Interview with John Truby

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Question: What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?

John Truby: Voice and style are among the most misunderstood of all elements in storytelling. Voice and style aren’t simply a unique way of talking and writing. Voice and style come from content. Successful content comes from having an original story idea that is structurally well told. And this combination is extremely rare.

This question is really about the writing process. Telling your story with a unique voice and style comes near the end of the process. The beginning of the process has to do with coming up with an original story idea, and that involves digging into your premise and using story techniques that show you the elements of the idea that are totally unique to you.

The next part of the process is a story structurally well told. This involves all the techniques that go into character, plot and story world. If you master all of these techniques, you are 90% of the way to writing with a voice and style that is unmistakably yours.

Question: When a writer has an idea for a screenplay, what questions should they be asking themselves before writing?

John Truby: The idea stage is the single most dangerous moment for a writer. Why? Because you have almost nothing to go on. Yet you have to somehow dig deep into the idea and determine right now if it can work as a 110-120 page script. This is where craft and technique come to the rescue.

When you apply the techniques for breaking down a story idea, you find out a fact that might amaze you: 9 out of 10 ideas should never be written as screenplays. They are simply too full of structural problems you can never fix, no matter how good you are at story.

One of the biggest mistakes first-time writers make is that when they come up with a story idea they get so excited they immediately start writing script pages. They get 15-25 pages in and then hit a dead end from which they cannot escape.

Instead, start by looking for the structural problems that are embedded within the idea. Focus on the probable main character and whether the idea can sustain a plot that is complex enough to generate up to 120 pages of story.

Question: So how do you know a story you want to turn into a screenplay or novel can carry an entire movie or book?

John Truby: There are many factors that determine a good story. When you are first considering whether a story idea will work as a novel or screenplay, look especially at two structural elements, which you can see right in the premise line: the desire line and the opposition. The hero’s goal provides the spine of the story, and it must extend all the way to the end of the story. So make sure the goal is difficult to achieve and will require the hero to take a lot of complex actions to reach it.

When considering the probable opposition in the story, make sure you can identify one character as the main opponent who wants to prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Then see if you can think of other characters who also oppose the hero’s desire, but for different reasons, and use different strategies than the main opponent.

Question: Back to basics: Does character come from plot, or plot from character?

John Truby: This question represents the Catch-22 of storytelling. Plot is the sequence of what your hero does while going after a goal. Character is not some separate entity from plot, automatically full grown at the start of the story. Character is defined by what your hero does over the course of the story. In other words, plot and character define one another. You can’t have a great plot without a strong, complex main character to generate those actions. And you can’t have a great main character without an intricate plot to test him to the depths of his being.

Think of the relationship of plot and character as a feedback loop; when you improve one you automatically improve the other. The most important thing to remember is that character and plot must be organically and intricately linked for the story to be great.

Question: What defines a good story?

John Truby: So many things. But fundamentally a good story is, once again, plot coming from character and character coming from plot. Most writers think plot and story are identical. They aren’t. Story is the perfect union of character and plot.

A good storyteller actually tracks two lines: the character’s success in the action line and the character’s internal change. The audience wants to see the hero succeed in both lines. The writer makes those two lines one by connecting plot and character under the surface, through the story structure.

There are many techniques for connecting plot to character. I explain these techniques in my Anatomy of Story Master Class when I go through the 22 building blocks of every great story. Think of the 22 building blocks as the specific beats where plot is connected to character, from beginning to end. They’re especially useful for giving writers a precise map to the middle of the script, where 90% of scripts fail.

Question: The story world someone creates in their screenplay can be as big as a universe, or as small as an apartment. What factors determine what the size of your story world should be?

John Truby: Story world has become one of the three or four most important elements in a good script. Much of the incredible success of the Harry Potter stories, for example, comes from the amazing details of the story world. I talk a lot about this in my class because so few writers understand how to create and detail the story world. They think the story world is wherever the story happens to take place. In fact, the story world holds an incredible amount of meaning for the audience.

The first step in creating the story world is figuring out the arena. The arena is some kind of wall that surrounds the world. Everything inside that wall is part of the story. Everything outside it is not. Once within the arena you then link the world to the main character. In other words, the world of the story is an expression of who your hero is. Then set up the major pillars of the story world, and these are often in some kind of opposition to each other. For example, within the vast world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, plants and water represent the forces of love and life while mountains and metal represent the forces of absolute power and death.

Question: Could you describe the conventions of the key genres in Hollywood?

John Truby: Most writers believe that genre writing is a matter of learning certain conventions. But genre conventions are relatively superficial story elements that have little to do with writing a terrific genre script that stands above the crowd.

I refer to genres as the first rule of Hollywood: they’re what Hollywood is really in the business of selling, because they’re what a worldwide audience wants to buy. So as writers we must give them what they’re looking for if we want to win the screenwriting game.

As I point out in all my genre classes, the key to genres is going beyond conventions and learning how they really work under the surface. Each genre is a unique and highly detailed story form with anywhere from 8-15 special story beats (story events). You must not only hit these beats, you must transcend them. In other words, you have to twist the beats in an original way so the audience gets to have their cake and eat it too.

