The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

1383168by John Truby
3 of 5 stars

This came highly rec’d from many YA authors and I was excited to dive in! Especially since I hadn’t read a craft book in far too long. (If like me, you are not familiar with the author, here is more about him). What I found was a book that rang truer to the 1970s than today, despite being written in 2008…

Personally, when I am studying the mechanics of storytelling it helps me to have a broad range of examples, especially ones that subvert known patterns. Show me a variety of settings or characters or plots that take the basic principles and explore them in new ways. For a book about coming up with original stories, I found this to be very unoriginal itself, which was disappointing.

There are some good tips and nuggets of wisdom here, but the scope of “good storytelling” is so narrow it becomes distracting. Aside from a couple of Jane Austen’s works, the examples you study in each chapter are mostly white male-centric stories from the ‘70s or older. Tootsie, Casablanca, The Lord of the Rings, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, Star Wars…these are all good stories, yes, but they begin to blend together when you are discussing character arc. How many rising king/wise mentor/bromances do we need? This would bother me less if the critiques of poor storytelling were not confined to female authors (i.e. Jane Austen and Emily Bronte let their emotions get in the way of satisfying endings). Or if the only character not assigned an archetypal role in Star Wars was Princess Leia – deemed “The Princess,” which was not an archetype on Truby’s list, when it arguably could be, feminism aside. (Even R2-D2 – who does not speak – was designated a prince-magician-warrior archetype).

The eponymous 22 step process is a little muddy, mainly because 22 steps is a lot of steps, and because they can be moved around in nearly any order. (Again, I would have liked a few more examples of this bit). Studying the 22 steps individually and reviewing the prewriting exercises are the most useful things in this book. It is easy to see where your own manuscript might be lacking when you look at the key points, and there are some excellent brainstorming tips for each step.

I read this as I was beginning revisions on my rough draft, and I didn’t feel that I missed out too much. I tend to discover themes and connections through writing the first draft that I can’t plan in advance – this is a book that I think you can approach for prewriting work on a story or while you are revising to get some fresh ideas, depending on your own approach.

I found myself drawn to the key points called out in the text, and the helpful exercises at the end of each chapter and skimming the rest. Overall this was very similar to my college courses in writing. I guess I just expect a little more now!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Anatomy of Story is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood – A collection of photos and prompts to help you scribble down a scene or short story whenever you feel like writing but do not have a guide. I love this little book!
  • The Positive / Negative / Emotion Thesauruses by Angela Ackerman – These are three invaluable guides to psychology and character motivations! Also a good way to find the most accurate and interesting way of writing your characters’ emotions and plans as they try to survive your story’s plot.
  • The Anatomy of Curiosity by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, Brenna Yovanoff – This presents several short stories in various states of revision with notes from real-life critique partners, so you can see how a story goes from draft to finished product.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

16650024by Dodie Smith
Classics / Children’s Lit
3 of 5 stars

This little book is probably better known as the Disney film, but I picked it up last year and loved it, and I enjoyed reading it again this year.

There are some big differences between the two, for instance the fact that Pongo and Missis have the 15 puppies, and Perdita is a lost dog the Dearlys take in to help nurse them all. There are characters removed from or changed for the film (Cruella’s white cat, Perdita’s husband, the puppy Cadpig was combined with Lucky, the two nannies were combined into one, and the farm cat Tibbs is female in the book, to name a few).  They have a series of adventures both searching for and bringing back their puppies, and its charm is irresistible. There are fresh surprises here even if you’ve seen the film.

The best part of this story is the author’s knowledge of dogs. She owned seven Dalmatians during her lifetime and this cute story is packed with facts, jokes, and tips on how to have a happy Dalmatian in your home. It’s also quintessentially British in its descriptions (Mr. Dearly is “not handsome but has the sort of face one does not grow tired of” and Pongo “chewed the wicker on his basket as a man might smoke a pipe”) and each interaction Pongo and Missis have with other dogs is ruled by etiquette and manners.

