“Worldbuilding Is Not Storytelling” Kira Snyder On ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Kira Snyder is an Emmy and WGA award-winning screenwriter who has worked on The 100 (CW), Incursion (Starz) and Moonlight, the cult vampire hit for CBS. She is more recently known for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). Kira cut her writing chops in the computer games design world, creating games for large companies including Microsoft. Synder is fascinated by creating worlds, so her segue into film and TV writing was a natural transition.
“I’ve always loved building worlds and populating them with characters,” decalred Snyder. During her time in the computer games world she “built virutal worlds and virtual world narratives.” Ultimately, Snyder is attracted to “stories that are about something, about the world we live in, or might be living in, if we’re not careful.”
The TV writer is currently nominated for an Emmy for the episode of The Handmaid’s Tale titled “Holly.” The TV show is based on Margaret Attwood’s book which was published in 1985. However, the dystopian world Attwood created over three decades ago has not been laid to rest. “Unfortunately, many issues we were wrestling with in the book, we’re wrestling with now.” There is both a timeliness and timelessness to The Handmaid’s Tale, making its themes both current and historical.
Characters vs Worlds
Building a story world is only part of the screenwriting process.
“Worldbuilding is not storytelling,” according to Kira Snyder. “It is the landscape in which the story occurs. Too many details focusing on the world and its rules can detract from the story itself. It’s the job of the screenwriter to bridge the realms of character and world.”
The stories that most attract Ms. Snyder are the ones “that transport you to a world you’ve never seen before.” This is beyond creating a spectacle. “Within that landscape, I’m attracted to really personal, relatable, and intimate stories.” Stories that are small in scope, but big on impact are the stuff that win Emmys.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a heightened world most of us have not directly experienced. Part of the screenwriter’s role is to mine their personal experiences and vicariously write them through the eyes of the main character.
In this deeply personal story of Holly, Snyder explores the big questions June (Elisabeth Moss) is grappling with, and the choices she’s made to survive. “As long as there’s an intimate, universal story at the heart of it, I think the show will be successful.” Holly is a tender yet intense episode focusing almost exclusively on June and the birth of daughter Holly. Apart from a select number of flashbacks, the audience is with June the entire time. It functions as both a standalone and serialized episode. It extensively uses voiceovers to articulate June’s thoughts and traumas.
“We are away from the familiar. We are focused on June and her journey more than usual.”
“We find out from the end of the previous season that she’s pregnant and must eventually give birth during season 2. We gave great thought to the best place and time for June to have her baby.”
Similar to Attwood’s book in which June apologizes to Holly for the pain she’s in, Snyder wanted to add some positive elements of joy and hope in the story. “It’s just June and her baby and she does it all by herself.” There is light in a dark place as June exclaims to Holly, “We did it!”
The Handmaid’s Tale Writers’ Room
Bruce Miller (the show’s creator) convenes the TV writers for a prelimary meeting before the official writers’ room opens for business. “We talk about big picture things. What we thought worked or didn’t work in the previous season. We go through characters, we go through moments and story motions,” added Snyder.
When the TV writers’ room officially opens for business, “we have our creative big blue sky time and we shape out the season. We discuss what might go into each episode, more specific story arcs and then we lay it out episode by episode, scene by scene.”
Bruce [Miller] doesn’t assign individual episodes to TV writers at the head of each season. “We break down some outlines as we’re breaking the season as a group.”
There is more to writing a season than plotting the events. “Firstly, we discuss the spine that holds the season together.” In season 1, it was relatively simple because they followed Margaret Attwood’s book. “The throughline spine for season 2 was June’s pregnancy. That was the drive for that season. Season 3 was about fighting back against Gilmead.”
Then we look at the big themes. “Season 1 was about surviving and season 2 was about motherhood. We looked at big scenes and how we advance the throughline in each episode.”
The Handmaid’s Tale has a specific rhythm – dark, yet calm, simmering. “In a world we’re everything you say and do is monitored, you could get killed if you say the wrong thing,” added Snyder. This creates a sparseness and poetic quality in the dialogue. “A lot of things in The Handmaid’s Tale were visual storytelling which relied on our actors.”
The shooting scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale are typically around 30 pages long, yet the episodes are around an hour in length. This wasn’t necessarily an issue for Snyder. It forced her to sharpen her editing skills. “Do I need this scene or line or word? This show has taught me how fun and free it can be to cut out dialogue and allow the actors to emote.” It’s a constant trimming and refining process.
This technique has also permeated into some of her personal writing. “I don’t always need to over-indulge in long monolgues. I embrace shorter, more realistic dialogue.” This rule also applies to her action lines. “I try to brief and evocative. I write in fragments. I try to paint a visual picture as efficiently as possible.”
The Path To Screenwriting Success
Kira Snyder is a news junkie. “I love science, history, action and science fiction.” This is her primary source of inspiration.
Everything you do in your life emerges in your stories, whether it be overtly or not, even in Kira Snyder’s. “I grew up in a military family so we moved around a lot. I discovered reading at an early age to escape.” From there she got interested in theater so she could visualize herself in fictional worlds. This led her to her the world of computer games.
Every screenwriter experiences fears. “Every time I start a new script, I think I’ll forget how to do it.”
“I’m a big believer in outlines. I don’t start writing a script unless I have a strong sense of where it’s going to be and where it’s giong to go.” Even so, Kira gulps when she opens a new screenplay file because of the disparity involved in writing the script proper from the outline. Then again, there’s always the fear of “this is it. I’m gonna totally tank it.” Every TV writer has ebbs and flows in their careers especially “when your creative tank is empty.” Will it ever be replenished?
There is more to screenwriting success than tapping on your keyboard. “Screenwriters need a curiosity about the world. Find out about other people and how they live,” said Kira. “In TV writing you need to have the discipline to sit and write to tight deadlines, even if you don’t want to.”
“There’s also an art in knowing when to let go. TV teaches you not to be too precious about your words because they will go through many hands. Constant revision teaches you not to be too precious. It can be vey humbling, but it makes you a better writer. Know when to defend something you’ve written and know when to let it go,” she mused.
There isn’t a defining success point for screenwriters according to the screenwriter. “There can be a misconception that one script will break you in.” Oftentimes, a script will get read and referred to other industry professionals.” It may or not ge produced. If it’s good, it will get you noticed. “Breaking in isn’t one moment. It’s a series of moments. There is no big break,” advised Kira. “A screenwriting career is often a nomadic and volatile creative path.”
Screenwriters should focus on building a career over the long-term. “Build up a body of work. If you write a kick-ass script, write another one. Every screenplay you write is better than the one before. You don’t want to be a one script wonder if you want to build a screenwriting career.”
Snyder is no stranger to the uncertainty of a screenwriter’s life. After she graduated from the Warner Bros’ Writing Program, she quit her day job and got staffed on a TV show that was swiftly cancelled. Her next break didn’t come for another six months. She used that time to write. “One day I wrote a pilot. Another day I wrote a feature until I got staffed. That second job is often as hard to get as your first job.”
Many TV show cancellations have nothing to do with your skill as a TV writer. It could be a network or showrunner change. “Have the resiliance to keep at it. Pick yourself up when you get told no. You’re job is keep replenishing your tool kit and building your resume.”
Snyder advises writers to write what they’re passionate about rather than writing to the market. “Trying to time yourself to what the market wants is tricky.” It will invariably lead to a lack of success. “When executives see you light up about your passion project, you’re more likely to be hired.”
“Write what lights your fire and makes you excited to finish. The idea that keeps you up at night. If you love an idea, that will carry you across the finish line when you don’t feel like writing.“
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