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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.