John Truby Anatomy Of StoryYou don't need to go to film school to recognise the key elements of great movies.

These same elements are present time and time again in the great movies, like King Kong, The Outlaw Josey Wales, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Meet Me in St. Louis, It's A Wonderful Life, Sunset Boulevard and Touch of Evil and they are worth highlighting:

1. These movies tend to have a strong single line - with one overriding problem or goal for the hero - to give the story drive, momentum, and a sense of priorities, or in the extreme, a sense of the first cause.

2. These films occasionally digress from that strong line to allow the film to "breathe". That is, they play with the structure to comment on what is happening, to cause the viewers to rethink their expectations, and to present actions or words that make an abstract, or thematic, point.

3. These films usually have heroes with a moral problem. The hero commits or fails to commit actions that hurt other people. These are characters with moral flaws, and the stories drive toward the moment when the hero uncovers his or her moral blindness.

4. Perhaps the most crucial element of great films is that the audience believes what each is fighting about. Even more important, these movies attach entire clusters of values and beliefs to the two antagonists. The great movies set up, around a single central opposition, an array of other oppositions that grow until they have national or even international implications, and present the essential predicaments of human life.

Anatomy of Story with John Truby5. The great movies have powerful, condensed openings that present the crucial patterns of the story and then slowly bring these patterns to the surface and explore them in an explicit way. By the end the audience has a sense of the patterns of thought and values that cause problems, not just for these particular characters but for anyone anywhere.

6. These movies make a moral argument. They show a hero and an opponent taking actions to reach their goal, and then justifying what they do with arguments that the audience can judge.

7. These movies don't just present a hero and an opponent. They show a unique and detailed world. In this world, larger forces are at work, values and world views are made clear, and what happens in the stories affects other characters who, though minor, are full human beings.

8. The great movies show great ambition. They ask the key question: what makes a good life? They give various answers, some of which may not be valid, but they force the audience to see their own lives in this kind of grand way. And that is the only way that meaningful change is possible.

9. The great movies usually present a world that works relatively no matter how hard we try to make it absolute. These films do not say that nothing exists, nothing is true, nothing is good, or nothing is right. But they explore in detail the way that meaning, truth, good, and right bend as human beings change and face new circumstances. In this life, these films say, a human being either creates value from what is available or dies.

John Truby has been bringing his acclaimed screenwriting class to London since 1995. Check out Anatomy of Story

John Truby
John Truby is regarded as the serious writer’s story coach and has taught his Anatomy Of Story and Genre courses to sold-out audiences in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Rome, Toronto, and other far-flung locales.

Over the past twenty years, more than 30,000 students have taken Truby’s scriptwriting class and rave about the insights and direction it has given them.

His students include the writer/director/or producer for the following films:

Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask of Zorro, Nightmare on Elm Street, Outbreak, Scream, Sleepless in Seattle, Back to School, The Addams Family, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Beetlejuice, Valley Girl, The Negotiator and Star Wars

20 thoughts on “9 Elements Of Great Films

    • will you throw that on my wall so I can not be allowed to miss it…while I'm family occupied for a couple, Christen?

    • There's a really good screenwriter I know (which is to say, someone who actually writes good scripts) who always says that most people look at movies form the outside in, and therefore have no idea how to actually write one. I was kind of thinking this while reading this article – I'm not sure this guy has ever actually written a script with life inside it. He's written scripts that copy other scripts that had life inside them. Big difference. I'd rather write the first kind 🙂

  1. This is the flaw of all (or at least all that I know of) screen analysis/writing methods. Knowing how to perform an autopsy does not mean you know how to make a body.

  2. Christen Kimbell Something about nothing new under the sun. Real wrath of God type stuff in the OT. Simply because someone has never written a script, does not mean they don't know how to critique a story, and tell us what went right or wrong with it.

  3. Team 33 Productions You're mixing a couple of ideas there. Yes basic plots and stories have been the same as long as there have been people (two, six, more, depending on who you ask) – that's not the point. The point I made above is, this article, while trying to help us (and the help is fully appreciated, and lots of Raindance articles have been awesome, and all of the effort is appreciated) … while taking all of that into account, this article is flawed. Why? Because it says things like "all great movies have ____." And it lists things like "a moral argument" and "heroes with a moral problem." So if you're trying to write something truly great, using only this article, how would you go about writing that thing? What would your story look like?

    You wind up with a shallow, repetitive, cookie-cutter version of those great stories. Because you are taking a summary of something *else* that was great and trying to replicate it.

    I promise you that none of the other great works did that.

    All great movies, and TV, and books, and plays, are great because they work. Why do they work? They follow the basic building blocs of telling a story, but they don't all tell *exactly the same story* … which is what you'll get if you follow things like this article, you'll get cookie cutter stories.

    Learn what makes stories work, and stick in the human heart, and laugh, and cry, and watch them a million times over. There are methods and tools to be used – so you can write a story from the inside, where you really feel it.

    All of the above based off my experience, as well as the teaching of my better writing teachers 🙂

  4. I would agree with almost all of those points, but the most powerful thing in a movie is to feel that you are a part of it, through emotional breaks and shock breaks that is why Alfred Hitchcock among others is leader, and that is why Orson Welles and Eisenstein are such a great pioneers and teachers.

  5. @ John Truby – You've made some valid points about standard movies with heroes in them. However, what is the case with non-standard movies, that are closer to real life and don't have clear cut heroes in them? The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas, Scarface, Carlito's Way, JFK, Made In Britain, etc., are considered to be good movies by many, but there seem to be few clear cut heroes in them.

  6. The writer of the article needs to give specific examples from the films he is talking about that illustrate each element in terms of the story line and structure. Otherwise, this article is "muddy".

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