I had the opportunity to interview ace Hollywood script doctor John Truby about his new book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Here in this online-exclusive interview with Writer’s Digest, he offers advice on developing a screen-worthy script, and shares his view of the screenwriters strike—it will be over, eventually, and you’ll want to be ready with a good script to pitch!
So, you’re a Hollywood script doctor. What exactly does a script doctor do?
The term “script doctor” refers to a range of writing jobs, from a complete rewrite to a dialogue polish. Usually I’m hired to fix the story. In screenwriting especially, story is everything. So I’m very busy.
In your book, you talk a lot about “premise.” Is it important for a writer to know the premise at the very beginning of writing a script?
It is crucial, because this is the hardest step in the writing process and where 9 out of 10 writers go wrong. If you blow the premise, you cannot recover. The reason it is so hard is that you have so little to go on-only one line. That’s why writers often fall back on constructing a premise that is a copy of a film they saw six months ago. Or they combine film copies, which they pitch as x meets y. They’re not fooling anyone. The idea is still a copy. And that’s deadly. The biggest reason a script is turned down is because it’s “derivative,” which simply means it is not original.
Writers fail in the premise in three major ways. First, they don’t know how to dig into the idea and find the “gold.” In other words, what is truly original. Second, they don’t know how to spot the structural problems that are embedded in the idea. Even the best idea has a number of them, and you have to spot them early so you can solve them before actually writing the script. Third, most writers don’t know how to develop the idea properly. The chapter in my book on Premise takes writers through a number of really useful techniques to make their story truly unique, then helps them map out a full story that works.
You write that dialogue isn’t real talk; it’s highly selective language that could be real. Please explain this viewpoint.
A story is really a sequence of highly selected events tracking a life change in a character. These are the essential moments in the person’s life. The writer cuts out the boring or un-important parts. So every scene is laden with content, and that includes the dialogue. That doesn’t mean that everything the characters say in every scene has life-changing importance. We usually refer to such dialogue as “on-the-nose,” where the writer is giving a sermon to the audience. This is a disaster and the mark of an amateur.
Good dialogue always walks a fine line between expressing content and sounding real. Good dialogue is always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life, but because it occurs within dramatic moments, it sounds real and justified.
You use the term “antiplot.” Can you explain what you mean by antiplot?
The plot chapter is the longest in The Anatomy of Story, along with the chapter on dialogue. That’s because most writers underestimate plot. It’s the most complex of all the story skills, but also the one that is most easily learned, because it’s based on very specific craft techniques.
In the beginning of the chapter I talk about some of the major types of plot that a writer must know to be a professional, including the “journey plot,” “revelations plot” and what I call the “antiplot.” Antiplot is really a collection of techniques that shifts the audience’s attention from plot to character, and especially the subtleties of character. These techniques include point of view, shifting narrators, branching story structure, and non-chronological time.
Antiplot is most common in independent film and “serious” fiction. Hollywood mainstream film, with its extreme emphasis on genre, is in many ways the opposite of antiplot.
What films do you most recommend to writers who want to hone their storywriting technique?
In The Anatomy of Story, I talk about hundreds of examples, not just films, but also novels, plays, short stories, and television. That’s because great storytelling isn’t unique to one medium. As the book’s title implies, I see a story as organic, a living thing that grows, where all the parts of the story are interconnected. That’s why each chapter covers a major storytelling skill, from the beginning of the writing process-premise-all the way to scene construction and dialogue. So permit me to suggest some stories to look at from each of the major storytelling skills. By the way, you’ll notice I often recommend great films that have stood the test of time. I believe writers learn best using the apprentice method, where you see a story technique as it was actually used by a story master. Any one of these examples is a master class in storytelling.
For premise: Tootsie, Big, Star Wars, Forrest Gump
For the 7 major structure steps: The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, The Verdict
For character: American Beauty, A Streetcar Named Desire, Pride and Prejudice
For moral argument: The Seven Samurai, L.A. Confidential, Dances With Wolves, Emma, Casablanca
For story world: the Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings, It’s A Wonderful Life, Chinatown
For symbol web: The Lord of the Rings, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix
For plot: The Godfather, The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption
For scene weave: The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, Goodfellas, L.A. Confidential
For scene construction and dialogue: Casablanca, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction
What can writers from other genres-novels, nonfiction writing, etc.-learn from screenwriters?
Because film is based on the cut, which is a split second shift from one character to another or one action line to another, screenwriting is the closest medium we have to what I call “pure story.” There is no padding in a great script. The top professional screenwriters are excellent storytellers above all, along with whatever unique strengths they may bring to the table. And they all know that pure story is expressed primarily in the structure. I’ve had many novelists, playwrights and nonfiction writers take my classes. And they always tell me that the storytelling techniques they learned are totally applicable and extremely useful for what they write.
How do you feel about writers doing script adaptations of their own books?
I think writers should do the adaptation of their own books, since they have the original vision and voice. But only if they understand that screenwriting is all about story structure. To do a successful adaptation, you must first find the bones. That is what is necessary in the script. Then you can add and embellish where possible and desirable. The best technique I know of for finding the structure of any story is found in the plot section of The Anatomy of Story, where I go into great detail about the 22 key structure steps. This gives you a detailed map of your story from beginning to end, with all the beats connected under the surface in an unbreakable chain that builds steadily.
Your book is mainly about craft and technique. Any advice for the business end of screenwriting-how does a writer break in?
The biggest mistake writers make about the business of screenwriting is they think it’s all about connections. Who you know. But 99.9% of writers don’t have the mastery of story techniques to take advantage of
a good connection when they finally meet one.
The only sure way to break in is to write a great script. And that means a great story. Learn the craft of storytelling, apply it to an original idea, and you will succeed. That’s why I wrote my book. The good news is that while storytelling is a complex craft, it can be learned. And you control that. It comes down to hard work, practice and a commitment to learning new storytelling techniques for as long as you write.
Any thoughts about the screenwriters strike to share with us?
The conventional wisdom is that Hollywood sells movie stars. Wrong. Hollywood is in the business of buying and selling story. That’s what the audience loves. The only difference is what medium they watch it on. For a new generation, the internet is where they are going, more and more, to see those stories. Writers made a big mistake when the DVD came on the scene and they failed to insist on a fair percentage of that medium. We won’t get fooled again.
Don’t miss tomorrow’s post: John Truby’s 10 Great Mistakes Writers Make with Story.