Dec 26, 2011

The Tree of Life

Want to solve the mystery of Tree of Life? This is one of the most original films to come along in some time, but most people don’t know what to make of it. They suspect something important is going on, but they don’t have the experience to know what it is. The secret is in the genre and the story structure.

One of the best techniques for standing above the crowd in professional screenwriting is combining two genres that don’t normally go together. Writer-director Terrence Malick has done just that, connecting the Masterpiece form with the Memoir-True Story.

To really see how and why Malick creates this bizarre hybrid, you really need to go back to his 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven. The story is so primal it seems Biblical: a man pushes his girlfriend to marry a dying farmer to get a piece of his fortune. This moral tale takes place in a magnificent but incredibly harsh natural world, in the turn-of-the-century American West, complete with betrayals, revenge, fire and locusts. Sections of the film are connected by fast-motion photography of plants growing and the earth moving through its daily cycle, like a nature documentary. And the whole story is told through the memory of a 13-year-old narrator. 

Notice that Malick’s basic technique in Days of Heaven is to set up a very top down Biblical story while also setting up a very bottom up view of man deeply embedded in the natural world. This combination of Biblical with naturalistic is unique in modern film, but it was a hallmark of late 19th century authors like Thomas Hardy. The combination seems like it shouldn’t work because the Biblical and the natural feel like opposites. But in fact Malick shows that they are both grand systems that try to explain how human life works.

This background from Days of Heaven points up the key story technique Malick uses to combine Masterpiece with Memoir-True-Story in Tree of Life: he sets up an extreme contrast between vast story frames and incredibly short scenes.

A mainstream Hollywood movie usually focuses on a few characters in some generic present, and tells its story through 50-70 scenes that average 2 minutes apiece. Tree of Life places the characters within massive frames of nature and history, but tells its story in 200-300 scenes that are often without dialogue and no more than a few seconds long.

These frames include the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, including dinosaurs, the Oedipal battle between fathers and sons, 1950s suburban America and ultra-modern, present-day city America.

Malick’s use of huge story frames isn’t without precedent. Most famously, in James Joyce’s story of a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, hero Stephen Dedalus writes in his geography book: “Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe.” 

As in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, these story frames are not just categories by which Malick defines his characters. They are also systems, and they quietly but inexorably lock the hero of Tree of Life, along with his family, within a powerful slavery.

Of all the many frames in this story, the main one is the “storyteller,” oldest brother Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, who remembers his childhood upon hearing of his younger brother’s death. If we recall the discussion of genres and story shapes in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, we can see why this storyteller technique is the second key to combining the Masterpiece genre with the Memoir-True Story in Tree of Life.

The desire line, the spine, in a Masterpiece story is always some version of “finding a deeper reality, contrasting time, perspective and system.” For Memoir-True Story, it’s “to find the meaning in one’s own life.” Using his brother’s death as a trigger, Jack recalls his boyhood and in the process tries to make some sense of the meaning of his own life. Because this is a memory story, Malick is free to play with the past in any order he chooses, and show time frames that vary from the evolution of the universe to a memory only a second long.

After setting up all these massive frames of time, space and character in the early part of the film, Malick then goes in the opposite direction, the sensual, to tell the main story. One effect of the 200-300 short scenes is that the viewer gains a sense of flow, process, and becoming at every level of life. Just as Van Gogh’s paintings of objects are simply packages of lines of force, the objects here, from bursting stars to desert rocks, have energy literally flowing through them.

The combination of sensual images with short scenes becomes a different kind of story language, a visual poem, and much of the film plays like a silent movie. This is Malick’s cinematic version of stream of consciousness, far more believable and emotionally real than most voice-over narrations that play over standard-length scenes of dialogue.

No matter how short most of these moments are, each is an event, an action which, when strung together in sequence, gives us the story of a boy growing up in America. The father is a harsh, sometimes physical disciplinarian while the mother is a gentle ethereal woman with infinite love for her three boys. Our hero is the oldest of the three, and he does some things to the middle brother, now dead, that show a jealousy, a nastiness, and make him feel guilt now that he remembers those actions as an adult.

Over the course of the story, the outside world, the killer systems, invade the boy’s life. The father loses his job in the factory, along with his belief in the American ethic of working hard to rise to the top. And the boy has to leave the house that he grew up in.

Unlike his father, Jack has grown up to be a successful man in business. But the modern skyscraper environment he lives in seems a major loss compared to that house of his childhood. That’s why he remembers. And that’s why he mourns, not just for his dead brother but for a community, a fleeting moment in the span of a human life when he was free and loved and full of potential.

As this naturalistic story plays out, the second strain, the Biblical, the spiritual, comes through in the scenes as well. First by the fact that these aren’t just brothers in their actions. Our hero is Cain to his brother’s Abel, even if he didn’t finally kill him. Then there are the voices of the heavenly choir that play throughout. There’s the use of voice-over where we hear the beliefs of Mother and Father.  And of course there’s the communal ending.

In Jack’s mind, they are all together again at the seashore, walking through the water as requiem music plays and the ethereal choir sings. Father carries the dead son. And Mother says, to death, to the universe, to God, to something, “I give him to you. I give you my son.”

I wish I could say I loved this incredibly ambitious film. But I didn’t. My response to it was similar to what I’ve discovered about Citizen Kane: everyone respects it as one of the great films of all time, but I don’t know a single soul who loves it.

If you want to take a shot at writing a masterpiece of your own, it’s instructive to see why this occurs. Story frames, whether of time, point of view, or system, are fundamental to advanced storytelling. They are what allow the audience to see deeper and to see bigger than they can with their own eyes.

But there is a great danger. The more frames you place on a story, the more you literally back the audience away and drain emotion from the experience. It’s like placing a window frame around a window frame around a window frame around a character. You can see intellectually what the person is doing, but finally you just can’t feel it.

Nov 26, 2011

John Truby Interview Part 2

Question: How do you know a story you want to turn into a screenplay or novel can carry an entire movie or book?

There are many factors that determine a good story. When you are first considering whether a story idea will work as a novel or screenplay, look especially at two structural elements, which you can see right in the premise line: the desire line and the opposition. The hero’s goal provides the spine of the story, and it must extend all the way to the end of the story. So make sure the goal is difficult to achieve and will require the hero to take a lot of complex actions to reach it.

