that occurs, you don't include the beat from the genre that you're adding because you always want to keep the plot beats of the main genre first.
Another benefit of choosing a primary genre is marketing because it lets the readers identify your main category of fiction.
And as you point out, that's easier to sell. So notice what you're doing. You're mixing multiple genres when you write the story, but you're selling just one.
Joanna: That's such a challenge. So interesting that you mentioned story chaos. I love that. I think that's a great phrase. And I often talk about my process as ‘wrangling the chaos' in terms of the initial story.
You mentioned a few things there, like simplifying with a protagonist and an opponent and stuff.
If we find ourselves in story chaos, like we've “lost the plot” as the adage goes, how can we get ourselves out of it?
So I'm thinking of people listening, maybe they've got like 100,000 words, or 70,000 words or something, and they're looking at it going, this is story chaos. How would you, as a story consultant, how would you fix that? What do you advise people to do?
John: Well, first of all, Joanna, I see this all the time. And it comes from typically, that when they first start writing, they didn't do the kind of prep work upfront that was necessary to give them a single spine. And that's really what you're looking for.
I mean, there are all of the techniques that I could mention in terms of fixing that story, but it all comes down to the spine. The spine is the desire line of the hero. What does the hero want? You want that to be very specific.
When I talk about rewriting, in The Anatomy of Story class and book, I talked about the fact that there's a dirty little secret that most writers don't want to talk about, which is that typically, the second draft is worse than the first. And it's very depressing for people. And they think, I might as well give up right now.
One of the reasons for that is they don't know how to rewrite. And it's a specific set of skills, just as character is a set of skills, plot is a set of skills, and you have to learn how to do it. And the first rule of rewriting is don't do what most writers do, which is they go to the first scene and they start reading through it and rewriting that scene. No, no! It's the last thing you do.
The first thing you do is you fix the structure of the story.
And you do that by looking at the two endpoints of the story: the beginning and the end. 90% of the problems that are in your story are found in the first few pages, in the setup to the story.
And what do I mean by the setup to the story? Those are the pages where you set up the first major structure step of the story, which is the hero's weakness. That's what you're really solving for, their internal flaw, followed immediately by the desire line. What do they want in this story? You want it to be as specific as possible.
Then you go to the endpoint of your story to the self-revelation. What is it that the character learns about themselves at the end of the story that fixes the weakness that they started off with?
Once you get those three things correct, and you focus and make sure that those are right, those two endpoints on the spine, then everything else will fall into place. You will see exactly what is not working and why.
Joanna: Yes, and it's not grammar and typos, which is what for some reason people obsess over.
Joanna: So it's so interesting. I've written like pages of notes, and I read the book, and I've got it coming in print as well. This is great.
I did want to come back to theme. You did mention theme before.
But again, in the book, you say,
“The crucial strategy in writing today is advanced theme expressed through complex plot. Genres are the vehicle for doing that. This isn't one way to succeed, it's the only way.”
Which is pretty strong. So you mention kind of theme, but this talks about advanced theme.
What is advanced theme and how can we use that? Just give us a couple of examples.
John: Sure. Let me just give people the background on this because theme is probably the most misunderstood element of great story. So advanced theme is what each genre is really about.
Now, most writers are afraid of theme. They think it's the old classic Goldwyn line, which is, “if you want to send a message, send it Western Union.” So they don't want to preach to the audience which is good. So what do they do? They avoid theme altogether. That is a big mistake because it prevents them from telling a great story.
So what is theme? Theme is the author's view of how to live successfully in the world. And when it's done through the genre beats of the story, not preaching in the dialogue, it has tremendous power.
And that's why in each chapter of the book, the first half explains those specialized genre beats of the form, in other words, the plot sequence. And the second half explains the deeper theme or the philosophy of life that the genre expresses.
Now, each life philosophy contains a massive amount of wisdom that that genre can impart to the reader. But first, you the writer, you have to know what that life philosophy is. And fact is, no one has ever done a book like this in story. And that's why I think this book is going to totally change how writers work in every medium.
Because the second half of each chapter, and as you know, this is very dense and very detailed stuff, but the entire second half of each chapter is about how do you express the theme of that genre under the surface through the structure instead of preaching to the audience.
Joanna: It's interesting that you say not preaching to the audience. And of course, that implies like a long monologue about something. But in some of the story structure books, there's a thing where the theme is stated at a particular point, like the hero will say something where they are stating the theme.
Should theme be spelled out somewhere, or is it all done through action and subtext and plot?
John: I personally believe that 80% to 90% of the theme should be expressed through the structure. Because as soon as you put the theme into dialogue in someone's mouth, the audience, the reader, these are people who have seen thousands of stories, as soon as you do that, they back out. They say, “I don't want to hear that.” Right? They want to be lured in.
So that's why it's so important to do most of it through the story structure, through those plot beats. However, that being said, one of the marks of great writing is to have some theme expressed in dialogue. But it's only when you have it on a foundation of expressing the theme through the structure.
