John Truby explains how if you don’t develop the premise and movie genre the right way, the best scene writing in the world won’t make a difference.
John Truby is Hollywood’s premier screenwriting instructor and story consultant. Over the last 25 years, more than 30,000 writers have attended his sold-out seminars around the world. For more information: Truby.com.
Here’s a fact that should catch your attention: 99% of screenwriters fail at the premise. You may come up with a terrific one-line idea for a movie, but if you don’t develop the premise the right way, the best scene writing in the world won’t make a difference.
The single most important decision you make when developing your premise is: What genre should I use? Genre is a particular type of story—like detective, comedy, thriller or action. The reason genre is so important is that the entire entertainment business is based on it.
That sounds like a pretty extreme statement until you look at how Hollywood has set itself apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world has always emphasized the original artistic vision in their film making. That stance is great for art but bad for commerce, because for each film the audience has to reinvent the wheel. They have to guess whether they want to enter the theater. And they have to work hard to figure out the unique story patterns that make that film work.
Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though that sometimes happens). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist.
For years, Hollywood films were only one genre apiece; say Western, detective, or family comedy. Then someone had the brilliant idea: Hey, let’s give them two for the price of one. That’s why virtually every film made now is a combination of two, three, or even four genres. The implications for you as a writer in Hollywood are huge. First, you have to figure out what genres are best for your idea. Second, you have to know those genres better than everyone else writing in those forms. Third, you have to know how to transcend the forms so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise.
The problem with genre is that each one is a complex system of story, with its own unique hero, opponent, story beats, structures, and themes. Fortunately, this information, though complex, is knowable. You just have to put in the time and effort to learn it.
When I first start developing a story, I look at a number of elements to help me choose which genres would get the most out of the idea. The first element is the hero’s role in the story. When you look at your premise, you can usually imagine a basic action that the hero would take throughout the story. For example, is the hero essentially a fighter (Action), a lover (Love), an enforcer or criminal (Crime), an endangered investigator (Thriller), or a victim (Horror)? A second element to examine is your hero’s desire line. The desire, one of the seven basic story-structure steps, is your hero’s particular goal. It provides the spine of the story, so every hero should have one. It just so happens that each of the major genres is associated with a desire line.
One way to get a sense of the best genre for your idea is to match the probable desire line of your hero to the key desire line of each genre. For example, the goal in a fantasy is to explore an imaginary world. In myth, it’s to go on a journey, ultimately leading to one’s self. In sitcoms, the hero wants to escape from an impossible predicament. In thrillers, the hero’s desire is to escape attack.
An opponent who fights the hero and tries to prevent him from reaching the goal is another important element that helps determine your genre. The relationship between hero and opponent is the most important relationship in your story. A good opponent must be a unique individual but also fulfill a crucial story function. For example, in television drama, the main opponents are usually other family members. In comedy, the opponents tend to be various expressions of society at large. In the masterpiece, the opponent is some kind of system in which the hero is trapped. In love stories, the main opponent is the lover.
Another way that the various genres set themselves apart from one another is that they each ask a different central question or force the hero to make a crucial decision. The key question in thrillers: Is your suspicion justified? In comedy: Do you lie or show your true self? In action: Do you choose freedom or life? In fantasy: How do you live with style and freedom?
Part of exploring your premise line has to do with discovering the deepest thematic question your hero must confront in playing out the drama. How your hero answers this deep question is the real stakes of the story; it’s what makes the audience want to watch this character all the way to the end. One of the benefits of genre is that a framework for these deep questions has already been worked out. You provide the details and the variations.
Keep in mind that when you explore your premise, you are at the very beginning of the writing process so you may not know the key question your story will ask. The important thing is to make a guess now. It will help you extend and focus your idea, as well as lead you to the best genre for carrying the story.
Genres aren’t just systems for expressing certain themes. They are also strategies for storytelling. Action stories set up a kind of heavyweight fight with an intense punch/ counter-punch between hero and opponent. Science fiction sends the hero to a unique technological future that highlights strengths and weaknesses in the present world. Thriller places a weakened hero in a tight box and shows him struggling to escape. Crime pits a criminal who thinks he is above society against a defender of society’s rules and values.