When considering the probable opposition in the story, make sure you can identify one character as the main opponent who wants to prevent the hero from reaching his or her goal. Then see if you can think of other characters who also oppose the hero’s desire, but for different reasons, and use different strategies than the main opponent.

Question: Does character come from plot, or plot from character?
This question represents the Catch-22 of storytelling. Plot is the sequence of what your hero does while going after a goal. Character is not some separate entity from plot, automatically full grown at the start of the story. Character is defined by what your hero does over the course of the story. In other words, plot and character define one another. You can’t have a great plot without a strong, complex main character to generate those actions. And you can’t have a great main character without an intricate plot to test him to the depths of his being.

Think of the relationship of plot and character as a feedback loop; when you improve one you automatically improve the other. The most important thing to remember is that character and plot must be organically and intricately linked for the story to be great.

Question: What defines a good story?

So many things. But fundamentally a good story is, once again, plot coming from character and character coming from plot. Most writers think plot and story are identical. They aren’t. Story is the perfect union of character and plot.

A good storyteller actually tracks two lines: the character’s success in the action line and the character’s internal change. The audience wants to see the hero succeed in both lines. The writer makes those two lines one by connecting plot and character under the surface, through the story structure.

There are many techniques for connecting plot to character. I explain these techniques in my Anatomy of Story Masterclass when I go through the 22 building blocks of every great story. Think of the 22 building blocks as the specific beats where plot is connected to character, from beginning to end. They’re especially useful for giving writers a precise map to the middle of the script, where 90% of scripts fail.

Question: The universe someone creates in their screenplay can be as big as a universe, or as small as an apartment. What factors determine what the size of your story world should be?

Story world has become one of the three or four most important elements in a good script. Much of the incredible success of the Harry Potter stories, for example, comes from the amazing details of the story world. I talk a lot about this in my Anatomy of Story class, because so few writers understand how to create and detail the story world. They think the story world is wherever the story happens to take place. In fact the story world holds an incredible amount of meaning for the audience.

The first step in creating the story world is figuring out the arena. The arena is some kind of wall that surrounds the world. Everything inside that wall is part of the story. Everything outside it is not. Once within the arena you then link the world to the main character. In other words, the world of the story is an expression of who your hero is. Then set up the major pillars of the story world, and these are often in some kind of opposition to each other. For example, within the vast world of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, plants and water represent the forces of love and life while mountains and metal represent the forces of absolute power and death.

Question: Writing good, crisp dialogue is one of the toughest things to do. How do you give each of your characters an original voice when they speak?

This is another of the misunderstood elements of good writing. Certainly a character’s personality plays a role in how each speaks in a unique way. But the real trick to this technique has to do with two crucial structural elements: the character’s need and desire, the first two of the seven major story structure steps. Knowing the great weakness that each of the characters must overcome in their lives and being clear what each character wants in the story give you the fundamental “character” of the character. It’s who they are deep down. These two elements are the most important determinants of how each character talks. You then add on top of that each person’s unique personality, background and values so that every character has a distinctive voice.

Question: What is the biggest misconception about learning and understanding story structure?

Most writers never move past 3-act structure, which is deadly because 3-act is a mechanical, arbitrary way of dividing story. You can divide anything into three parts, but that won’t help you figure out a story that is complex enough to work at the professional level.

Real story structure, also known as deep structure, is organic. Instead of being imposed from the outside, it comes from inside the hero. Or to put it another way, it’s how the hero develops as a human being by working through a plot, a sequence of actions that tests that hero to the fullest.

Shifting from 3-act to organic story structure is not easy. Three-act is a magic bullet we all desperately want to work. But it won’t work. So let it go. Organic story structure requires knowing your hero with tremendous depth and being able to come up with story events that will inexorably lead that character to fundamental character change. If you can make the shift from 3-act to organic story, the payoff is huge. It’s what makes you a professional.

Question: Could you name 3 non-screenwriting sources writers should be learning from to sharpen their craft?

I’ll give you two. These are sleeper books that every serious writer should know and study carefully. They’re not easy to read, but they hold within them profound knowledge of the craft of story.

1. The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, the best book ever written on story world

2. Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrup Frye, especially the first essay on the theory of the hero

Question: There seems to be a lot of “re-booting” in Hollywood these days. They just wrapped the redo of “Total Recall,” they rebooted the “Batman” franchise, etc. What’s the best advice you can give when it comes to redoing, rebooting or re-visualizing a previous screenplay?

The key to the best reboots of the past ten years - Casino Royale (The Bond series), The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins, Star Trek and most recently, Rise of the Planet of the Apes - is that the writers have given their hero a weakness and need. Weakness-need is the first of the seven major story structure steps. Until about ten years ago, action and myth heroes were rarely given a deep character flaw because the conventional wisdom said that the superhero had to be upstanding and “heroic” the entire story. The conventional wisdom was wrong, because it gave writers a boring character and meant the plot was just a repetitive series of action stunts.

Giving the hero a weakness and need in a reboot not only makes the character more complex and engaging to the audience, it grounds the plot in character and makes it personal. That both delights the audience and makes them care.

Question: When you’re reading a screenplay, what are the danger signs you see in the first few pages that you just know will mean trouble in the script?

The biggest red flag: the writer doesn’t know how to catch the reader in the first 5-10 pages. And that means they don’t know story structure. Most writers have heard you want to catch the reader quickly, they just have never been taught how. Once again it has to do with understanding how story structure really works. When I go through the 22 building blocks of every great story in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, I explain all the key structural elements that you must include in the opening 5-10 pages to catch the reader. And I guarantee that if you do those things you will not only catch the reader you will take him or her on a story journey they will never forget.

The craft of story is not easy. But it can be learned and mastered. Don’t be intimidated by it. Take it step by step, and one day you will say with pride to anyone who asks you who you are: I am a writer.

Oct 26, 2011

John Truby Interview Part 1

Question: What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?

Voice and style are among the most misunderstood of all elements in storytelling. Voice and style aren’t simply a unique way of talking and writing. Voice and style come from content. Successful content comes from having an original story idea that is structurally well told. And this combination is extremely rare.

This question is really about the writing process. Telling your story with a unique voice and style comes near the end of the process. The beginning of the process has to do with coming up with an original story idea, and that involves digging into your premise and using story techniques that show you the elements of the idea that are totally unique to you.

