John Truby Interview February 2011

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John Truby is Hollywood's premier screenwriting instructor and story consultant. Over the last 25 years, more than 30,000 writers have attended his sold-out seminars around the world, with the American Film Institute declaring that Truby's "course allows a writer to succeed in the fiercely competitive climate of Hollywood."

Called "the best script doctor in the movie industry," Truby regularly serves as a story consultant for major studios and production companies worldwide, and has been a script doctor and story consultant on more than 1,000 movies, sitcoms and television dramas for the likes of Disney, Sony Pictures, FOX, HBO, Alliance Atlantis, Paramount, the BBC, MTV and more.

Truby's former students' work have earned more than $15 billion at the box office, and include the writers, directors and producers of such blockbusters as Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men I/II/III, Shrek, The Surrogate (2012, with Halle Berry), House, Lost, Planet of the Apes, Scream, The Fantastic Four, The Negotiator, Star Wars, Sleepless in Seattle, Outbreak, Saving Milly and more. His classes regularly attract everyone from first-time writers to A-list writers, producers, directors, filmmakers, story executives, novelists, fiction writers and more.

After a whirlwind tour that took him across Europe, Truby sat down for a full-length interview as he prepares for upcoming events in Los Angeles and New York.

Question: What questions should a writer ask him or herself prior to crafting their story?

John Truby: Most writers can't tell at the premise stage whether they've got a good story because they don't have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.

The extraordinary fact is 99% of writers fail at the premise. This is the great unknown gatekeeper that keeps most writers from being successful. If you screw up the premise, nothing you do later in the writing process will make any difference. The game's already over.

The biggest mistakes writers make at the premise:

  1. The idea is not original.
  2. The idea doesn't have a clear desire line for the hero that extends throughout the story.
  3. The idea doesn't have a strong main opponent.

Question: How much time and effort should a writer put into outlining their script and fleshing out their characters before actually writing the script?

John Truby: Much more time and effort than most writers think.

For every hour you put into prep work on your story, you save ten when it comes to writing, and rewriting, it. Don't make the mistake so many writers make of thinking, "I'll fix it in the rewrite." They never do.

A good story is linked under the surface so it builds steadily from beginning to end. But amateurs don't know that, so when they get an idea, they immediately start writing script pages, and they inevitably write themselves into a dead-end 20-30 pages in. Also, writer's block is almost always caused by not knowing where the story is going. That's why, before writing script pages, you always want to start by figuring out the seven steps of your story. The seven steps are in your story right now. It's your job to find them, dig them out and make them say what you want them to say.

Question: You've consulted on over 1,000 movie and TV scripts. What are the typical weaknesses you find in scripts?

John Truby: I'll give you five.

  1. The story idea the writer comes up with is not original. Biggest mistake writers make.
  2.  Writers often use the wrong genre to develop the idea, or they impose a bunch of pre-determined genre beats onto the idea instead of finding the story events that are original to the idea.
  3. They think a script is all about finding the "high concept" premise, but they don't realize that high concept only gives you two or three big scenes. So they don't know how to extend the high concept into a 100-page script.
  4. They don't know how to build the story on the seven major story structure steps, so the plot fails to come out of character and the main character doesn't change.
  5. They think of the hero as a separate individual with a list of superficial character traits. Instead they should think of the hero as part of a web of characters, all connected in some way but with each character being structurally different from the others.

Question: How important is the process of rewriting?

John Truby: For most writers, the second draft is worse than the first.

This is one of the dirty little secrets of screenwriting, and it's one of the biggest reasons many writers give up. Writers always think they are the only person to experience this, while in fact it's the norm. Part of the problem comes from writers following the conventional wisdom that "writing is rewriting." It's true you have to rewrite your script many times. But many writers think that they should write their first draft quickly - just get it down on paper - and they'll fix it in the rewrite. This is a disaster because once a script is written it's like cement. It hardens in your mind and it's much harder to fix the problems. That's why it's so important to figure out the story structure before you write the first draft.

The other big reason why the second draft is often worse than the first comes from the fact that most writers don't realize that rewriting is a set of skills, just like crafting character, plot and dialogue. You have to know how to rewrite. And that means, among other things, knowing the right order to rewrite. For example, the first thing most writers fix in the rewrite is the dialogue. That should be the last thing you fix. First are the structural problems, and even here there is a definite order for how to rewrite to make certain that every draft is an improvement over the one that came before.

Question: Why is it so important to master genres?

John Truby: It goes back to the 1st rule of the entertainment business: it doesn't buy stars, directors or writers. It buys and sells genres. If you don't know what Hollywood is really buying, you have no chance of selling them your script.

Genres are different kinds of stories. More importantly, genres are really good stories. They are the all-stars of the story world. That's why Hollywood buys and sells them. That's why you have to know these genres cold. The game is won by mastering story structure and genres. And mastering genres comes from specializing in 2 or 3 forms that highlight your strengths as a writer and express your philosophy of life.

Question: How do you determine what genre or genres your story is?

John Truby: This can be very tricky, and most writers end up choosing the wrong genre for their story idea. Each genre takes the basic steps of story structure and twists them in unique ways. Also, each genre has its own set of unique story beats - anywhere from 8-15 - that must be included in your script if you are to tell the story right.

Because genre is the single most important decision you make in developing a story idea, I spend a great deal of time in my Master Class talking about how you tell which are the right genres for your unique idea. Some of the elements that determine the right genres for your story are the hero, the opponent, the key thematic question, the hero's goal in the story, and the unique story strategy inherent to each form.

Question: You've said writers often underestimate the importance of plot. Why is it so important to learn, and how do you approach teaching it?

