Film Courage: Why do most people fail at screenwriting?
John Truby: I think most people fail at screenwriting because it’s the most difficult craft in the world. You know, people say talk about “I want to be a director.” Well, being a director is a very difficult challenging job. But it doesn’t compare to writing. The craft of storytelling is the most complex craft in the world. It takes a lifetime commitment to master. Now a lot of writers either don’t realize it’s going to take a lifetime of commitment or they don’t want to face a lifetime of commitment. It’s a lot of work and that’s a lot of time. Most writers are looking for the magic bullet. Which is why I talk about this in my class all the time. Most writers start off with this three act structure-way of looking at storytelling, which is designed for beginners and does not work at the professional level. The reason it’s so popular is because it is a kind of magic bullet. “It’s not that hard!” Well, we’d all like to think that writing a successful screenplay can be done with a few simple steps, you know, a paint-by-numbers approach. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. You have to be able to put in the work. And you have to also realize that the level of training that is required to get to a level of excellence. And that means literally hundred of craft techniques that have to be mastered. I will always tell writers in my class, plot is the most underestimated of all the major writing skills. Most writers know the important of a good main character, they know the importance of lean dialogue and so on. But when it comes to plot, they think well I’ll just figure that out as I go. And of course that never happens because it turns out that plot has more techniques that must be mastered to become a working professional than all the other major writing skills combined. If you don’t know what those techniques are, you have really no chance of working at that level. So that is why I say it is so important to writers to not just get trained, but get the right kind of training so that they are working at the professional level. And one of the key hallmarks that I’ve tried to teach in all of my classes is that professional writers use fundamentally different techniques than all other writers. If you don’t know what those professional techniques are, you cannot play in that game, you cannot compete at that level.
Film Courage: Do you think too that a lot of people don’t realize that their temperament is not suited [for being a writer]. I mean they are spending a lot of time alone. You are having to be sort of self-generating. And maybe people don’t realize how difficult that is?
John Truby: You are absolutely right. I consider the psychological element the biggest obstacle to a writer’s success. Because the difficulty of what you just said, the difficulty of facing the page by yourself, being in that room alone, trying to meet that challenge, day-in-and-day-out, is very difficult on the human mind. And writers first of all don’t realize what it’s going to take psychologically at first. And then when they get into it and they try to deal with that. They really don’t have the tools or the support system to be able to be in it for the long haul.
I often tell writers that people who are professional are the people who are still standing, you know? Everybody else…they were knocked out…for various reasons, like they did not get the right training. But most of all they cannot handle the psychological difficulties of what it takes to write at the professional level. Meaning, writing alone, facing rejection, again and again, over many years and so on until you have mastered the craft at a level that somebody says “Hey, you’re a good writer. This is a good script. I’m going to hire you.”
So it’s the people who A) commit to the craft and B) who are still standing who are there after many years so that finally somebody says “Yeah, you’ve done the work. You’re actually pretty good.” Because keep in mind, most people don’t know a good story. The just know [either] I liked it or I didn’t like it. But they are not trained as writers. Again it’s the most complex craft in the world. So part of the difficult psychology is how do you get over the fact that you’re getting rejected from people who don’t know what you do. That’s very tough to face.
Film Courage: So which do you think is more important, stubbornness or a teflon personality where rejection just doesn’t define who you are?
John Truby: I would say neither of those. I would say both of those are dependent on a previous requirement which is maintaining an openness to learning the craft.
I will often get professional writers to take my class and when I talk to them what I always find is these people have no ego. At least an ego coming across that I can see. Because they are professional writers so you would think that they think “Well I already know this stuff!” But they don’t. They don’t take that attitude. Yes, they are extremely well-trained. If they get to the level of a professional writer, they are extremely well-trained. But these are people who are open to learning more. And I find that is the most important quality for being a successful writer. The willingness to learn from anywhere, anyone, so that your repertoire, your arsenal, your set of tools is constantly growing. That (in turn) gives you the confidence to say “That person didn’t like my script, but I know that it is based on the craft elements that make for a good story. So whether they liked it or not, that doesn’t effect me. I know it’s a good story.” That’s where you get that foundation of confidence that you need to get through those tough psychological moments.
Film Courage: So almost as if, [let’s say] an attorney or a doctor sort of mandatory continuing education, artists some how feel they are immune to this [same kind of training]? I’ve already learned what I need to learn…
John Truby: Most do. Most do. And it’s a huge problem. You know, when I give classes the most common question is all about “How do I sell my script?” There’s an implication in that question which is “I already know how to write a good script. The only thing I’m not able to do is sell it.” Not so. 99 percent of writers, will always talk in Hollywood about, it’s all about the connections. It’s all about who you know. That is so overrated. 99 percent of writers when they finally meet someone who is a useful connection, they don’t have the story tools to make that connection pay off. They don’t have the craft foundation. So it’s all about this ability to treat writing a a profession. And part of that is “I can never know enough about how this craft works.” And partly because every story is different. I’ve talked to professional writer friends who…we’re always amazed. We think it’s going to get easier now. It doesn’t! It gets harder. Because the better you get, the higher you set the bar for yourself on your script. Cracking a story is always hard no matter how much you know because every story is totally unique. Yes there are certain elements you can use that you can use that you can hang your hat on that you can get a way into the story and so on. But every one is tough. So that’s why having this professional approach to being a writer or being a storyteller is so important because A) it makes you successful B) it gets you through.