John Truby on Story

Inktip recently interviewed John Truby, one of the most highly respected and sought-out screenwriting instructors / script consultants in the business. Here’s what they talked about:

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: 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 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: 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 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: 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.

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