This is a fun read for a night by the fire in December! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – Another Christmas tale about a girl in the countryside during WWII. She and the other children are sick, but she is the only one who can see the winged horses in the mirrors of the mansion-turned-hospital. See my review here.
  • Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman – A silly story with fun illustrations about a father explaining to his young children why it took him so long to get the milk.
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo – A brave little mouse is sure his destiny is to become a knight, and when the Princess Pea is endangered, he sets out to save the day. I love this story! It’s so cute and such a good representation of the light and dark in us all.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – A winter tale about two sisters, a family of fox kits, and the way their lives intersect after a terrible accident. See my review here.

The Girl Who Fell

girl fellby Shannon M. Parker
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 1, 2016

The concept of this book grabbed me from the start, and when I read about the author’s background and experience, I was sold. There are plenty of YA books about the magic of falling in love, but this one is about what happens when you fall for the wrong person–when you fall for someone who isn’t what they seem, who doesn’t treat you right, who controls your every move.

Zephyr Doyle is on track for her life plan: graduate and attend Boston College. Play field hockey there. Generally be a success in life. Her friend Lizzie teases her about not having time for a boyfriend. But then Alec comes along, sweeps her off her feet, and Zephyr finds herself in a place she never thought she would be. Love isn’t supposed to scare you, isolate you, change all your plans. Or does that just mean it’s the kind of crazy intense love everyone wants?

There were many things I liked about this story. First of all, Zephyr’s best friend Lizzie. A true best friend, who sticks around even when Zephyr becomes too absorbed with Alec to be a good friend. Even when Zephyr blows her off. Because Lizzie knows Zephyr will need her when it all falls apart, and she is going to be there for Zephyr. Their friendship is the strongest relationship in this book and I loved it!

I love a main character who is good at sports–there are too many bookish ones!

Zephyr’s world feels concrete–the ordinary home scenes, the school scenes, the dates–all of it well-written and it feels like you’re there, experiencing it with her (including her adorable dog)!

Finally, Zephyr’s relationship with her father. Her father has walked out on her and her mom when the story starts, and as the months pass her mother begins seeing her father to see if they can patch things up. The way Zephyr deals with his absence and his re-entry to her life is emotional and a perfect balance between hope and wariness.

A couple of things bothered me, though. First of all, the story opens and closes like a horror movie, and some of the drama took away from the serious subject matter for me. Second, Zephyr’s long-time best guy friend Gregg. He’s the “good” guy, the foil for Alec’s controlling, abusive behavior. Except Gregg has no respect for Zephyr either! He repeatedly kisses her and flirts with her despite her repeated lack of interest. It was as if because he’s a “good guy” it’s okay for him to kiss a girl knowing she doesn’t return his feelings, when she has said no, you shouldn’t do that–and that’s not okay with me. For a book about control and consent in relationships, his actions were very uncomfortable yet never addressed.

Overall this is a good story and definitely needs to be out there. It has good intentions and I think Zephyr will connect with a lot of readers.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Girl Who Fell is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – Cassie is ready to start college with her past behind her. No more thinking about her mother or the fact that she locked Cassie in an asylum for two years against her will. But then her mother shows up, promising all the love Cassie always wanted, and she wonders if they can start over. See my review here.
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – This harrowing story of a girl who escapes a cult is incredibly well-done. Minnow is arrested when the Kevinian cult’s village burns down–despite having no hands, they believe she knows something about what really happened. The police aren’t wrong. See my review here.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – This is a moving story about a girl who must learn to speak up for herself in the wake of a traumatic event. A classic that has stuck with me for years.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Gabi is a Mexican American girl just trying to survive her senior year with one best friend pregnant and the other one coming out to unreceptive parents, her father’s meth habit, and the poetry that feels like an escape. See my review here.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

29056083by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

This was both a hard book to read and a hard book to review. I avoided most of the hype about the play because pfff, I couldn’t afford to go to London, tickets are impossible to get anyway – and then this bound version of the script was announced. And I still avoided the hype because…it’s not canon, right? Not really? But then it came out and I bought it on release day because dammit I couldn’t resist the magic of nostalgia! Did it live up to my mostly-resisted hype?


I guess if I can’t shriek “yes” the answer is “no” – but again, I am just so conflicted! There’s nothing wrong with the story. There’s nothing wrong with the writing. It’s just…did I imagine Harry working for the government? Being kind of an ass? Did I imagine such a…realistic future for the beloved characters? Of course not! After all the drama and trauma and horror of the series, the whole point was imagining a happily ever after for the ones left alive! (Or you know…a somewhat somber version of that). But this play puts a wrecking ball through that idea.

