Why Story Structure is the Key to Success

Posted by John Truby on

There is a system of thought known as the As-If Philosophy. In a nutshell, the As-If Philosophy says: We know we will die, but we act "as if" we will live forever. The ironic result is that our lives are not nearly as fulfilling as they could be. The entertainment industry is a perfect example of the As-If Philosophy. We all know it is set up so that most people will fail. But we act as if we will be part of the small percentage of people who will succeed. Why? Because we've studied the barriers and we know how to beat them.

Let me suggest that you may be wrong about what the real barriers are. I'd like to point out some of the misconceptions many writers have, and the real solutions for being a successful writer.

Misconception #1: It's a star-based business. If it's a star-based business and you're not a star, where does that leave you?

The Reality: Hollywood is a star-based system but not the kind everyone thinks.

Misconception #2: It's all about who you know. If it's all about who you know, you are bound to fail, because no one wants to know someone below them. They all want to know someone above them. Think of it like tennis: everyone wants to play someone better than they are.

The Reality: When most people finally meet the right connection, they don't have mastery over the content to make that connection pay off.

Misconception #3: You succeed by figuring out what Hollywood wants to buy. Hollywood doesn't know what it wants to buy. It only knows what has already been bought.

The Reality: If you try to figure out what Hollywood wants to buy, you will always serve up reheated leftovers.

Misconception #4: You've got to find a "high concept" story idea. This causes most writers to come up with an idea that is a restatement of a movie they saw six months ago.

The Reality: Most high concept films are total failures. That's because high concept only gives you two or three scenes, where the story "flip" occurs. The problem with high concept comes from the fact that a movie has anywhere from 50 to 70 scenes. If you don't know the craft needed to take a high concept premise to a 110- page script, you lose.

I'd like to suggest two key insights that have more to do with your success than anything I know.

1. American Film is All About Story

Why? Because film is the art of change and the art of juxtaposition. Film is the art of change because that is what the frame of the overall film is marking. A mainstream Hollywood movie gives the audience a very streamlined sequence of events leading to a life change in a character. On those rare occasions - for example, a black comedy - when the character doesn't change, it's because the writer is using a storytelling strategy that purposely withholds change from the hero so that the audience will see the need for change even more clearly.

Film is the art of juxtaposition because it is based on the cut. With the cut, the audience's attention is shifted in a split second to another character and line of action. Therefore, in film, the juxtaposition of two shots or two scenes becomes more important than what is in the shot or the scene.

The combination of these two things means:

· Film (and TV) are the closest media to pure story, much more than novels or plays, and

· Story structure is the key to a great script.

In a screenplay, if you concentrate on the structural sequence of the story, you are 90% of the way to success. But knowing that still leaves you with a big problem. Surprisingly few people know what makes a good story or know how to explain it. There are many reasons for this.

One is that most people use meaningless terms when they talk about a story. For example, they might say, "You have one-dimensional characters." Or, "your characters are flat." Or, "film is a visual medium." Or the ever-popular, "There is no magic in your script." These are all meaningless comments often spoken by people who have to sound like they know something, but don't.

Another reason most writers don't know what makes a good story is they get bad training or no training at all. When I started writing, there was no training for how to write a good script. Then, in the early '80s, an attempt was made to provide a theory of scriptwriting. Unfortunately it was a disaster. Yet it was hailed by everyone as the magic bullet.

Called the "Three-act Structure," it said that every script has three acts, with a plot point on page 27 and a plot point on page 87. Notice three-act uses terms that seem to be more precise and more technical, like "act" and "plot point," In fact, these terms are just as esoteric and phony as before.

What most people don't realize is that three-act structure doesn't really exist. It's totally arbitrary. There is no act break in your script. It has been imposed from the outside and is a holdover from theater where we must open and close a curtain. Movies are far more fluid, so it makes no sense to hold them back with a rigid, mechanical form. Sure you can divide anything into three parts, but it gives your script a very clumsy, one-size-fits-all quality. That's especially dangerous in professional screenwriting where the biggest reason scripts are turned down is because they are derivative.

The result of three-act structure is that thousands of people have been trained to write generic, superficial scripts that are guaranteed to fail. And the writers, who blame themselves, not the false method they are using, eventually give up in frustration.

I believe writers who wish to work professionally need a new way of looking at story, based on deep structure. Deep structure involves a highly precise set of tools for tracking how a character develops emotionally and morally by taking actions to defeat an opponent.

The most important of these tools is what I call the 22 building blocks of every great story. The 22 building blocks are not a formula, but the grammar of drama. Or, to put it another way, they form a very precise map for tracking how the hero changes by working through a plot.

If you were to study the 22 steps carefully, you would see that a great story is a complex weave of hero and opponents competing for the same goal. And in that process, the hero undergoes a deeper change that may have nothing to do with the goal. The 22 steps breaks the complex story-weave down into its threads so you can create the tapestry you want.

One benefit of the deep structure method is better scripts. A second, and perhaps greater, benefit is that it puts creative power in the hands of the people who need it most., which is every writer struggling to succeed. I don't mean that everyone can write well. I do mean that everyone should be able to write their story and develop their talent as far as it can go. Only the precise tools of deep structure can do that.

Deep structure has an even bigger benefit. It allows you to be in control of your own mind, of your own creativity, which is extremely rare in this business. It's also the single biggest key to success because Hollywood doesn't respect or pay for someone who blends in with the system. It respects and pays for someone who stands out from the crowd. That is the true star-based system of Hollywood.

2. Hollywood is in the Business of Buying and Selling Genres

Genres are different kinds of stories, like action, love or thriller. But more important, genres are really good stories. Genres are the all-stars of story. That's why Hollywood buys and sells them. But, genre writing can kill you if you approach it as hack or commercial writing.

The first trick to genre writing is that you have to hit all the story beats unique to that form. Each genre is complex, so that alone is difficult. But there's more. You have to hit all those beats in an original way.

The second trick to genre writing comes from what genres you choose to write. You always want to work in the genres that express your view of the world and show off your strengths as a writer. That means looking into yourself and being honest about what you find.

If you combine mastery of story structure with finding an original approach to the genres that show off your strengths, I believe you can overcome the barriers and be successful.

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