John Truby: Plot is the most underestimated of the major writing skills. Most writers know the value of a strong main character and lean, hard-hitting dialogue. But when it comes to plot, they think they'll just figure it out as they go, which never happens.

  • The bad news: Plot has more techniques you need to know than all the other major skills combined.
  • The good news: Every one of them can be learned as long as you are willing to put in the work.

Plot is what makes the character's internal development pleasing to the audience. It's the artistry that sets you apart, that tells the audience you are a real storyteller. Plot is the sequence of events by which the hero tries to defeat the opponent and reach the goal. The two biggest mistakes writers make in plot is 1) Their story is episodic, meaning events stand on their own but don't connect and build under the surface and 2) They hit the same beat, which means the events are superficially different but really all the same.

Question: Why do some writers react negatively to the idea of structure?

John Truby: They wrongly believe that it hurts creativity. It goes all the way back to the old romantic notion that art comes from divine intervention. The fact is: art comes from craft. And the most important element of craft is structure. When you have the right story structure for your script then each scene you write is moving you along the right path for your particular main character. The results are not comparable. The first way you write yourself into a dead-end about 20-30 pages in. It is practically inevitable and is one of the marks of an amateur. The second way you figure out the story structure so your creative bursts are linked to the right path.

Ironically, structuring your story first is much more creative than just winging it, because you have a strong foundation on which to take creative chances. You know your structure is there to tell you if the creative jump you want to make is going to work.

Question: You say character must drive the plot instead of being pushed around by the plot. But don't you think everyday life pushes us around most of the time? In order for the audience to recognize itself in the story, shouldn't the story talk about that too?

John Truby: This phrase is often misunderstood. Driving the plot doesn't mean a hero who takes all the action steps to succeed. Only the most action-oriented character does that. And it makes for a poor story because it means the opposition is doing very little to knock the hero off course. Result: no conflict and bad drama.

Making the hero drive the plot means that the plot comes out of the weakness and need of the hero. This way, the hero's surface actions while going after some kind of goal lead ultimately to character change within the hero. If the writer doesn't make this connection between character and plot, and come up with plot beats that will ultimately force that character change, the story has no personal meaning for the audience. In a good story the opponent will push the hero around a great deal, in fact, the more the better. This builds conflict and forces the hero to dig deeper to fix the great weakness that's ruining the hero's life.

Question: You write that dialogue isn't real talk, rather it's highly selective language that could be real. Could you please explain that?

John Truby: If dialogue were real talk, all you would need to do is follow your friends around with a recording device and your dialogue would be guaranteed authentic. It would also be boring. Why? Because it lacks content.

Just as a story is a highly selective sequence of events, dialogue is selective, heightened talk. It is packed content. And here's where it gets tricky. Dialogue with lots of content doesn't usually sound like real talk. It sounds written, and that will kill your story. So you need to learn the techniques for making highly selective language sound like it could be real.

Question: What is the most important thing to know when you are adapting a book into a screenplay?

John Truby: Entire books have been written on the subject of adapting a book into a screenplay. Always the question arises: how do you remain true to the original material and still have the freedom to take advantage of the cinematic medium?

The trick to adaptation is: find the bones. First determine the deep structure of the novel. Mark every scene where a key structure step occurs. Those are the events that must be in the script. Study those beats and figure out if the novel's original structure needs to be fixed or changed in some way. Then go back to the novel and see if you want to include any of the non-structural events. These may be in the script, so long as they contribute to the script's basic structure.

Question: How do writers unearth stories that want to be told?

John Truby: Stories that want to be told are not "out there." They're in you. In my class, I talk about a number of key writing exercises that help you find what is totally original to you. Incredibly, most writers don't know, and it's a fatal mistake. Then we go through the techniques you must know to turn that original seed into a professionally told story. An original idea professionally told is an unbeatable combination. It's not easy, but it can be done and it's the only recipe I know that works.

Question: Your 3-day master class on story is legendary. Can you give us a detailed rundown of what you cover and why people keep coming back over and over?

John Truby: The morning of the first day is where we set the foundation for a great script. We cover the 7 steps of deep structure and the story beats of the 3 major variations of deep structure. Once this foundation is set, the class covers all the professional techniques in the same order that you would write your script.

In the afternoon, we start with the techniques for developing a winning premise, because 99% of scripts fail right there. Then we go through the five steps to creating powerful characters, the key to every good script.

The morning of the second day is devoted to plot, where many writers have tremendous difficulty. This is where we learn the 22 steps of every great story, the single most powerful set of tools in all of storytelling. Afternoon of day two starts with a discussion of story shapes, which are one of the secrets to crafting a surprising and unique plot. Then we dive into the techniques for constructing scenes and writing sharp dialogue.

In day three, we go through the 11 major genres on which 99% of movies are based. These include Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Love, Masterpiece, Myth, Science Fiction, Thriller and Mixed Genre. Here we get into what each genre really means under the surface, some key structure techniques for writing each one, and how to transcend your genre so you stand above the crowd.

When the three days are over, students have a precise set of tools that they can apply to any story they write. And I believe at the end of the class, they are substantially better writers than they were before the class, whether they started as a beginner or as a professional.

Why do people keep coming back? Because for many writers it's the only thing they've found that works. My class is all about being practical. It's about taking the most complex craft in the world - which shows people solving life problems - and breaking it down into specific techniques that affect an audience. Every time. Every script, no matter what genre.

Part of what makes the class so powerful and useful to writers is that the techniques don't produce cookie cutter scripts that no one wants to read. That's because the techniques are all focused on how your unique main character drives an intriguing plot. So each script is original and surprising at the same time.

(C) 2011 Reprinted With Permission.

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