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Interview: John Truby on Screenwriting and Breaking In
Author: Lewis Ward

John Truby  

John Truby is one of today’s leading screenplay “gurus.” His 22-step building block method has been widely embraced and praised by writers of all stripes for its unique emphasis on deep story structure and its link to the moral and emotional development of the hero. Truby’s written for film and television and has taught his professional writing classes to over 20,000 students worldwide.

He recently shared some thoughts and ideas about how writers should approach the craft of screenwriting and what they should do with a script once it’s polished. While the following interview touches on all genres, it has a slight emphasis on comedy.

Q: What’s your sense of what the three most common spec screenplay writing errors are today and what can writers do to avoid them?

A: The first error might be not knowing who they’re writing for. They think it’s all about writing a big budget special effects movie and that’s not what’s going to sell. You need to write a spec that has blockbuster potential because that’s what the studios are interested in. It has to be a script that will also sell worldwide. You don’t do that by writing a big, expensive special-effects script. You have to know what goes into a script with blockbuster potential and those are really unique story elements that most writers are not aware of.

For example, a blockbuster script will usually be a mixed genre story. Typically myth will be one of the genres but it will almost always be combined with one or two other genres to update the myth form and to get rid of some of the problems that a myth-based story has. It will also be one where the writer is very familiar with their form … the genre they’re working in, so familiar that they’re able to hit the story beats but do them in an original way. That would be a second big mistake. Writers know enough to write a genre script but they haven’t twisted the story beats of that genre in such a way that it gives an original face to it.

Q: Last week I rented 28 Days Later. You seem to suggest that young writers should focus in on smaller budget scripts that may be aligned with independent production companies. 28 Days Later met the criteria of being a pretty small budget movie and putting a twist on the horror genre. I personally thought the end didn’t work, but it seemed to do pretty well at the box-office.

A: 28 Days Later hits it pretty well. Horror is one of the forms that you typically see as an independent film but it also has worldwide potential. People don’t realize that of the top 10 grossing films released by Miramax, which we normally think of as an art house company, I believe seven out of 10 of them are horror pictures. We forget that while it’s a form that writers often look down their nose at it’s extremely popular worldwide. If you can figure out how to do that form with a twist, like a Blair Witch Project, it will stand apart but it will also hit the basic appeal of the horror film, which, again, transcends national boundaries as well as any other genre.

Another element that is very important when you’re writing a spec script with blockbuster potential, which ties in with not thinking in terms of big special effects, is you want it to be a script that will appeal to actors. It’s all about getting name people into your film. That doesn’t mean writing a big budget special-effects film where the actor is basically just part of the scenery. That means writing a part that a star would like to play and that means something where the character changes, a script that has at least one good monologue where the actor can really sink his teeth into it.

Q: When it comes to comedy, however, my understanding is that as a rule you don’t want to have major change and so forth … too much empathy with the hero will kill the laughs.

A: That’s right, but that’s unique to comedy. In my opinion, comedy is the most underestimated of all the genres. It’s very tricky. It has a different set of standards applied to it. One being, “Did it make me laugh?” Which drama doesn’t have. So in a way you’re setting a higher bar for yourself. The other problem with spec comedies is that they don’t travel worldwide as well as other genres. So in my opinion, studio execs are less likely to buy a comedy script from an unknown writer.

Q: So you recommend trying your hand at something like In the Bedroom?

A: Well, there are certain genres that travel well. One is myth. Another is horror. And thrillers and action films. These can all be done in such a way that they can be very appealing to actors even though they are heavily genre based.

Q: Most of those genres seem R-rated by nature. My sense is that of the top 20 grossing films of the past few years, more than half have been PG-13. Finding Nemo … Something generally appealing … Horror mixed with comedy … Like Scream or Scary Movie. Those may do well, but don’t you limit your audience by writing R-rated stories? Should a young writer stick to PG-13 material?

A: You’re trying to be a little too smart there. The trick is to write the best script in that genre you can write. What rating it might get down the line if it gets made and if it’s shot in this particular way, and if and if and if …You know, that’s writing for the wrong audience. You’re trying to predict things that a writer has really no control over.