This story centers around Harry’s tense relationship with his Slytherin-sorted middle child, Albus (the cute one from the HP7 epilogue). Albus doesn’t like being famous Harry Potter’s very average son. Harry doesn’t like that Albus is pretty much a puzzle to him (he doesn’t share all Harry’s own likes and prejudices). Enter time-travel, for reasons to bring back the old crew in bizarre ways.

Sure, the play centers on coming of age and parenting and finding yourself, but a few platitudes aside, it’s basically some of the stranger fan-fiction theories thrown together. Certain events that hold weight in the previous 7 books seem cheapened in this play. Most of the characters wouldn’t be recognizable from their actions alone. We’re told how we should really feel about side characters from the original series. Everything seemed disjointed and I’m not sure if seeing it on stage would help this or not.

A few moments tugged at my heart, but for the most part I just couldn’t figure out what I was reading. The mood and the messages were all over the place to me. I’m hoping this is something I can revisit later to enjoy it more, because I was underwhelmed this time. Again, the writers didn’t make the choices I would have made, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad–and I couldn’t really tell you what I was expecting! It just wasn’t this. I think I’ve waffled on this enough now!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – The play strongly reminded me of this story! (A fanfiction story from a novel–pretty meta). Simon and Baz are roommates who have hated each other for 6 years. But now it’s finally time for Simon to face the Insidious Humdrum and fulfill his Chosen One destiny. Baz is pretending he doesn’t care about anything–the Humdrum, finishing school, or the fact that he’s been in love with Simon for years and may want to do something about that. See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Cath and her twin sister Wren write Simon Snow fan-fiction (see Carry On) but now they are off to college and Wren declares they aren’t rooming together, and she isn’t writing anymore. Cath isn’t sure how to cope–so she writes some more, and tries to ignore the cute boy trying to ask her out. This is an adorable story!
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – I love this story! Carolina’s family spends a summer on her estranged grandfather’s sheep farm as they prep it for sale. Her grandfather, Serge, has dementia, and is going to move into an assisted-living home. Serge tells Carolina that “the bees will bring back the rain” and at first she thinks he’s confused and telling random stories about a magical tree in the desert. But then bees begin following her around too, and she wonders if Serge has been telling the truth all along. See my review here.
  • Passenger by Alexandra Bracken – If you want more time-travel, look no further! This lovingly researched book will take you from New York City all over the world from the 1700s to the 1900s as Etta searches for an astrolabe so her grandfather will give her mother back. See my review here.

Deep Blue

18601430by Jennifer Donnelly
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

I feel I need to start by saying I am so conflicted about this book! There is nothing inherently “wrong” with it…but it didn’t grab me until almost 75% in, and there were a few reasons for that. But I feel conflicted about my reasons! It’s not often a book leaves me just scratching my head, unsure what to say (especially since we aren’t talking about philosophical or physics theories here)!

For the most part, the issue I had was the pacing. The first quarter of this book is an info-dump about the world, the characters, side characters that play no role in the story, mythology, and magic. So many names—so many factoids—my head was spinning. From there, we move on to a plot that stutters and stops between crazy action sequences, leaving little room for character development or time to process events. There’s a lot of telling vs. showing. The dialogue is dramatic. Finally, the 10-page glossary in the back is to help you understand more sea-puns and made-up vocabulary than I could handle, but that is entirely a matter of taste! I will say that this more than anything made it seem like a middle-grade story instead of YA, with the exception of a few violent scenes.

Why did I finish this book then? Because there are many things I actually liked!

The mythology is addictive. There are six (SIX!) female heroines teaming up and becoming friends and working together. The central relationship of this book is not a romantic one—despite dealing with a betrothal, and several princesses— it’s the best friendship between Serafina and Neela. By the way, each of the six mermaids hails from a different country—female teens handling alliances, politics, different cultures, and finding common ground as they represent entire nations! The wise figures in this story providing prophecy and wisdom are all older mermaids. There’s also a light exploration of how humans are affecting the sea’s population and ecology and I’m betting this will continue to play a role in the series. Yes, the themes throughout the book are presented in a slightly cheesy, very Disney manner (which makes sense since Disney is the publisher), but these are good themes all the same.

