I wish formulas worked. God, I wish they worked. I wish I had a bucket of moral dilemmas, a box of self-revelations and lists of reversals. I wish I could just grab some of them, line them up in the right order and have an amazing story.
Because of this desire (and my secret fear that maybe some formulas do work but I just don’t know the right one), I did something most writers who’ve been around the block a few times would not do. I bought John Truby’s “Great Screenwriting” series of tapes. (To be fair, I bought it only after reading this ringing endorsement.) Not only did I buy it, I listened to the whole damn thing – 14 hours worth. After that, I wrote… a lot. To see if the tapes made a difference.
I thought I’d report on it.
Let me say, up front, that I really enjoy Mr. Truby’s mesmerizing voice. Over the several weeks it took me to get through the tapes, I came to look forward to turning on my little old-school cassette player and being drawn into his Zen vortex, making me feel at ease, making me believe that screenwriting is an orderly process, one that can be planned and executed and everything will work out just fine.
And let me say, some of his ideas, while not new, are central concepts and are explained very nicely. For a beginning screenwriter with no training, they are important ideas to be exposed to. On the other hand, some of his ideas were just…wonky…. But that’s okay. As I’ve said here before, take what works. Lose what doesn’t.
The real trouble comes with applying the ideas. (Isn’t that always the case?) Mr. Truby applied his structural ideas to many films and always showed us why the scripts were flawed. The only problem is, for most of his examples, the “flaws” were the most interesting aspect of the scripts, at least to me. For example, he talked about why “Unforgiven” does not work. To me, it works fine. Maybe not the best script ever written, but nice solid work. Another example, “The Verdict.” What’s wrong with “The Verdict’? Great writing. I don’t care if the moral self-revelation comes too early.
After the first ten or so examples, I came to realize that Mr. Truby and I simply have different tastes. But what does that say about his method? To me, it says, “Generalities are just generalities. Writing is a subtle mixture of skills, judgment, tastes and imagination. Any analysis is imperfect and no analysis fits all stories.”
Nonetheless, again to be fair, the core of his ideas are very traditional and, for those without any real training, important to be exposed to. Not to embrace wholeheartedly, but to know and consider. If you have a writing degree, forget it. You’ve been there. If you’ve been writing for ten years, had scripts covered forever, been given notes by producers, you’ve been there. If not, maybe it’s worth a listen.
So did the tapes make a difference in my writing? Well, yeah, in a sense. They reminded me to keep my eye on the basics. Like, make sure the audience can follow your lead’s desire line. The more rewrites I do, the more I forget the basics. Even Tiger Woods studies the basics.
So, to sum up…
No magic secret answers;
Some important ideas, especially for beginners;
Some really wonky ideas;
And that Zen voice….