Because what are we saying? It's the old thing of you are what you do. Actions speak louder than words. If you want the audience to really get a sense of what this story is really about, and it's about how to live, you want to lure them in through an exciting plot. And then once you got them there, then you can add some thematic lines to the dialogue.
Joanna: It's so funny, because I mean, I've been writing fiction now for over a decade (as J.F. Penn.) And I feel like at the beginning when you write your first novel, you think you can learn everything. And then you get to a point when you realize you can never learn everything. There's always more to learn, and it's interesting.
So The Anatomy of Story, many people use as a blueprint. And now The Anatomy of Genres, I'm sure many people will do that, too. But you've taught tens of thousands of students, and not all of them are successful.
What sets apart the successful storytellers from the failed ones, of the people who've used your methods? Because to me, it's like, I can take your books, but if I follow them exactly, I'm still not going to be in the top 1%.
What sets the most successful storytellers apart? How can we be that top 1% of storytellers?
John: Yes, again, great question. In my opinion, the reason most writers don't get to that bestseller status is because they don't know the story techniques that best-selling authors use. And they often think they know, as I mentioned, they read these books that I mentioned right at the beginning, but those are not professional techniques. That's the big distinction.
In my experience, the biggest difference, and this belief has been heightened incredibly in the last 10 years because of trends in storytelling in every medium in the last 10 to 15 years. The biggest difference between the top 1% of professional writers and everybody else is the ability to create complex plot. And what separates the top 0.1% of professional writers from everyone else is the ability to also express advanced theme.
Again, that's why I wrote the book because it tells writers exactly how to express advanced themes through complex plot. Both of these elements, theme and plot, are misunderstood. And in the case of plot, highly underestimated. Most writers, when they think about telling their story, they know the importance of character and character change, and the importance of tight dialogue and so on.
When it comes to plot, they think, “well, I'll just figure that out as I go.” And that is the worst thing you can do. Because plot has more techniques to being able to write a complex or a great plot than all other stories skills combined. And most writers simply don't know what those techniques are.
Joanna: Can you just address literary fiction as well? Because I can hear people listening who are like, “yeah, but I write literary fiction. I don't write science fiction or horror, or whatever.”
What about literary fiction? How does this relate to that? Because it's not known as plot heavy, really.
John: Exactly. And that is the biggest challenge you have when you write literary fiction.
Now, what some writers of literary fiction do is they have a very anti-plot idea. And this, by the way, is about 150 years old. We went through a major emphasis on plot with writers like Dickens and Dumas. And then from then on, there was a slow but steady decline in terms of the importance that writers put on plot.
We had this idea of anti-plot, that we would purposely try to have as little plot as possible. Now, there are some advantages to that, but there are very severe disadvantages to it as well. And I believe that one of the best techniques for a writer of literary fiction is put some plot in there, get some plot in there.
Now, it's difficult to do in literary fiction. Why? Because of the story structure. The story structure in literary fiction, and why literary fiction is not included in this book, is because technically speaking, it's not a genre. It is a level, it is a quality of story. But if you were to look at stories that we normally think of as literary fiction, they are typically personal dramas.
Typically we have a main character, and typically the opposition is within the family, or it's with characters who act like a family. And drama is a very large category of stories, but the problem with writing them is that drama does not have these landmarks, these guideposts. It does not have a predetermined hero or predetermined opponent and so on and so forth.
Now, writers of literary fiction say, “that's why I write it because I don't want to have those kinds of prefab things.” And that's great, but the problem is coming up with a plot that will engage the reader enough to get across those larger elements of theme and character that you want to express.
Joanna: I think you're right there. I mean, I read a lot of horror, and horror is often a standalone story. And a lot of the books I read are literary horror, like they really are incredible quality writing in a story that technically fits in horror. And of course, there's plenty of examples of that. So I agree with you there. I think that's brilliant.
John: Joanna, you bring up a great point right there, which is the main technique — you know, I go through in each chapter how exactly how you transcend that particular genre — but the main technique overall for transcending any genre is to combine the plot beats of the genre with drama techniques.
And so what you just described, like high-level horror, that's probably somebody who took the horror form and added drama elements, literary fiction elements, and kicked it up to a higher level. That combination is probably the best combination for telling a story that is both a popular and critical success.
Joanna: Hmm, which is a rare thing indeed. So, we're almost out of time.
You end the book with a glimpse into the future of storytelling and talk about an immersive experience where the story comes to life, potentially in virtual reality or in other ways.
And you say the audience will interact with the story at every degree. And in a way that's exciting, and in a way that's kind of scary. How can we create in a way that might enable this kind of adaptation?
John: Well, we're definitely moving toward a complete interconnection between life and story, in my opinion. And I believe that's a good thing because the more story informs our lives, the more we can make a life we want to live. And I believe story is the key to doing that.
So we're moving toward what I call in the book, “a complete storyfication.” I made up a word there, storyfication of the world.