The next part of the process is a story structurally well told. This involves all the techniques that go into character, plot and story world. If you master all of these techniques, you are 90% of the way to writing with a voice and style that is unmistakably yours.

Question: Could you describe the conventions of the key genres in Hollywood?

Most writers believe that genre writing is a matter of learning certain conventions. But genre conventions are relatively superficial story elements that have little to do with writing a terrific genre script that stands above the crowd.

I refer to genres as the first rule of Hollywood: they’re what Hollywood is really in the business of selling, because they’re what a worldwide audience wants to buy. So as writers we must give them what they’re looking for if we want to win the screenwriting game.

As I point out in all my genre classes, the key to genres is going beyond conventions and learning how they really work under the surface. Each genre is a unique and highly detailed story form with anywhere from 8-15 special story beats (story events). You must not only hit these beats, you must transcend them. In other words, you have to twist the beats in an original way so the audience gets to have their cake and eat it too.

In the third day of my Anatomy of Story Masterclass, I explain how the 12 key genres – from which 99% of films are made – really work, and where possible how to transcend each form. These 12 genres are: Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Myth, Action, Detective, Crime, Thriller, Memoir-True Story (including the biopic), Love, Masterpiece, and Comedy. I also explain how to write the all-important Mixed Genre story, because the main story strategy in Hollywood is to combine two, three or even four genres together.

Question: What are common myths about being a successful screenwriter in Hollywood?

1. It’s all about who you know.

Yes, Hollywood is based on relationships and of course you have an advantage if you are a close friend of George Clooney. But surprisingly, it’s not much of an advantage. The fact is, very few writers have the skills required to write a professional-level script Hollywood wants to buy. When you get the rare opportunity to make a high-level relationship, you have to walk through that door with one helluva good script. You won’t get a second chance. The big shots need to know that you are a professional, a master of the craft. One of the few advantages that we have as writers is that it just has to be there on the page. It’s hard, but with commitment you can do it.

2. If I could just pitch my idea to the right person, I could get a script deal and be on my way.

Pitching is a joke. Unless you have the credits of an Aaron Sorkin or a Steve Zaillian, you are not going to be able to pitch to anyone but the assistant to the guy who makes copies. And if you did somehow get in to pitch to people with real weight at a studio, this is what they will always say to you: “That’s a really good idea. Now go write the script and I want to be the first person to read it. Bye.”

Ideas are a dime a dozen. What’s rare is a professionally written script. And since the recession of 2008, even the top writers in Hollywood are having trouble getting a deal from a pitch. So forget pitching and go write a good script.

3. Every screenplay has three acts and 2-3 plot points.

This one-line summation of what’s known as “3-act structure” is the big lie that every beginning screenwriter is taught, and it kills the career of 99.9% of them. Three-act scripts are mechanical writing at its worst, and the 3-act approach produces a simplistic way of thinking and writing that guarantees you will be an amateur forever.

Just to give you one example, the average film that comes out of Hollywood has anywhere from 7-10 plot points, and if you are working in the detective, crime, or thriller genres, you will need even more. In plot hungry Hollywood, who is going to win the competition between your 3 plot-point script and a script with 7-10?

Three-act writing is for beginners only. You’ve got to learn the techniques the professionals use to be successful.

Question: When a writer has an idea for a screenplay, what questions should they be asking themselves before writing?

The idea stage is the single most dangerous moment for a writer. Why? Because you have almost nothing to go on. Yet you have to somehow dig deep into the idea and determine right now if it can work as a 110-120 page script. This is where craft and technique come to the rescue.

When you apply the techniques for breaking down a story idea, you find out a fact that might amaze you: 9 out of 10 ideas should never be written as screenplays. They are simply too full of structural problems you can never fix, no matter how good you are at story.

One of the biggest mistakes amateurs make is that when they come up with a story idea they get so excited they immediately start writing script pages. They get 15-25 pages in and then hit a dead end from which they cannot escape.

Instead, start by looking for the structural problems that are embedded within the idea. Focus on the probable main character and whether the idea can sustain a plot that is complex enough to generate up to 120 pages of story.

Sep 30, 2011

Story in Television

The best writing coming out of the American entertainment industry is in TV drama. The competition from film isn’t even close. For decades, TV has been film’s little brother, patronized by the “real” talent as the place where you go when you can’t make it in the big leagues.

But in the last ten to fifteen years, TV has shot past film and become the home of the best and the brightest. While the big studios have competed over which new superhero will give them the next tent pole, the cable channels, and to a lesser extent the networks, have nurtured writers who have given the world an extraordinary number of original, deep, and compelling stories whose high quality extends, in many cases, over many years.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. First and foremost, writers, not directors, control the TV medium.
The auteur theory, one of the worst ideas to come out of the 20th century, put the director in charge of American, and world, cinema. What the auteur theory misunderstood is that the quality of film and television is not based on them being visual mediums as being incredible story mediums. Because writers control TV, they make story, not spectacle, the key element in the production, and audiences have shown again and again that story is what they crave.

The multiple episodes that constitute a TV season, and the fact that these episodes must be written by writers on staff, means that TV writers go through a training regimen experienced by no other writer in the world. To get onto a writing staff you have to be highly skilled. But your training has only just begun. Until a writer has worked on a TV staff, he or she has no clue how intense the pressure is to produce great writing in a fraction of the time. With the non-stop deadlines of a TV season, it is not uncommon for a staffer to write a high-quality, shootable script – approximately one half of a feature film – in one week!

The result of this crucible of storytelling is that TV writers learn the craft fast and they practice that craft week after week, on the run. Plus, unlike their screenwriting brethren, TV writers get to see what they write up on screen, often within weeks of writing it. This feedback is invaluable, and found in no other story form.

All of this leads to a key point: if you want to be a working writer, and the very best writer you can be, turn your sights to television. TV, like film, is tough to break into, even more so since the Great Recession of 2008. But the fact that TV is run by writers means that if you learn the craft of story, especially as it is practiced in TV, you have a much better chance of being hired by people who ply, and appreciate, the same craft.