In my opinion, it’s much more important that you work in mixing genres in a script that have worldwide appeal and those are the genres which do. And number two, write genres that are right for you as a writer. One of the biggest mistakes writers do is they try to predict trends and say, “This will be a hot genre or a hot story.” First of all you can’t predict trends and second of all you’re putting the cart before the horse. The most important thing is to write in the genres that show off your strengths as a writer.

Q: So it’s a self-knowledge thing?

A: Absolutely. You talk about big mistakes. Most writers don’t specialize in the genres that they are best at writing. That’s far more important than any other piece of advice that anybody can give a writer.

Q: Figure out what makes you laugh or cry or feel strongly and then …

A: Figure out what genre will be the best vehicle for you to express those strengths. Then you’re letting genre work with you, work for you, instead of trying to adapt yourself to a genre you don’t have any particular talent in. For example, detective stories are a very unique type of form. A lot of writers just do not have a knack for that. A lot of times you have to write them backwards. You have a whodunit.

The way you write a detective story is very unique compared to other genres. Action is a surprisingly difficult form. A lot of people think you just write a lot of big action set pieces. People that think that’s the way you do it write lousy action scripts.

Q: Since I’ve done your comedy add-on via tape I’m trying to square the idea of ...

A: Let me put a qualifier on my comments about comedy. One of the biggest mistakes comedy writers have is they don’t know the sub-genre they’re working in. It’s so huge, so varied, that if you don’t know that sub-form then you may write something you don’t have any skill at writing. There are some comedies that do better than others worldwide.

Dialogue-focused comedies don’t travel well. But forms like the buddy picture do because they’re based on a contrast of cultures or societies.

Q: What’s the right balance between having structure and being free as a writer? How do you navigate between having a set story structure versus a freedom that may give you spectacularly original results but where you could also wind up writing forever and never finish.

A: The question of structure versus freedom is an apparent contradiction but it isn’t real. Knowing your structure and more importantly knowing the structure that is inherent to the story idea is the key to getting freedom in the writing process. Don’t think of structure as a jail you get yourself inside of, although a lot of writers work that way. Deep structure, which I talk about with the 22 steps, is all about allowing you to track a story where the character is going to develop and drive the plot.

A lot of people get into trouble when they think in terms of, “I just let the character do what he’s going to do.” That’s an esoteric comment that sounds like it makes sense but if you don’t have a clear idea of how that character is going to develop emotionally and morally over the course of the story, then you’re going to have plenty of freedom but you’ll have a big mess on your hands.

The trick is to use structure so that it gives you more freedom. You use the structure tools to explore the character and how that character is going to undergo a deep change by the end of the story. So you start at that end point and then work backwards. That gives you a general track and gives you enough freedom to take your plot in a number of directions but it also means you’re also always going on the path that’s going toward the end point. If you don’t know that character change end point in the early part of the writing process you will run into a dead end.

Q: My sense is that, generally speaking, you believe comedy premises are about misdirection while dramas are more straightforward. A comedic premise goes like, “The hero does X to get Y but ends up with Z.” While a drama may be more like, “The hero does X to get Y and either gets Y or he doesn’t.” If you don’t have that fundamental misdirection are you less likely to succeed in a spec comedy?

A: That’s a very big question in a very small sentence! Film comedy is typically based on big structural contrasts. When you put it in that simple form, what you’re really describing is irony, where a character gets the opposite of what they set out to get. In drama, especially heroic epics, it’s all about success—the character is very goal-driven, has a big goal and goes after it, knocks through all the opposition to get there. Comedy is typically about getting the reverse or something different than what you sought out.

But that’s just one aspect of the comic form. What also goes into a comedy is the contrast between the character and the environment. Look at Crocodile Dundee. He’s good at getting what he wants and in that sense he’s not the typical comedy character. The comedy comes from him being a character from the wilderness and a throwback in time and space who’s hurtled forward in time and space to New York City and comes in contrast with all these strange characters and all these strange technologies. It’s that contrast, that fish-out-of-water approach that creates the comedy.