The last quarter of this story is the best by far. I’m disappointed that most of the book felt like set-up for the remaining story, but I would not be surprised if the rest of the saga is much better. Be warned, major cliffhanger ending!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Deep Blue is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Emerge by Tobie Easton – A California mermaid stuck on land due to a curse affecting all the mer is just trying to blend in—until another girl sets her eyes on Lia’s crush, Clay. This girl is dangerous, and Lia must save Clay, despite her parents’ disapproval and the dangers of getting involved. I haven’t read this yet but Tobie is an amazing person and I’m sure this will be great!
  • Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon – A retelling of the fairy tale with both a mermaid and a princess in love with the prince. Lenia is a mermaid who saves a prince’s life. Margrethe is a princess who see a mermaid pull a man to shore, and realizes he is the son of her father’s greatest rival. Margrethe nurses him back to health, hoping for an alliance and true love. Lenia makes a deal with a witch to sacrifice everything for the chance to meet and win over the prince she loves. An interesting take on the traditional fairy tale.
  • Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli – Sirena is a siren whose voice lures sailors to their deaths during the Trojan war. But after one shipwreck, she defies Hera and nurses the only survivor back to health. They fall in love, but does he truly love Sirena, or just her voice? And defying the gods brings its own price. I read this a long time ago and I’d probably appreciate it more now!
  • Tides by Betsy Cornwell – Not mermaids, but selkies, seals that can take on the form of humans but must hide their sealskin in order to change back. Whoever holds their skin controls them. Siblings Noah and Lo spend the summer at their grandmother’s lighthouse, and begin to suspect that a girl Noah rescues from the sea might be a selkie. An atmospheric mystery with excellent writing! See my review here.

Finnikin of the Rock

10636358by Melina Marchetta
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

This book perplexed me. I think it might be a case of right book / wrong time. The writing is good – the story is good – I just had so much trouble connecting with it. Part of it might be because I don’t have a strong sense of “home” or “national pride” and since that is essentially the entire theme of this book it would explain why I couldn’t get into it.

Finnikin of the Rock and his mentor Sir Topher are traveling around various kingdoms chronicling a list of names and stories from Lumateran refugees. During the five days of the unspeakable, the royal family was murdered and an imposter king took the throne. For ten years, Lumatere has been bound by a dark blood curse, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the kingdom. Then Finnikin encounters a novice named Evanjalin who claims to know the prince lives and wants to reunite Lumaterans to take back their kingdom.

Lots and lots of world-building: countries, politics, trade, people – names and names and names – in the first fifty pages. The writing feels very formal (think Lord of the Rings style) and for me that always puts distance between me and the main character. I had trouble seeing any stakes for these characters (again, since I don’t relate to the reclaiming a home theme) and I never felt like I knew what they were thinking. Aspects of the religion and magic fascinated me, but those got the shortest explanations.

There is a strange blend of overt sexism (also trigger warning for attempted rape) with overt feminism. It also made me very uncomfortable that the character who escaped being raped was forced to be around her rapist for the remainder of the book—and even befriended him in a way. At times he would attempt to leave the narrative and she was the one returning him to their group for unclear reasons.

I think revisiting this at another time would allow me to be more objective. As it stands – hm, I say to this story. Hmmmm.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Finnikin of the Rock is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Dragonfly by Julia Golding – A betrothal between a wild prince and an orderly princess goes awry when they are both kidnapped. They must work together to escape and save their kingdoms, and along the way you get plenty of world-building and intrigue.
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman – Seraphina is a talented musician working for the king, but as tensions mount between the dragons and humans she begins to worry her own past might be revealed. Fascinating characters and a world that will stick with you. See my review here.
  • The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – Another example of myth and world-building adding to the story.  A thief is released from prison to hunt a treasure for the king. Cleverness and adventure and amazing writing! I loved this and need to read it again.
  • The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien – If you’re talking about a king returning from exile to reclaim his kingdom you have to think of this classic story. Friendships, battles, plenty of world-building history and mythology as well. The Fellowship’s quest comes to a close in this epic finale.
  • Eon by Alison Goodman – An incredible non-western setting where Eon (a girl disguised as a boy) competes to be chosen for one of the twelve zodiacal dragons which help rule and stabilize the kingdom. See my review here.