The crucial element here is: story as practiced in TV. TV has surpassed film in American entertainment not just because writers control the medium, but also because only in the last ten years have writers learned to take advantage of the unique powers of the TV medium itself. For years each episode in a TV season was a complete story, known as a “stand alone.” The episode problem was introduced in the opening scene – a crime, a law case, a disease – and it was solved at the end of the hour. Notice this limits the TV medium to being a mini- movie, repeated 24 times a season.

But once TV writers, and cable and network executives, realized that the true canvas of the TV medium is the season, not the episode, TV finally came into its own as a story medium that could dwarf the power of film. (The pioneer here was Steven Bochco with Hill Street Blues, but this process really kicked into high gear with The Sopranos.) The 90-120 minute unit of length in film suddenly jumped ten to fifteen times. And the storytelling model shifted from the two-hour commercial film to the 19th century novels of Dickens, Balzac and Stendahl, where complexity of plot hit its apex in the history of storytelling.

Instead of a single hero completing a single plotline in a two-hour film, you had a huge cast of characters working through multiple storylines, known as a serial, over a 13-24 episode season. You also had the possibility of creating a story world that had so much detail the show could believably stand for an entire society. The result was masterpieces like The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost and Mad Men.

To master story as it is practiced in television, and have the best chance of breaking into this medium, you have to study the top TV dramas and tease out the story problems that writers of these shows solve day in and day out. Ability to solve story problems quickly, and with originality, is the single most important quality of a professional television writer. Let’s take a look at some of today’s best dramas.

AMC’s The Killing is a Crime-Detective story, and Crime-Detective is the most popular genre, not only in American television but throughout the world. When you are trying to break down the story beats in a particular show, it is always a good idea to start with the show’s genre. The unique story beats of a particular show are usually an outgrowth of the inner workings, and the inherent restrictions, of its genre.

The Killing is based on the Danish series, Forbrydelsen, and the tag line for its first season was, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” That tag line, and the show’s setting in the gray and rainy Northwest, recalls the one-season wonder, Twin Peaks, whose tag line was, “Who shot Laura Palmer?” The tag line tells you the primary desire line of the show, what the hero(es) want, and desire is one of the three or four most important story elements of a show. In 99% of all crime stories, “Who killed X” is the desire in a particular episode. In The Killing (and in Twin Peaks), this is the desire of the entire season. In other words, The Killing is a serial, not a stand-alone crime show, and that makes all the difference.

This means the writers must create, and service, a huge web of characters, many of whom had the motive, and opportunity, to kill Rosie. Since the killer will not be caught at the end of each episode, the show will necessarily have a slower pace and will deprive the audience of a satisfying solution at the end of each hour. This episode-ending solution is the primary draw of the stand-alone show. So the writers have a huge story challenge: how do we work through the vast array of suspects in a way that both gives some shape to each episode while also sequencing us to the real killer at the end of the season?

Some of the solutions the writers use include cross-cutting among many story lines, not just the main investigation line, greatly increasing the number of false clues (also known as red herrings), and focusing suspicion on a new wrong suspect every one or two episodes.

The failure of the writers to definitively name the killer at the end of the first season raised howls of protest, since the show’s story structure makes the final revelation of “who done it” even more important than usual. Of all the explanations I’ve heard for this “mistake,” the one that makes the most sense to me has to do with the biggest story flaw of a serial detective show whose desire line extends over the entire season. Once you tell the audience who killed the lone victim, what makes them tune in at the beginning of season 2? This is precisely what killed Twin Peaks.

Boardwalk Empire, an historical epic combined with the Gangster genre, is designed to take advantage of the big-canvas story complexity of the TV medium, as seen in The Sopranos and The Wire. An epic is a story in which the fate of a nation is determined, or illustrated, by the actions of a single person. And there’s the main story problem: how do you connect the huge cast and multiple story strands of an entire society to the desires of a single man?

By choosing gangster Nucky Thompson, head of the Boardwalk Empire at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, to be the fulcrum character, creator and show runner Terence Winter has a natural hub for the story wheel. Nucky is a king in a democracy, and his desire to sell illegal booze to a thirsty nation unifies all the smaller desire lines in each episode and over the course of the season.

With Mad Men taking the year off, The Good Wife is the best-written show on television. This accomplishment is remarkable given that it is a network show, which typically means more interference from executives and the need to please a broader audience base. The Good Wife, a legal drama, uses the primary story strategy found in most American dramas today: combine the crowd-pleasing simplicity of the stand-alone with the critic-pleasing complexity of the serial. Alicia Florrick, the lead character, tries (and usually wins) a case each week. But she must also navigate the political and personal currents that come with being in a cutthroat law firm and having a husband who cheated on her and recently won the race for District Attorney.

This means that The Good Wife is really about situational ethics, about whether a good person can balance conflicting moral challenges and remain clean in the real world. The story challenge for the writers then is two-fold: come up with an ingenious way Alicia can win the weekly legal case for her firm while also slowly tightening the vice of her moral jeopardy as the season progresses.

Over the first two seasons, the writers have met these challenges with flying colors, primarily by weaving multiple conflicts from opponents both within and outside the firm. But it’s the emphasis on moral conundrums that really sets the storytelling of this show apart.

Mad Men has been the best-written show on television since its debut (with four straight Emmy wins for Best Drama). Like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men is an epic historical drama, with multiple characters and story lines, all focused around an emblematic main character, in this case ad man Don Draper. Once again the central story challenge for the writers turns on the desire line of the show, or lack thereof. The reason the vast majority of shows in the history of television involve cops, lawyers and doctors is that these characters all have a clean, quantifiable desire line – solve the crime, win the case, save the patient. But Mad Men is set in a business. So what’s the desire for the episode, or, for that matter, the season? The goals in the ad business are ever changing, and all the major characters have their own personal, often hidden, agendas.

Without a unifying desire line, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has created a totally new TV story structure, one based on the contrast between American ideals and reality. Don and his fellow mad men (and they are almost all men) are in the business of creating and selling the American Dream. But when they go home to their suburban families, we see an actual life not filled with freedom and promise but defined by limits and lies.

The story challenge for the writers is, first, to set recognizable frames for each season, based not a clean desire line but on how each of the major characters moves between slavery and freedom in modern America. Within each episode, the trick is to come up with a story sequence that highlights the contrast between the Dream these characters sell and the harsh reality they live.