The above elements, though helpful, only tell you which genres are probably best for your idea. They don’t tell you how to write them. That’s where the story beats come in. Each genre has anywhere from eight to 15 unique beats, which are key events that must be inyour story or you are not doing the form. For example, if you write a love story without a first kiss, the audience will want to have you shot.
One of the great advantages of genres is that they help you with plot. Plot is the most underestimated of all the major writing skills, with a lot of specific techniques you must learn in order to work as a pro. Most writers know the value of a strong main character and tight, witty dialogue, but they think they’ll just figure out the plot as they go. That never happens, and it’s a big mistake. The ability to pack more plot in your script is the single most distinguishing feature in a script and film that hits big.
Once you know the key genre beats of your story, you have a detailed map of the plot. But that only puts you in the ballpark of a winning script. The final key is to learn these beats so well you not only hit them but also twist them. Twisting the beats is what makes your genre story original and separates it from all the other scripts in your form. A number of films that got a lot of attention were transcendent genre films, such as Toy Story 3, Inception, and The Social Network.
How you transcend your genre is quite varied and depends on the genre. But certain elements always apply. First, you have to make your archetypal main character—such as fighter, lover, enforcer, searcher—real and unique. In short, you must turn a type into an individual. Transcending your genre also involves changing the hero from what I call a “traveling angel”—a perfect person who goes around solving other people’s problems—and placing him at the center of the drama. That means giving your hero a strong weakness and need that he must overcome by the end of the story. This is one of the main techniques Hollywood’s best screenwriters use to transcend their form.
For example, Tony Gilroy used this technique in transcending the thriller with Michael Clayton and in transcending the action story with the Bourne films. Said Gilroy, “I had been running around for years trying to get somebody to get interested in scaling down action. To make it more intimate. My contention was that if you brought action down to the ground level, it could mean a lot more with a lot less.” Translated into screenwriting techniques, that meant turning Jason Bourne into a real person haunted by guilt and the need for revenge.
Another technique for transcending your genre is to combine the basic genre beats with elements of the family drama. One of the best comedies was Little Miss Sunshine, a combination of myth and comedy, which is a hybrid form as old as Don Quixote. In a myth, the hero goes on a long journey. Myth is a very popular genre, but it can become episodic as the hero meets and defeats a succession of opponents who are strangers to the hero and the audience.
The writer of Little Miss Sunshine solved this inherent problem of the myth form by bringing the family along for the ride. This way the hero had ongoing opponents the audience knows— mainly the dad—as well as episodic opponents. Instead of a succession of unconnected events, the story has a steadily building conflict. The jokes are funnier and it lets the writer build to the funniest gag of all when the family gets to the beauty pageant at the end of the journey.
One final point you need to know to have the best chance to succeed as a professional screenwriter has to do with mixing genres. Hollywood’s key story strategy today is that every film they make must combine at least two genres, and often three or four. It’s the old marketing technique of give the audience two or three for the price of one. For example, Inception combines science fiction and caper. Avatar is action + love. The Bourne films are action + thriller. The Other Guys is a buddy picture, which is really comedy + action + love. Little Miss Sunshine is comedy + myth. And The Social Network is true story + thriller.
Mixing genres is a great strategy, and you must use it. But it’s more difficult than it looks. Most writers end up with a mess, with too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, and themes. The first technique for mixing genres is to make one genre the primary one. This will give your hero a single desire and a single storyline. Then put in other genre beats where they fit so they amplify the primary form.
Don’t let the complexity of transcending a multiple-genre story scare you. It’s actually great news. The techniques are there for you, and everyone reading this article can master them if you commit yourself to study and practice. That’s what the craft of writing is all about.
But the complexity also means you have to focus. I know a lot of talented writers, but I know no one who has mastered more than two or three genres. If you concentrate on the two or three forms that express your life philosophy and highlight your strengths as a writer, you’ll go a long way toward being the screenwriter that Hollywood calls when that next assignment comes along.
Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2011