Love & Gelato

25756328by Jenna Evans Welch
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel: May 3, 2016

The cute cover art caught my eye and I added this to my list because it sounded like a fun rom-com of a book. I was right! Nothing out of the ordinary with this story—the twists are pretty clear from the get-go and the characters are simply drawn—but the descriptions are good and it leaves you with the fuzzy feeling I’ve come to associate with a Julia Roberts / Audrey Hepburn / star-of-the-moment romantic comedy.

When pancreatic cancer takes Lina’s mother and destroys her world, not even a summer in Italy sounds enjoyable—especially since it means staying with the father she found out about just weeks ago. Howard lives in a cemetery and hopes she’ll decide to stay with him permanently, but Lina barely agreed to a few months as a trial period. It’s not long before she meets Howard’s coworker Sonia, who gives Lina one of her mother’s old journals about the time she spent in Italy as a college student. “I made the wrong choice” is scrawled on the first page, and Lina is determined to learn what her mother meant, even if reading about her old memories is painful. Soon Lina and nearby neighbor Ren are drawn into a quest to find out who Lina’s mother loved before Howard and what made her leave Italy behind forever.

As I said, the plot is a bit contrived and obvious at times, but it moves along at a good pace and Lina and Ren’s friendship is charming and believable. Lina is experiencing a lot of feelings—she’s grieving for her mother; she’s trying to be responsible by getting to know her newfound father, but that isn’t easy; she’s swept away by the romantic atmosphere of Florence (in more than one sense) which resurrects her mother’s past and promises a bright future if she can be brave enough to go after it—I really enjoyed her emotional journey. It’s easy to let a character succumb to grief so much that the reader drowns, or to box up those reactions so that the character ends up coming across as stiff or insensitive. Grief is a strange beast; it can sink down so far you think you’ve recovered, and then it devours you in a heartbeat because you saw something that reminds you of what you lost. Welch allows Lina to ride all the waves of her emotions and it made Lina feel so real to me!

Florence is a grand backdrop for this story and the descriptions are done well. Italy adds to the story instead of bogging it down. The author spent time there and it’s so clear that much of this is drawn from personal experience, which is always good. What I liked is that the descriptions are broad strokes—we don’t spend pages describing a building or a piece of art, and we don’t spend a chapter on Florence’s (extensive) history. We have just enough to get a sense of the surroundings and the mood of the street and then the focus is back to Lina.

This is a good summer read that feels like a small vacation. Be warned: gelato cravings ahead!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Love & Gelato is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han – Lara Jean is second of three sisters and she recently found out all of her secret past love letters made it into the hands of the boys she wrote about. Now she’s trying to have a real relationship with Peter and that brings its own challenges. Lara Jean longs for advice from her mother and older sister as she tries to navigate the cruel rumors and pressures of high school and love, but her mother is dead and Margot is absent. This is a cute high school love story that is better than the first book (and really you don’t have to read the first book). See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Twin sisters Cath and Wren are off to their first year of college. Cath is blind-sided when Wren declares they aren’t rooming together and it’s time to be more independent. Cath’s social anxiety already has her living an isolated life with only her sister and bi-polar father for company. (Oh, and her thousands of fanfiction followers). When Wren reveals she is over Simon Snow fanfic and is reconnecting with their estranged mother, Cath isn’t sure how to keep her sister close without stirring up the painful past. Also, a cute boy is determined to date Cath if she could summon the courage to open her dorm-room door and talk to him. This is a moving coming-of-age story with a charming sense of humor.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim moves hundreds of miles away from her mother when her father remarries and gets a replacement family. Mim is not happy about this at all—so when she finds out her mother is sick, she gets a bus ticket and travels back alone to see her. See my review here.
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith – I think I wasn’t entirely in the right mood for this story when I first read it, SO, I am recommending it now. Hadley has a flight to London for her father’s remarriage and is not looking forward to it at all. But when she spends the overnight flight talking to charming British boy Oliver, everything changes.

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