These are just a few of the myriad story challenges writers must solve when working on a writing staff today. Make no mistake: for show runners, it’s all about the story. TV drama is the most exciting game in entertainment right now because the medium has finally found itself as an art form. If you want to play in this high-speed, high-stakes game, you have to show that you have mastered the craft of the TV story. Then everyone will be begging you to play for their team.

Aug 30, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains information about the plot of the film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best reboots of a franchise in the last ten years, and it’s mostly because of the fine work by the screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Their story strategy is similar to that used by the writers of some of the other top reboots, like Casino Royale (The Bond series), The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins and Star Trek. In each case the writers went with the origin story, and they placed primary emphasis on character.

The origin story is almost always the most popular in a franchise, first because it allows the audience to share in the creation of the mythology, and second because it has a shape that later sequels often lack. Origin stories also give the author the chance to execute what may be the single most important element of good storytelling, to make plot come from character. This gives the audience a double pleasure. They get to see the hero succeed in the plot. And they get to see the hero undergo character change, to grow as a human being.

There are many ways that you make plot come from character. Perhaps the most important, and the main technique used in the successful reboots listed above, is to give the hero a weakness and need. To those of you who are familiar with my Anatomy of StoryMasterclass, this may seem obvious, since weakness-need is the first of the seven major story structure steps that are present in every great story. But until the last ten years, you simply didn’t give the main character of an action or myth movie a weakness-need of his own. Conventional wisdom said that for maximum box office the hero had to be completely heroic, without flaws of any kind. Of course, conventional wisdom was wrong.

It is precisely because Batman is the most seriously flawed of all superheroes that he is the best and most popular character. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the initial hero, scientific researcher Will Rodman, has a unique weakness, in that it comes from a strength. Because he cannot kill the baby ape, he brings the genetically altered animal home with him, and from that good intention he takes all of humanity with him on the road to hell. This good-heartedness, combined with an arrogance that is common in the master scientist, is a weakness-need the audience can easily relate to, and is the wellspring from which the entire plot flows.

Another key to the success of the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes from how the writers played with their genre. Unlike the original Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a science fiction story, though it has some important science fiction beats. It is a horror story, and it relies on techniques used in the first and greatest horror story of all time, Frankenstein.

In the Horror, Fantasy andScience Fiction Class, I talk a lot about how you transcend your genre form, since this is the single biggest factor in making your script stand above the crowd. One of these techniques in horror is to flip the hero and the opponent. Put another way, at some point in the story the monster becomes the hero. The ape, Caesar, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not the typical monster we see in the average horror story. But he is the Other, and horror stories are really about the inhuman, or non-human, entering the human world.

Frankenstein is a misunderstood masterpiece, primarily because of the powerful but highly simplified 1931 film version. Frankenstein is not about creating life. It is about creating a human being. Mary Shelley was writing “natural philosophy” in fictional form, and that meant among other things tracking in great detail the steps of a living but clean slate body becoming a fully feeling and thinking human being.

This is precisely what writers Jaffa and Silver do in the best section of the film. When Caesar is incarcerated in the ape refuge (prison), we watch as he moves up the ladder of understanding and uses his human-like knowledge and insight to become the ape leader and free himself and his fellow apes from human captivity.

The second major story element of Frankenstein is the betrayal by and rebellion against the father. This too is a key step in Caesar’s development. For a boy to become a man, and a unique individual, he must rebel against his father. Will pays the owner of the refuge so that Caesar can come home. But Caesar refuses; he already is home. This is not only the key step in the hero’s character change, it is the first step in the apes’ rebellion against humans.

One last technique that is crucial to the success of this script is a technique that James Cameron used in Titanic. The loss of over fifteen hundred people meant that Titanic would likely be a disaster film, a sub-form of the action genre. But disaster films are notorious for lack of character definition. Characters are simply fuel for the fire. And that means the audience doesn’t feel for the characters when they die. So Cameron made the first two thirds of the film a love story, the most intimate of all genres. Then when the disaster hit, the loss of the characters, and the love between them, was truly painful.

Similarly, most of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate story of fathers and sons. Will uses the drug to save his father from the terrible decay of Alzheimer’s. He loves Caesar as a son, and will do anything to protect him. With these powerful personal bonds as a foundation, the final action sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t just one of a number of set pieces but the emotional climax of the story.

Few writers get to reboot a major Hollywood franchise. But everyone must face the daunting challenge of turning a winning premise into a well-executed script. If you focus on the seven major structure steps and master your genre form so well that you transcend it, you have the best chance of writing a script that has popular and critical success. 

Jul 26, 2011

10 Story Techniques You Must Use to Sell Your Script

The key question that all screenwriters should ask themselves is: how do I write a script that Hollywood wants to buy? Most writers mistakenly think that success is all about connections and star power. Not so. The real trick to writing a script that will sell is to know and use Hollywood’s central marketing strategy. And that can be summed up in one word: genres.

Over approximately the last ten years, Hollywood has been undergoing a revolutionary change from selling movie stars to selling genres. According to former Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger, “There’s a significant shift [from] star power to the premium that is being put on concept and genre.”

Shmuger is telling any screenwriter who is smart enough to listen the first rule of the entertainment business worldwide: it buys and sells genres. Genres are story forms and each has from 8-15 special story beats (story events) that make up the form. The reason Hollywood marketing is based on genre is that executives are selling to a worldwide audience. And people the world over love particular types of stories that speak to their deepest desires.

I’d like to tell you 10 story techniques that must be in your script if you want the best chance of selling it in a genre-dominated business.

1. Know the 11 most popular genres.

Step 1 in writing a script Hollywood wants to buy is knowing the 11 most popular story forms. If you write a script that is not based on one or more of these genres, your chances of a sale plummet. They are Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Memoir-True Story, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.

2. Combine 2 or 3 genres.

In the genre-focused entertainment business, the most important story strategy today is to mix genres. 99% of films made, not just in Hollywood but worldwide, are some combination of the 11 most popular genres. Why? It all goes back to that old rule of selling: give the customer 2 or 3 for the price of 1. This, in a nutshell, is how Hollywood works.

Let me give you some examples. The Hangover films are comedy + detective. Inception is action + caper (crime) + science fiction. Titanic, the most popular movie of all time, is love + disaster film (action) + myth. The Dark Knight is crime + myth + fantasy. The Harry Potter stories, the most popular books of all time, are fantasy + myth + horror + coming of age drama. The Twilight films are horror + fantasy. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are fantasy + action + horror + myth.