Q: I saw that on cable a few months ago and it’s right at the 45-minute mark when he goes to New York. So the woman’s made fun of in Australia for the first half and then it’s a total flip. But it doesn’t happen at the 30-minute mark (the end of Act 1), but at the midpoint.

A: No. One of the first things I tell writers is to get past the three-act structure as quickly as possible because it will cause you all kinds of problems and it will give you a script that is so generic that the readers will recognize it. They’re going to see there’s no originality in it. The scripts that are successful are not three-act scripts. They can be divided into three parts, but they’re much more dependent on the type of story that they are. In this case, a fish-out-of-water comedy … if you try to force your story into that simplistic set of divisions you’re going to end up with a lousy script.

Q: In terms of breaking in, how much should a young writer focus on marketing and how much of writing?

A: While marketing is something a writer needs to do, they often put too much emphasis on the wrong thing. They think that if they just get to know the right people, the right connections, they can sell their script. Now networking is certainly valuable and knowing people with power is a nice thing to have. But the fact is the vast majority of writers aren’t going to get to know those people until they’re already successful.

What happens is that writers think they’re doing well as a writer but that they’re not marketing it properly. But 99.9 percent of the time the script isn’t good enough. They didn’t write a good script. Ultimately your ability to market comes down to, “How good of a script is it?” That’s the only thing that the writer has any real control over. So I tell people to make sure it’s a great script before you market it at all. And 99 percent of the time you’re trying to take it to market before it’s ready.

Q: What about analysts and coverage? Should you skip these and go for production companies, maybe the independents?

A: Well, it’s a good idea to do some basic research about what companies work in the area of writing that you do. On the other hand, a company may do one particular story as a film because they like that script, not because … It’s not like Hammer Pictures where all they do is horror. It’s more like they happened to do a horror picture this time because that was the script that they had and it came together for them right at that moment.

I think it’s much more important to get representation, either by an agent or an attorney, and that you try to get the script to some particular actors that you think might want to make that film.

Q: So rather than production companies, go for actors, and try to get packaged.

A: It’s always going to come down to who can you get to be in it anyway. Whether you go directly to those people, or go to certain production companies that will then go to those people doesn’t matter that much. It’s going to have to grab those people in the first place or it isn’t going to get made.

Q: Seems to me that as far as agents go, most large agencies won’t give you the time of day if you’re not local and already working. So should writers look for smaller agencies?

A: It’s really important that you get someone to represent you who is passionate about that script. If they’re not going to spend the time doing the footwork to get it out there, you’re dead. So you need to get someone who will invest in your work.

The conventional wisdom is that you want to get one of the top three agencies. Sure that would be great, but you can’t get into those places, and second of all, if your rep isn’t all that excited about it, then you’re as good as not being represented by them in the first place. So it’s not about the power of that agent or agency, as it is about getting someone who is really excited about your script.

But I want to move the discussion to a different avenue. The conventional way of writing a spec and trying to get representation, and then getting it around to actors and getting them attached …that’s an approach you can take but the chance of failure is high. It’s more important to get the script to people who will allow you to control your creativity.
You can write specs forever and they go out into the ether and are never seen or heard from again and you can waste your writing life in Hollywood with that approach, and frankly most writers do. Or you can write a unique script, it’s not big budget, you’re able to allow yourself to work with people who want to and can make it and in some way do it as an independent film.

It’s a different strategy for trying to break in and it’s got its own problems. It’s hard to go that route as well. But I think that’s a far better way to be in control of your own work.

Q: You mean it will be optioned and you will get credit and you will have a chance to make changes during production and so on …

A: Yes, and when you think in those terms you tend to write a much more original piece of work in the first place and that’s what really sets you apart. So if even you don’t get it made, independently or through mainstream Hollywood, it is a script that people notice and they say, “This guy’s a real writer.”

