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.