3. Find the right genre for the story idea.

The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you are developing your premise, or story idea. The decision is: which genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because their original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1-line idea to 2-hour, 120-page script.

Each genre will take a story idea in radically different directions. So when writers choose the wrong genres to develop their idea, the result is not only a lot of bad scripts but also the waste of thousands of great story ideas. Given that you can use many genres to develop the same idea, the key question is: what are the right ones?

The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the story idea itself. You need to dig into the premise and find the genres inherent to that idea. Instead of trying to copy a popular movie from the past, you need to find what is original, what is organic to your story. One of the powers of genre is that the right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses.

In my genre classes, I talk a lot about techniques for digging into your premise and finding the best genres for you. One of them is to focus on the desire line, one of the seven major story structure steps. It turns out that each genre has a unique, pre-determined desire line. For example, the Crime desire is to catch a criminal. Detective is to find the truth. Horror is to defeat a monster. For Love, it’s to find love. Myth is to go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself. Figure out the goal of your hero and see if it matches the desire of any of the main genres.

4. Use myth as one of your genres.

Because Hollywood only wants scripts with blockbuster potential, your story must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities.
That’s a lot of communication barriers to cross. Unfortunately, most writers don’t know which genres travel well and which don’t. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue DON’T travel. Myth, on the other hand, loves to travel. That’s why myth is found in more blockbusters by far than any other form.

Myth is the oldest of the 11 most popular film genres, and is surprisingly complex, with 15 special story beats. But boy is it popular. Try adding up the box office of these myth-based films: Avatar, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek and Star Wars.

5. Combine myth with one or two other genres.

While myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it almost never stands alone. That’s not just because Hollywood wants to give people 2 or 3 genres for the price of one. It has to do with the deep weaknesses found in the form itself.

The myth form is thousands of years old. And it has a very episodic structure, so it can grow tiresome and decline in power through the middle of the story. Top professional screenwriters know this, which is why they always add 1 or 2 other genres to modernize the myth form and overcome its episodic quality.

6. Make one genre primary.

Screenwriters who are smart enough to study Hollywood as a business know that it’s all about combining genres. Where they sometimes go wrong is in execution. It’s one thing to say, “Take 2 or 3 story forms and put them together into a seamless whole.” It’s another thing to do it well.

Combining genres is more difficult than it looks, because of what it does to the story structure under the surface. Each genre has a pre-determined hero, opponent, desire line, thematic focus, and so on. Which is why most writers combining genres end up with a structural mess. They have too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, themes and story beats. Any one of these structural mistakes will kill a script, so imagine what happens if you make them all.

When mixing genres, the key is to make one form the primary one. This will give you your hero, a single desire line, a single story line and the most important unique story beats. Then put in other genre elements where they fit, so they amplify the primary form.

7. If you’re writing a screenplay for an indie film, write horror, thriller, or love.

One of the best ways to break in and separate yourself from the thousands of other screenwriters in the world is to write and make your own film. Of course, that requires keeping costs to a bare minimum. And the cheapest genres to shoot are horror, thriller and love. These genres require the fewest actors, sets and special effects. Of these, horror is the most popular worldwide. But the most important determinants of which genres you use for your indie film are which genres are best for your story idea and which genres are you best at writing. 

8. Hit all the genre beats.

Writers of blockbuster movies always know their genres so well that they hit every one of the story beats unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues.” And it’s absolutely essential or the audience feels cheated. Remember, they are there to see the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they crave. And that means, knowing how your genres work under the surface, in the structure, where the real story work is done.

9. Be original, transcend the genre.

It may surprise you that the biggest reason a reader turns down a script is because it’s “derivative.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the writer hit all the beats of the genre, but nothing more. Readers have read scripts from every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying the dues.”

That’s why professional screenwriters not only hit all the genre beats, they do the beats in an original way. This is known as transcending the genre. And you simply cannot succeed if you fail to transcend the genres you’re working in.

Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for how to do this for all genres. Transcending genre is different for each form. In the 1-day class I teach in each genre, I spend a great deal of time on exactly how to do this. Transcending depends on the story beats that are unique to your form. It also requires that you study the best films in your form so you know what has already been done.

10. Be honest with yourself, and specialize in the forms that are right for you.

Genres are extremely powerful structural tools for a screenwriter, and they are the key to your success in the entertainment business. But they are complex story systems. I don’t know a single professional screenwriter who has mastered more than 2 or 3 of them. That’s why it’s so important that you look honestly at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Determine which genres highlight your strengths and express the themes you believe in. Then apply yourself with laser-like focus to mastering those forms.

When you let genres do the hard story work, and concentrate on writing them in an original way, you will be amazed at how good, and how successful, your scripts will be.

For structure breakdowns of films in all the major genres, go to

Jun 29, 2011

5 Keys to Summer Blockbusters

It used to be that summer was the season for blockbuster movies. Now it's a year-round phenomenon. Hollywood is in the business of selling films to a worldwide audience, which means they are always looking for a script with blockbuster potential.

Most screenwriters think a blockbuster is simply a film that does really well at the box office. Technically speaking, that's true. But the reality is that a script with blockbuster potential is a very special kind of script, with a number of story elements that studio executives are looking for.

I'd like to point out five of the most important blockbuster script elements, out of about forty that we consistently see in the top money-making films.

Technique 1: The Myth Genre

The first blockbuster story element has to do with the genre you use to tell your story. A genre is a particular kind of story, like detective, action or comedy. When Hollywood was selling primarily to an American audience, executives thought that movie stars were the key to a hit film. But in the last ten to fifteen years, the vast majority of blockbuster films have had no movie stars.

Instead the emphasis has changed to genre films with great stories. For a film to reach a worldwide audience, it must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities. Story forms are instantly recognizable anywhere in the world.

But you can't just choose any genre if you want to write a script with blockbuster potential. Most writers don't know that some genres travel well while others don't. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue don't travel.

Ironically, the story that travels best is the oldest genre of all, the myth form. Myth is found in more blockbusters than any other genre by far. Add up the box office for the following myth-based movies: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, Star Wars and Avatar.

