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….

12 thoughts on “TRUBYVILLE”

  1. I liked the Unforgiven quite a bit – whenever it’s on television, I find myself unable to not watch it, always the sign of a good story.

    And the idea that we “all got it comin” at the end – wow.

    And the Verdict is a great script.

  2. I read On Writing and The Danse Macabre continuously. Not because they contain any great secrets, but because reading about writing makes me think about writing which makes me want to write.

  3. Seeing a film I like inspires me to write. Validation inspires me to write.

    I think Unforgiven is an excellent screenplay/film.

  4. Wow, I thought I was the only person who’s read Danse Macabre, at least more than once. I’ve read that book numerous times, (own both the books you mentioned) –

  5. Does Mr. Truby write screenplays for a living?

    I ask b/c I have a theory about screenwriting books. At least, some of them.

    Here goes: developing a theory of anything – particularly a practical theory about writing – often comes from deduction. Someone watches, say, 1000 movies, melts them down to their thematic skeletons, and makes comparisons to what they have in common. Ditto for novels, short stories, etc.

    The commonalities are what they base their “how-to” books on.

    That’s the issue I take with some of these books. They’re working from finished products instead of from process, and they’re built almost entirely on a foundation of observation. The kind of screenwriting book you write is wholy (sp?) dependent upon the type of movies you’ve watched or scripts you’ve read. It’s more about deduction and lowest-common-demoninator “must-haves” that most scripts, supposedly, “have,” and usually not about story universals that move people or character-building that provides engaging conflict.

    Anyone have any recommendations for great screenwriting books that focus more on the craft of storytelling than on the mechanical underpinnings of story arc, beats, etc.? I always find those more inspiring (for my personality type; everyone’s different) than the ones that have diagrams or directives.

  6. Thanks for the review. The only course I watched was Syd Field’s dvd set. I recently bought a book called Save The Cat and it inspired me in my writing. Very practical down to earth advice (not an instructional). I had a habit of introducing all the characters too soon and this book showed me and linked me to excellent examples of how to push some of them further into the script. It made for a better read

  7. Kristen:

    I agree with you. Most writing books feel very much the product of theory, not practice. Truby is no exception. Nevertheless, some of them have a few valuable insights. The thing about Truby’s series that is the strongest is his overall sense of what moves a story. The thing that is his weakest is his desire to create a formula that works for all stories.

    I have a few book suggestions in an earlier post. The most helpful reading for me is other scripts. I constantly read good produced scripts and, whenever I get my hands on them, recent specs, films in production.

  8. A book that’s on my shelf but have not read yet is Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’ve heard very good things about how it approaches the process. Maybe I’ll get around to it one day.

  9. Good post, Jon! When I came to town a while ago now, Truby was in full swing, and one of about three well known script teachers at that time. The others being Syd Field and Robert Mackee. I attended a Truby course as a young writer after my first few sales, and still feeling insecure about writing. I found Truby to have a masterful analytical mind, as all these guys do, and able to create really solid structural analysis and guidelines for the writing process. This was a thrill to me as I often felt so at sea when starting a project (and sometimes sill do by the way). I found the 22 steps to the screenplay, the act breakdown, all this stuff, very calming, feeling that someone had finally figured it the hell out. One problem. You sit down to write through their matrix (as it were) and you will find out that you pump out very lifeless material that is very well structured. Everything is where it belongs, but the inhabitants are pod people and the dillemas feel artificial. Why? Because in the end we have to absorb some of this material to learn structure so we can write the form properly (whether it’s like you and reading scripts to learn from (I did a fair shair of that), or reading books, or taking workshops,)and then you have to literally forget it all and sit down with a great character that you love and their awful problem. And let it explode from there – straight from you, period, and screw all these guys. Because in the end, if it’s not organic, and if you don’t infuse your own delight and misery throughout, and let that fill the story and indicate the appropriate changes, right up to the crisis and climax, then you’re not really writing, you’re only painting by numbers. And if it doesn’t come out right the first time, do it again. And again.

    As for Kristen’s question: great books to discuss story: Linda Seger, how to make a good script great (older but still a classic), and The Writers’ Journey by christopher vogler. Warren at had a post with his favorite writing books and you might find that insightful. I’m at Thanks again, for the link and thoughtful post, Jon!

  10. Philip makes an interesting point here and it’s something that I’ve always felt but just recently have come to realize in my own work. I’ve taken on the task of rewriting an old screenply I wrote a while ago, my first in fact. It was always praised for having unique characters with authentic dialogue but the structure was always the issue. Now as I rewrite, I find that all that great stuff that I initially wrote probably wouldn’t have been there in the first place if I was consumed with the step by step approach to screenplay structure. So if I’m learning anything from this process that I’m going through right now it’s to get the great scenes, the amazing dialogue, the interaction between the characters on the page. Capture that freshness right from the beginning. Your first draft is going to be a mess anyway, it might as well be an inspired one that will give you a reason to go to the next draft. You can work out the structure in future drafts but if the characters and scenes feel dead then so is your screenplay and no amount of rewriting is going to fix that.

  11. From Al, guitarist for CYANIDE SCENARIO (and later INTERNAL AUTONOMY), crehes to Sean for tracking down the background:thanks for making the ‘Cyanide Scenario 12’ tape available, and also your kind words about it. The vinyl it was recorded for never happened, so you’ll be forever disappointed on that front, but if you want to know why, and have some general background info: Cyanide Scenario was a band I played guitar in prior to departing to start a new band – which turned out to be Internal Autonomy, but that’s the only connection, really. There’s another, slightly earlier, CS recording in existence, that was going to be an EP (7″) on a label that was going to be stated at the time by Justin (of Napalm Death/Godflesh fame), the label never got off the ground (I think something to do with problems concerning the licensing arrangement with Pinnacle, but that might be complete bollocks), so neither did the EP! Before we knew this, however, we went back to the same studio with a new Drummer & Vocalist to record a 12″, that eventually was going to be a split LP with a band called Open Door, and I’d discussed releasing it via MortarHate with Colin Jerwood, who liked the recordings, in the event this didn’t come off either as a) the band fell apart not long after the recording of the 12″, and b) at that time MortarHate were ploughing most their energies into ‘The Ungovernable Force’, and were a bit over-committed in their up-coming releases anyway! So, Cyanide Scenario was a brief and ill-fated thing really.

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