Q: Heart versus marketplace. Should you write what you’re passionate about and nothing else or should you read the trades and try to figure out what certain segments of the market may be looking for at a particular time?

A: Again, it’s not a simple choice. I’m a big believer in writing a story that you’re passionate about that is original to you but also have it in one or two of the mainstream genres. That’s where you pay the dues to the marketplace. Because the marketplace is all about genres. It’s totally about genres. But that doesn’t mean you have to write a generic script.
The idea is that you work in one or two very popular genres but do them in such an original way that they’re unique to you and secondly, you’re really passionate about the story. That will come through. The buyer will say, “On the one hand it’s in the mainstream genres but at the same time I’ve never seen anything like it.” That’s where writers break in and really set themselves apart.

Blair Witch is an example. Memento … I didn’t think it was a very good film but it took the thriller form and gave it a unique twist and all of a sudden everyone is saying this guy is a genius. Now he’s not a genius but he did something most people don’t which is he took a basic genre and twisted it just enough so that everyone would think, “This is original.” That strategy works.

Tarantino is another example of this. Look at Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. These are taking very old genres and twisting them just enough so that people say, “This guy’s different.” That’s what you need.

I tell writers this all the time. Hollywood does not respect or pay for somebody who is part of the system. They would love to have you help them support that system and they will suck you dry. Nobody will hear from you again. What they pay for and respect is someone who stands apart from the crowd who also is still paying the dues of what the system needs to sell worldwide, and that’s genres.

Q: By twists does that mean mixing genres, or like inverting the timeline as in Memento, or something else?

A: Yes. There’s a number of ways to twist. One is to mix genres. Or take the basic genre beats and do them differently, changing the order of the beats. Memento didn’t pay off as it should have, but just doing that set it apart from other thrillers.

Q: Work ethic: One screenwriting guru says that a writer should basically write each scene at least three times. So you really carve a story out of a mounting of writing in the end. If it’s a matter of a scene and you have your idea, do you support this idea of writing each scene several times?

A: It’s helpful to think about your scenes in different ways and trying to do them in a new way, in an untypical manner. But rewriting is one of the most misunderstood part of the process. It surprises people that for most writers, their second draft is worse than their first. Most people think this can’t be true but it is.

Most writers don’t know how to rewrite. They think it’s all about writing a huge amount of material and whittling it down. That’s nonsense. You’ve heard the old line “Writing is rewriting.” Would you say building a house is rebuilding a house? It’s absurd. You wouldn’t build a house and then tear it down and rebuild it.

The trick is to go through a well-structured process of writing in the first place so that in the first draft you have a powerful story. Then when you rewrite, it’s knowing the right order for the rewrite. Most writers rewrite them many times. That doesn’t necessarily make them better. It’s more important that you go back and figure out what is not working structurally and rewrite the scenes so that they are contributing to the main point of the script, which is, “What is the moral and emotional journey this character takes over the course of this story?”

You want to be sure every scene is taking you along that arc. If it isn’t, it shouldn’t be there at all. So it may not be about rewriting, but getting rid of it. So it’s a different way of thinking. You’re putting the cart before the horse.

The scene must support the overall structure. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Most writers are rewriting scenes that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Fully half of the rewritten scenes I see being rewritten shouldn’t even be present.

You want to sequence your scenes by structure, not chronology. Most writers write them chronologically, but half of them shouldn’t be present because they’re not developing the main character through the plot. So it’s about how you rewrite something rather than how many times you do it.

Q: Great. Any final thoughts or ideas for writers to keep in mind?

A: As I said before, it’s important for writers to take control of their creativity as early in their writing career as possible. Don’t forget the market but go at writing so that you’re on a small enough scale that you can be part of the team that makes it. That means … maybe writing a short film that you and your friends can make because you can’t afford to make a feature film. It may be writing a theatre piece or a novel. The point is that you want to try to find a story that will give you an opportunity to have some control over it getting made and you have some control over it as it goes along.

 ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Lewis Ward is a high-tech consultant by day and a freelance journalist and spec screenplay writer by night. He can be reached at lewisaward@hotmail.com

 

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