The reason myth transcends national and cultural boundaries so well is that the form tracks archetypal characters and archetypal life situations. These are fundamental character types that everyone knows, and life experiences everyone passes through from birth to death.

Like any genre, myth has a number of unique story beats you must learn, and include, if you want to tell the form well. And remember: in blockbusters, myth is almost always combined with one or two other genres, such as action, fantasy and science fiction, that serve to update and unify the myth story for a young audience.

Technique 2: The Hero's Goal

The single most important element in an international blockbuster is narrative drive, the ability of the story to propel forward at an increasing rate. Narrative drive comes primarily from the hero's desire line. Desire is one of the seven major story structure steps, and provides you with the all-important spine on which you hang all characters, plot, symbol, theme and dialogue.

Average writers tend to make at least one of the following mistakes when coming up with the desire line: their hero has no clear goal, he/she accomplishes the goal too quickly, or the hero reaches the goal by taking only a few action steps.

There are three keys to a good desire line. First, make it specific; the more specific the better. Second, extend the goal as close to the end as possible. Third, make sure the hero is obsessed with it. Above all, intensify the desire.

Technique 3: The Opponent

As screenwriters, we are taught to focus on the hero, since this character drives the story. That's sound advice. But in blockbuster films, the opponent may be even more important. One of the great principles in all storytelling is that the hero is only as good as the person he fights. Also, the opponent is the key to plot. And in the last ten years, blockbusters have become more plot heavy.

When writing your script, first make sure you have one main opponent to focus and build the conflict. Then look for ways to intensify the central opposition.  Make your main opponent bigger, smarter, more aggressive, more passionate. In writing Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan said, "What was important to me in creating an incredible frightening villain is that everything he says is true and at some level reasonable and also makes sense." Nolan then used this same approach in The Dark Knight when he created The Joker, one of the all-time great opponents and probably the key element in that film's huge success.

Once you're clear about the main opponent, try to come up with one or two secondary opponents, with at least one of them hidden from the hero and the audience.

Technique 4: The Scam

The emphasis blockbuster films place on plot leads to another story technique. And it's designed to solve a problem that plagues almost all screenwriters: how do you create maximum plot in the middle, where 90% of scripts fail? In blockbuster movies, the hero's plan is often a scam, or a plan that involves deception.

The trick here is to make the plan more deceptive for both hero and main opponent. When the hero scams, he becomes a trickster character, which audiences love. When the opponent scams, it gives you more plot and makes him/her a more challenging foe.

Technique 5: The Story World

The rise of the videogame along with the ability of special effects artists to realize wholly imaginary worlds has made the story world one of the three or four crucial elements in a blockbuster film. As little as a decade ago, Hollywood didn't care about story world, because it slows down narrative drive. Special effects were designed primarily to heighten heroic action.

But videogames showed Hollywood the power that comes from having viewers immerse themselves and explore a world in all its facets. And there's no medium that can do that better than the big screen film medium.

Many screenwriters believe that this aspect of the film is the responsibility of the director and the special effects artists. Wrong. A good story world is written into the script, and it is intimately organic to the story. That's why you must make sure that every visual element contributes to the story. In other words every element should have story meaning embedded within it.

How you do that is a major story skill right up there with character, plot, dialogue and rewrite. All of the major techniques for creating a rich story world are found in my Blockbuster story development software. The first step is to define a distinct and recognizable arena. Then create a map of the world, with as much detail as you can provide, especially when depicting the central community within which the story takes place. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Avatar were all written by masters of the story world.

If you are serious about succeeding as a professional screenwriter, start with these five techniques and you will be well on the path to writing a script that Hollywood is eager to buy.

May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the film.

With Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has returned to writing from strength. The film is founded on one of the great cinematic story techniques, the utopian world. Here the moment is 1920s' Paris, where some of the best writers and artists of the 20th century lived in close quarters. The film is also based on the concept of The Golden Age. Every society has some version of the belief that an earlier time was not only better than the present, but nearly perfect.

This idea of a golden age isn't just intellectually appealing. It has personal impact on the audience as well. An older audience especially understands the feeling that there was a time in their life that was best, but it's long over now. For many, the desire to get back to that age is intense. Some experience it every Christmas when they remember how magical that morning was for them when they were young. But no more.

Let's put ourselves in Woody Allen's position to see how he might have solved this story problem. He might ask: how do you structure this utopia so that it gains the added impact of a story?

Midnight in Paris looks like a fairy tale romantic comedy. But Allen isn't very good at the love story form. Yes, he wrote one of the great romantic comedies in Annie Hall. But when you look at that film in light of all the films he has made since, you realize that Annie Hall was a one-time home run based primarily on his creation of the amazing title character, Annie.

The love interest in Midnight in Paris has nowhere near the character definition or quirky uniqueness of Annie Hall. She is simply a gentle, beautiful Frenchwoman who wants to live in an earlier time, just like the hero. As a result, there is little chance for the romance of these characters to build in a way that is satisfying to the audience.

The love story structure is really just an excuse for Allen to provide a storyline on which to hang the real gold of the idea, the fantasy comedy elements. With the woman as a desire line, the hero can take a number of trips into the utopian moment. And there he can meet a succession of famous artists the audience knows.

In the Anatomy of Story  Masterclass, I talk about the crucial technique of digging out the gold in your premise - finding what is original to you - and then presenting that gold again and again to the audience over the course of the story. The gold here is Allen's comical take on each of the famous writers and artists of the time. Once he was clear about that, the question for Allen, the writer, then became: how do I create a storyline that can allow me to play as many of these comic bits as possible without the story becoming episodic and collapsing?

The solution Allen chose is the same one used in Crocodile Dundee. In that film the romantic line between Dundee and the reporter allowed for the maximum number of encounters between animal man Dundee and the denizens of New York. Here the hero's encounter with Hemingway is the equivalent of Dundee saying to the mugger, "That's not a knife. This is a knife."

This structure also allowed Allen to write to his strength, rather than what he has been doing for the last twenty years, which is writing from his weakness. Allen has never been very good at the craft of story. In spite of the complexity of some of his story structures over the years (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), Allen has usually been unable to create a complex plot where the opposing characters play out their differences through building conflict.

The normal Woody Allen movie consists of a story gag that should take about thirty minutes to play out. He stretches it to ninety minutes and finally has the lead character directly explain his self-revelation, which is exactly what Allen wants his audience to learn from the film.

