Interview with John Truby

by Emon Hassan on April 30, 2006

Interview with John Truby
by Emon Hassan for Shooting People

NOTE: This Q&A was conducted for Shooting People‘s US Screenwriters Network Bulletin and was arranged by TV/Film Seminars.

SP: For those of us new to the 22-step structure: what are they? How did you decide on that number and structure? What’s the biggest misconception people have about that method?

JT: The 22 building blocks of every great story are the single most powerful set of tools for creating a great story that I know of. They are the key dramatic steps in the approximate best order that they should occur in the story. They’re not a formula, they’re actually much deeper than that. They are the underlying grammar of drama. They are the essential way that drama works, that drama moves.

To put it another way, between two steps, are a very precise map for tracking how the hero changes by working through a plot. And unlike the three act structure which is imposed on the story from the outside, the 22 steps are organic to your story, they are in the story. You have to find them and tease them out so they say what you want.

The key point is, that the 22 steps never tells you what to write, they tell you how to sequence what you write for the most dramatic effect on the audience.

Biggest misconception is that there is a set number of steps and that my story, the writer’s story, has to hit the steps in exactly that order. The 22 steps have nothing to do with me, John Truby, I didn’t create them. They are the steps of human action solving a life problem. Now every story is different, every main character is unique. Good films hit all 22 steps, but they do them in a slightly different order depending on the genre, depending on the unique story problem, and depending on the length of the story.

SP: You advise writers to specialize in their genre. How does a writer decide what genre to specialize in? Are there particular elements in each genre a writer could test him/herself in to make that determination?

JT: Genres are particular kinds of stories, but more importantly, they are all-star stories. They are stories that have stood the test of time and have proven to be extremely popular. This is why I have always suggested writers specialize in one or more genres because that’s really what the business buys and sells.

Now each genre is a very complex system, which is why I devote an entire day’s class to each genre. It is absolutely crucial that you choose the right genre for your story idea. In fact one of the biggest mistakes writers make, is to use the wrong genre to develop their story idea.
Now, genres differ based on a number of crucial story elements. First of all, each genre has its own unique hero. Each genre has attached to it a particular desire line or goal that the hero will have in the story. Each genre takes place in a different social stage, how the society is defined around the hero is very important to genre stories. Also, each genre has its own opponent for the hero. Another element that you see in genres that differentiates the genres is that each asks a key question and that pretty much focuses the entire story. Connected with that, each genre uses a unique storytelling strategy. Also each one emphasizes different structure steps. All of the genres hit the major story structure steps but each one emphasizes certain steps and de-emphasizes other steps, that’s how you get the unique effect of a particular genre. Also, each genre has a thematic argument that’s already been worked out, and is embedded in the story, and is very important in terms of audiences appreciation. And probably most importantly, each genre has a set of story beats, typically anywhere from ten to fifteen story beats that are unique to that form that have to be there, or you’re not doing the genre right.

What’s important, with the story beats is to obviously know what they are, so you can hit every one of them, but also to know them so well that you can twist them, do them in a unique way so you set yourself apart from everybody else writing in that form.

SP: You tell your students to get past thinking around the 3-act structure. How is it limiting? Does the 3-act structure prevent writers from fully adapting your 22-step structure in their work?

JT: First of all, it doesn’t really exist. It is a complete myth. There are no act breaks within a story. That’s why 3-act is really a mechanical imprint, it’s laid over the story from the outside. In fact it comes from fear, will we open and close a curtain, in movies we don’t need to do that, we don’t need to open and close an curtain, it’s a much more fluid form.

Another problem with 3-act structure is that it’s a one size fits all approach, and when writer’s use it, they end up with very predictable scripts, everyone’s writing the same script. Another problem with it, it’s not practical. The terms that you see in 3-act structure are so broad, they are essentially meaningless when you’re actually trying to write the script. Another problem with 3-act is that it’s for beginners. It doesn’t have anywhere near the precision needed to write at the professional level.

Another problem is, it says nothing about genre. And everything that comes out of the entertainment business is at least one genre, and usually a combination of two or three, and this is a huge lack. And the final problem with the 3-act is that, it is simply wrong in many of the things that it says. For example, having to do with plot, it says that we want two or three major plot points. Well you cannot write a professional script if you only have two or three plot points. The average film has seven to ten major plot points. Depending on the genre, you might have even more. So if you were competing with somebody writing a script with seven to ten major plot twists, and you have two or three, you’re not going to win.

SP: You often tell writers that Hollywood does not respect or pay for somebody who is part of the system. Can you elaborate on that?

JT: The entertainment business doesn’t respect or pay for someone who blends in with the system because thousands of people already do that. In the area of screenwriting, the single biggest reason a script is turned down is, it’s derivative. In other words, the story is not original. The writer is doing the same thing that everyone else has done. Well why does Hollywood need to pay for that?

Hollywood respects and pays for somebody who stands out from the crowd. In other words, anyone who is an original storyteller. That is the true star based system of the entertainment business, not movie stars. If you have something unique, and if you tell your story in an original way, you are the only place that they can go to get what you have. And that’s why they will pay you a lot of money to do that. That’s why I always say it is absolutely essential that you maintain control over your originality. That is what is unique to you, that is what you have to sell. If you can do that, and then learn the structure techniques for expressing what is original, you will be very successful.


About John Truby

“Over the course of 3 decades, John Truby has taught more than 20,000 students the art of screenwriting. Providing the knowledge and expertise he has applied as a consultant on over 1,000 movie scripts, Truby offers an approach to storytelling that has earned acclaim for his instructional classes and screenwriting software from students and critics alike:

“If you’re ready to graduate from the boy-meets-girl league of screenwriting, meet john Truby…(His course draws) epiphanies that make you see the contours of your psyche as sharply as your script.”
LA Weekly

— taken from Truby’s wesite

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