Now, to your question, the way writers allow the reader to interact with the story at every degree is to create a story structure and a story world where all the genres exist simultaneously, or as many genres as work for that particular story idea. And that allows the story to move in a number of different directions, which the audience reader cannot predict. It allows them to identify with characters depending on which genre that main character represents.
And by the way, we're seeing this not just in theme parks, and VR and so on, which you know, that's all about going as immersive as possible. But you're even seeing this in film, novels and television, and especially television, which is one of the things I talked about in the book, is we have lived through two major revolutions in story in our lives.
The first is the revolution of television becoming an art form, to the degree that it is now far surpassed film as the place where the best stories are told. The other major revolution that we're seeing that I talk about in the myth story, is the emergence of the female myth, which has been gone from our culture for 3000 years. It's coming back strong and it's coming back fast.
The point is, that when you set up stories that have various genres as part of the main storyline, and in TV especially you're going to see this because of the serial story structure that they use, which of course is based on Dickens, then you're going to be able to do these multi-line stories, with multiple main characters, each representing a different genre and telling a different type of story, which the reader will then be able to hook into in various ways.
Joanna: As you were talking now, I was thinking of Game of Thrones, the TV show. I tried the books, I read a couple of them, and I think the TV show was fantastic. And like you said, it actually has all the genres. I mean, on one level, it's fantasy, but the romance is very strong, obviously it's thriller, it's horror. It's got everything. I don't know about science fiction. But, you're right, these big things that hit.
I mean, Harry Potter is another great example where we can see ourselves in the different characters and there's elements of all these different stories. I mean, George R.R. Martin, in particular, has had a very long career, and a lot of it was a failure. And then he created this world that has become so evocative, and obviously has made him very, very rich.
Is this something we can learn over a career? Or is it something that just sometimes happens by luck and timing?
For JK Rowling, it was her first series. Do you think it is luck? How much does luck play in this compared to preparation?
John: There is zero luck involved in that. Now, obviously, you can't control whether something you write will be popular. And of course, she's famous for having the Harry Potter stories turned down by everybody initially. As was Star Wars, for example. These stories are legendary.
But in terms of when you look at what they're doing and you break down what they've done structurally and in terms of genres, that is totally figured out from the beginning. And it's just they're really brilliant at mixing genres. I talked in the first chapter of the book how Star Wars started this whole thing in every medium, this mixed-genre world that we live in. There are four major genres in Star Wars, and what the studios and publishers realized when Star Wars came out was that we're living in a multi-genre story world now. And if you want to hit a worldwide audience, that's what you do.
Harry Potter has four major genres in it. And there is no question in my mind that JK Rowling put those together with foresight, knowing exactly how she wanted to do that in the story world that she created.
Game of Thrones is exactly the same way. You can't get that kind of multi-thread storylines, with multiple heroes and over 150 major characters, unless you've got that thing really figured out ahead of time, both in terms of not just the plot and the characters, but in terms of how you're going to weave those genres.
So I absolutely believe that people can learn it, and that's why I wrote this book.
Joanna: And it is an excellent book, as I've said. I'm getting it in hard copy when it comes out. I definitely will be using it.
So tell people where they can find you and your books and courses online.
John: Great. For the book, just go to anatomyofgenres.com. That's one word, anatomyofgenres.com. And for courses in stories and software, just go to truby.com. And whatever your genre is, whatever your story preference might be, we've got courses and software to help you do that.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, John. That was great.
John: Joanna, thank you. It's been a real pleasure to be here with you.
Maria Staal says
Hey Joanna, I loved this episode. I write genre fiction myself and am a plotter. Yet, I hadn’t 100% realised how important genre is for structure. Definitely going to dive into that more thoroughly.
You mentioned the European 20Books events for 2023. We had 20Books in the Netherlands for the first time this year in Rotterdam and it was so much fun. The Amsterdam 20Books next year will be a 2-day event and more internationally focussed. I’m looking forward to it very much.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Maria. I will either come to Amsterdam or Seville for 20Books before London Book Fair in 2023. Fun times!
Delece Ford says
Absolutely loved this podcast.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks as ever, Delece!
Cindy Bahl says
Great interview! I just skimmed through it, reading bits and pieces but will read it fully later today. It’s interesting because the more I learn about writing, the more I see how little I know! I’m in awe of those who have mastered it like John Truby. It also feels a bit intimidating in the sense of me having the audacity to try myself. I do write, but right now all my fiction is only my eyes. Not brave enough to share it yet and not sure I ever will. Like I said, accomplished writers just blow me away, they humble me. Also, the more I write and learn about writing, the more I appreciate books I’m now rereading with new understanding. Thanks for sharing this interview! And I always appreciate it when a website provides a transcript as well. I don’t often listen to podcasts due to sound sensitivity. As always, thank you for the fantastic website overall! Oh, I forgot to mention… I have purchased his latest book! Can’t wait to dive in!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Cindy, and enjoy John’s book!