In the third day of my Anatomy of Story Master Class, I explain how the 12 key genres – from which 99% of films are made – really work, and, where possible, how to transcend each form. These 12 genres are: Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Myth, Action, Detective, Crime, Thriller, Memoir-True Story (including the biopic), Love, Masterpiece, and Comedy. I also explain how to write the all-important Mixed Genre story, because the main story strategy in Hollywood is to combine two, three or even four genres together.

Question: Writing good, crisp dialogue is one of the toughest things to do. How do you give each of your characters an original voice when they speak?

John Truby: This is another of the misunderstood elements of good writing. Certainly a character’s personality plays a role in how each speaks in a unique way. But the real trick to this technique has to do with two crucial structural elements: the character’s need and desire, the first two of the seven major story structure steps. Knowing the great weakness that each of the characters must overcome in their lives and being clear what each character wants in the story give you the fundamental “character” of the character. It’s who they are deep down. These two elements are the most important determinants of how each character talks. You then add on top of that each person’s unique personality, background and values so that every character has a distinctive voice.

Question: There seems to be a lot of “re-booting” in Hollywood these days. They just wrapped the redo of “Total Recall,” they rebooted the “Batman” franchise, etc. What’s the best advice you can give when it comes to redoing, rebooting or re-visualizing a previous screenplay?

John Truby: The key to the best reboots of the past ten years - Casino Royale (The Bond series), The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins, Star Trek and most recently, Rise of the Planet of the Apes - is that the writers have given their hero a weakness and need. Weakness-need is the first of the seven major story structure steps. Until about ten years ago, action and myth heroes were rarely given a deep character flaw because the conventional wisdom said that the superhero had to be upstanding and “heroic” the entire story. The conventional wisdom was wrong, because it gave writers a boring character and meant the plot was just a repetitive series of action stunts.

Giving the hero a weakness and need in a reboot not only makes the character more complex and engaging to the audience, it grounds the plot in character and makes it personal. That both delights the audience and makes them care.

Question: What are common myths about being a successful screenwriter in Hollywood?

John Truby:

  • It’s all about who you know.

Yes, Hollywood is based on relationships and of course you have an advantage if you are a close friend of George Clooney. But surprisingly, it’s not much of an advantage. The fact is, very few writers have the skills required to write a professional-level script Hollywood wants to buy. When you get the rare opportunity to make a high-level relationship, you have to walk through that door with one hell of a good script. You won’t get a second chance. The big shots need to know that you are a professional, a master of the craft. One of the few advantages that we have as writers is that it just has to be there on the page. It’s hard, but with commitment you can do it.

  • If I could just pitch my idea to the right person, I could get a script deal and be on my way.

Pitching is a joke. Unless you have the credits of an Aaron Sorkin or a Steve Zaillian, you are not going to be able to pitch to anyone but the assistant to the guy who makes copies. And if you did somehow get in to pitch to people with real weight at a studio, this is what they will always say to you: “That’s a really good idea. Now go write the script and I want to be the first person to read it. Bye.”

Ideas are a dime a dozen. What’s rare is a professionally written script. And since the recession of 2008, even the top writers in Hollywood are having trouble getting a deal from just a pitch. So forget pitching and go write a good script.

  • Every screenplay has three acts and 2-3 plot points.

This one-line summation of what’s known as “3-act structure” is the big lie that every beginning screenwriter is taught, and it kills the career of 99.9% of them. Three-act scripts are mechanical writing at its worst, and the 3-act approach produces a simplistic way of thinking and writing that guarantees you will be an amateur forever.

Just to give you one example, the average film that comes out of Hollywood has anywhere from 7-10 plot points, and if you are working in the detective, crime, or thriller genres, you will need even more. In plot hungry Hollywood, who is going to win the competition between your 3 plot-point script and a script with 7-10?

Three-act writing is for beginners only. You’ve got to learn the techniques the professionals use to be successful.

Question: Could you name 3 non-screenwriting sources writers should be learning from to sharpen their craft?

John Truby: I’ll give you two. These are sleeper books that every serious writer should know and study carefully. They’re not easy to read, but they hold within them profound knowledge of the craft of story.

  1. The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, the best book ever written on story world
  2. Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrup Frye, especially the first essay on the theory of the hero

Question: Finally, what would you say is the biggest misconception about learning and understanding story structure?

John Truby: Most writers never move past 3-act structure, which is deadly because 3-act structure is a mechanical, arbitrary way of dividing story. You can divide anything into three parts, but that won’t help you figure out a story that is complex enough to work at the professional level.

Real story structure, also known as deep structure, is organic. Instead of being imposed from the outside, it comes from inside the hero. Or to put it another way, it’s how the hero develops as a human being by working through a plot, a sequence of actions that tests that hero to the fullest.

Shifting from 3-act to organic story structure is not easy. Three-act is a magic bullet we all desperately want to work. But it won’t work. So let it go. Organic story structure requires knowing your hero with tremendous depth and being able to come up with story events that will inexorably lead that character to fundamental character change. If you can make the shift from 3-act to organic story, the payoff is huge. It’s what makes you a professional.

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