What Woody Allen is great at is writing comic bits and gags. And he is probably the second greatest American writer of intellectual comedy, behind Mark Twain. Unfortunately, Allen is not satisfied with that gift as a writer, and indeed he has looked down on it since at least the early 70s.

In this film Allen has found a story structure that allows him to feel he is a writer's writer, but also gives him permission to enjoy his guilty pleasure of writing brilliant intellectual comedy. The first time the hero meets Hemingway we hear drop dead perfect Hemingway prose coming out of his mouth. The scene is hilarious, especially if you know your American literature.

And that's another pleasure of the film. Allen's relatively small audience is composed of the educated and the sophisticated. So when they get the literary and visual jokes, they also get to feel how smart they are.

The story is really just an intellectual candy store, with the love story bringing us back to the store again and again. Of course while we are enjoying the pleasures of a utopian moment in this film, we also learn, in a great visual gag, the opposite lesson that you can't live in the past.

I don't know if this film signals a possible return to good Woody Allen, as some have suggested. I do know it provides a clear lesson to the screenwriter in how to find the right structure and genre embedded in your story idea.

Apr 26, 2011

African Cats

I had the pleasure of co-writing a wonderful film that’s just come out, called African Cats. This is Disney Nature’s third release, after Earth and Oceans. These films were all made by the highly talented nature documentarians at the BBC, who work together not unlike the writers and directors of Pixar. African Cats was led by Keith Scholey, co-writer and co-director, and the world’s premiere expert in filming big cat behavior. So this was a really fun project for me.

Ironically, one of the reasons I loved it was for the unique story challenges it posed. You have to identify these challenges right at the beginning of the writing process, or your script will have severe problems. First, we had to make this an epic event, worthy of a feature length film. That meant we had to avoid the typical nature documentary, which is predictable and familiar, and way too informational and dry.

We also had to write a story that was dictated by the animals. Obviously, you can’t script animals; you have to find the best story in what they actually do. That can be very difficult, especially when you want to avoid anthropomorphizing them. So the main challenge of the plot was how to overcome the episodic quality inherent in all nature films, especially when the animal depicted must go on an annual migration.

Animal stories are also constrained by the main characters. The more the animal is limited by what he can learn, the more the story is guided by predictable instinct. One solution, but also a problem, was to have two main characters, a lion and a cheetah. This makes the film feel like the story about the world’s big cats. But it also breaks the single narrative story line into two tracks, and the tracks may never cross.

So what did we do? I always say in my genre classes that the main trick is to transcend the genre. How you do that is different for every form. Nature films are a sub-genre of the True Story (which also includes memoir). True stories are at their best when they are deeply personal, when they focus on the family. For us, that meant focusing on the two mothers.

Motherhood is the greatest challenge in the animal world, both emotionally and strategically. These mothers, whether lion or cheetah, are ferocious fighters for their cubs. They despair at losing one. They rejoice when a cub comes home. When you see the intense feelings of the two mothers, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have no need, or even possibility, of anthropomorphizing these animals. Call them what you will, these animals love.

Unlike all other animal activities, which are single bursts in the present, motherhood requires a strategic campaign that can cover years. So we knew that tracking the cub-raising process would give us most of our plot.

Motherhood also unifies our story line. It gives the audience a sense that, below the surface, these two main characters are really one. Ironically we united them further by using extreme contrast. Luckily for us storytellers, these two feline mothers are complete opposites: the lioness raises her cubs within the strong society of the pride while the cheetah raises her cubs alone. Each way of living and mothering produces different terrors, mothering techniques and plot beats.

While the two moms should give us enough plot (we wouldn’t know for sure until all the footage came back!), it wouldn’t necessarily overcome the story’s episodic nature. We began to solve that problem by first admitting that this story will always have episodic qualities. That’s life. That’s a journey. And to this day, it’s a major form of plot.

But we also knew a great technique in writing, which is to turn a negative into a positive. Make your weakness a strength. If we’ve got two major characters and a journey, let’s get all the benefits of the crosscut we can.

The crosscut was one of the keys to this plot, because it allowed us to cut on the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger has been used in storytelling forever. But this technique was refined for the film medium in recent years through television, in shows like ER. Multi-strand stories on film allow you to sequence scenes based on the most dramatic moments of each story.

The crosscut in turn affected how we wrote the narration. Most narrations in nature films are too wordy and informational. They often step on big reveals and smother drama. The crosscut allowed us to convey lots of information through juxtaposition of scenes rather than by voiceover. For every step of the cub-raising process, we could show, by quick comparison, how the two mothers must use opposite techniques, with opposite costs.

That in turn allowed us to keep the narration lean and emphasize the dramatic. Our discipline was to give only enough information to tell the big cats apart and highlight the underlying strategies the cats use for each challenge they face. We let the “greatest hit” drama beats tell themselves, and that brought the audience into the action, instead of dryly backing them away.

You cannot transcend a film’s genre unless you also transcend the form’s basic theme. Animal films are about survival. About life. It goes on, but the process is brutal. It’s a war out there. One of the ways we punched the epic quality of the film was to frame it as a fight for the entire lion kingdom, which arguably is the most dangerous place on earth. So we were playing that theme hard (and yes, it really happened).

But to transcend our theme, we knew we would have to show that within this world of brutal survival, where there is no justice, there are moments of courage, sacrifice and love. Once again the mothers were the answer. Because when you see what these mothers do for their cubs, these big, beautiful cats become the Shakespearean characters of the animal world. Rest assured, if you see this movie the tears will come. Don’t fight it. Your secret is safe with me.

Mar 30, 2011

John Truby answers your story questions

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

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:
The idea is not original.
The idea doesn't have a clear desire line for the hero that extends throughout the story.
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?

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?

I'll give you five.

The story idea the writer comes up with is not original. Biggest mistake writers make.

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.

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.

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.

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: Why is it so important to master genres?

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?

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 Masterclass 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?

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?

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?

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?

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 important is the process of rewriting?

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

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?

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 masterclass on story is legendary. Can you give us a detailed rundown of what you cover and why people keep coming back over and over?

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 12 major genres on which 99% of movies are based. These include Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Love, Masterpiece, Memoir-True Story, 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.