John Truby • Scriptwriter
The anatonomy of scriptwriting
Cineuropa: What influenced your work as a scriptwriter?
My first influence would probably come from philosophers as Nietzsche and Aristotle, with their emphasis on organic approach to story. The meaning of this approach is that a story is a living object that grows: it starts with an original idea and develops trough different stages from the beginning to the end.
Another influence came with the American movies from the 30s and 40s with their episodes on telling great stories on highly crafted scripts with directors as Billy Wilder. Another strong influence was French New Wave and not so much for the directors, but mainly because of their stories, in which the personal is political.
French New Wave is quite different from the classical approach to storytelling…
Absolutely, but I also think that it was an approach that used the film medium to tell stories; they did not borrow from the classical approach of storytelling, typical of the classic Hollywood films from those earlier decades. If we think for example of a film as “les 400 coups” (The 400 Blows, 1959), there is a coming of age story done in a different way that any other coming of age stories had ever been done before.
What is the “Truby method” described in your book “Anatomy of Story” about?
My main goal with this book was to revolutionize how story telling is learned. For the last 30 years story telling in movies has been taught using techniques that don’t work. These techniques are based on methods known as “tree act structure”, that is in all the scenery books; In my opinion this method is mechanical storytelling recommended only for beginners, it is not efficient at a professional level, and that is what the screenwriters who read these books are realizing.
My book "Anatomy of Story" and the screenwriting class that I teach are based on the idea that professional writers use fundamentally different techniques than average writers. The most important of these techniques, on which the “Truby method” is based, are the 7 steps and the more detailed 22 steps of every great story.
The 7 and 22 steps are really the opposite of the tree act method, because instead of being mechanical and imposed on a story from the outside, they are organic and they exist not only within the story but also deep under the surface.
The 7 steps are the basic stages that any good story passes through regardless of what medium or genre it’s using. Even a 30 second commercial will present these 7 steps if it’s a good commercial.
What is in your opinion the main difference between American and European storytelling?
If by US storytelling we intend the big mainstream Hollywood, we deal with films that appear to be mainly about big spectacle and special effects with an emphasis on movie stars, but I believe that those are not the true keys to how Hollywood stories really work.
I believe that the big difference between American and European films has to do with the story structure of the script. US stories are almost always minor, meaning that we have a single hero who with great intensity goes after a single goal and against a single main opponent. These stories are usually always plot based with a heavy emphasis on genres, especially on the combination of genres, combining two or three together.
On the plus side US films are very strong on story and they are very popular with audiences worldwide, the down side is that they tend to lack depth and complexity. European stories instead often use a branching structure, meaning that, we often have in the story multiple main characters with main goals, but none of the goals are very intense. These stories are usually character based with an emphasis on the story world and the effect society has on the characters. European stories have often avoided genre, although this has been changing in the last years. The plus side is that they tend to be strong on depth and complexity, but the down side is that they tend to be weak on story and they are not as popular with audiences worldwide.
You recently described the evolution of television storytelling in the US, and you said that the most talented storytellers are now working in the US television. Could you further explain this concept?
Many important evolutions have occurred in the last few years on American television. First of all we have many shows like Mad Man, House and Damages that have complex characters who are often unlikable in many ways.
A second evolution is that these shows tend to mix in a unique ways genres. This trend started many years ago with "E.R.", where a hospital drama was mixed with the action form, and it had never been done before. Then you have a show, in my opinion the greatest American TV show, as "The Sopranos" with an interesting mix of gangster story with family drama; "Six Feet Under" mixing family drama with elements of horror story; "The Wire", combining crime story with epic drama in the urban society; and then you get a show like “Lost” which combines science fiction and drama.
A third evolution can be connected to the fact that there are shows like "The Wire", "Lost" and "24" that take advantage of moments that are unique for the TV medium, especially when it comes to plot. The TV medium, unlike films, allows you to create a vast web of interconnected stories lines. For example the kind of stories created in the 19th century by storytellers such as Balzac, Hugo and Stendhal.
A forth important evolution can be seen in the fact that there is less of a macho emphasis. You get HBO shows like "In Treatment", and police shows that are the main stable of American television and you get shows like "The Mentalist" which plays more emphasis on characters who use their intuition and observation, instead of force and violence.
Going back to explaining why the most talented storytellers work in TV, we find various reasons. The first is that in the US the medium is controlled by the writers, and not producers or directors, and they literally run the show, so the writing isn’t compromised by a star or a director.
Another reason is that TV writers see their work made as a film and shown within weeks after they write it, and the feedback they get from that is really invaluable.
TV writers write much more than screenwriters for example, you might write up to 24 episodes of 1hour in a single season, while a screenwriter would write a 2 hours film script in one year, and it’s a script that almost never gets made.
Another reason is that with television you have the remote control, and this means that TV writers must tell great stories which should be very tight.
Possibly the biggest reason is that in America usually the money is in television. The highest pay for a writer is in television, so it's there where writers as Alan Ball and John Wells all want to go and work.
You affirmed that the structure is the most important factor for a film. Could you give me two examples of a European and American film that have a good structure and why?
As an example of a European film I would chose the French film I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) by Philippe Claudel. At first glance the film appears to be episodic and loosely structured, but that is made at the beginning of the film just to emphasize the day to day feeling of real family life.
If you look under the surface the structure is quite strong. For example revelations are one of the keys for good story structure. Most drama writers are not good at finding the small. But what excels is the way the story is told, also because the writer grounds the story in a real family drama. The changing in the character, that happens by the end of the story, is very subtle but still feels quite real. Another important key for a great structure is that during the film the plot comes always out of the character.
For an American film instead I would look at The Dark Knight (2008) by Christopher Nolan. This is a very different kind of structure, because as I mentioned before, the Hollywood film is all about telling genre stories, and “The Dark Knight” is really a genre writer movie.
What makes it special is that it transcends its own genre, meaning that it tells its story in such a unique way that it becomes an original work of art. One of the marks of good structure is what I call character web, which is how you set your main character in opposition to the other characters. The Dark Knight really uses this important technique. For example the first character to be compared to Batman is the main opponent Joker, one of the old time great opponents. So if Batman is known as the Dark Knight, Joker is the Dark Philosopher, he is literally the author of Gotham City and he constructs everything from the plot. It is really a very dark moral vision, and what is most interesting is that it’s done through the story and through the story’s structure.
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