Your Story Is Your Superpower
You take a general meeting with an executive. It’s your first date. Will it lead to a second date? Your heart pounds. Your hands are sweating and you don’t have that super deodorant you see advertised that keeps you dry for a full day.
Do you want a second date? Do you want to get married? So many questions. So few answers.
Whatever the outcome, these meetings are designed for each of you to get to know each other. When they ask you to tell them about yourself, executives are only mildly interested in where you went to film school (assuming you weren’t a maverick who didn’t go to film school at all and learned the craft through writing and online videos), what films and TV shows you like, and what your hobbies are. Unless you’re a lion tamer or traveled with a circus as an acrobat, or spend time in prison with Hannibal Lector, most of these answers are unremarkable at best, boring at worst.
Cast your mind back to those summer job interviews you had and you wanted to scream because the questions were so inane. “Can you tell me about a time when you organized a team-building activity in the workplace or a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer?” Zero points for originality. Ding those employers with a few penalty points because they failed to impress you with unique questions like, “What themed day would you organize for this company? Are you a hunter or gatherer? How do you tell a coworker they have bad breath?”
Umm. You have to give those employers credit for carefully crafting their questions. You know your first event at your new job will be a challenge where the team using the most film or TV dialogue wins. Advantage team screenwriter because we’ve read so so many screenplays.
Who will impress you as the more worthy employer? Who is the most memorable? Who will discuss more favorably at parties? Who would you rather forget?
What executives really want to know is what makes you tick both as a person and a professional screenwriter. (Although having read thousands of screenplays helps).
What’s your writing fuel?
Film industry folk want to get a handle on the types of stories you might right. Are you a ‘woke’ social justice warrior or a character relationship writer with a crazy family you want to kill, but you can’t because you love them? It might not even be about that specific. Your fuel could be underdog or fish out of water stories.
They’re initially probing your story instincts in a broad sense. Then they want to know what sets you apart from other screenwriters. Then they start poking into your childhood. What is the worst thing you can remember? What makes you feel scared, insecure, and vulnerable? If you could trade in your parents, who would you choose?
There are no right or wrong answers here. Only unique and thoughtful ones. They’re more interested in your level of openness, intimacy, and sharing of deeply personal experiences. You might want to hold off on a minute by minute description of your wedding night and definitely don’t show them that video you wouldn’t show your mother. It’s called “Strategic Sharing.”
Your job as a screenwriter is to be true to yourself. How many personal stories do you have to tell? They don’t even have to be entirely factual, but they have to be authentic. You can reframe your story as something that happened to a “friend” or relative. Or you can totally fabricate your story, but you have to capture the essence of a truth. If you weren’t invited to the school prom, or even worse, told not to come, you can let your imagination run wild. But you can’t escape the core emotions of rejection, sadness, self-doubt, and anger (to name a few) that caused you pain. But, as they say in the movies, if you’re going to lie to the police, stick as close to the truth as possible.
When you’re auditioning for a writing assignment or a staffing job, consider what aspect of your life story uniquely lends itself to the project at hand.
Own Your Stories Before Your Stories Own You
You can’t live vicariously through others indefinitely. Your direct life experience has value even if you feel it’s boring. The experiences that are the basis of you are not your enemy. They’re your passport to becoming a screenwriter in demand. They are you calling card. They are your brand. Every cringeworthy, hurtful incident you think you need therapy to forget is the basis for an award-winning screenplay.
You don’t need therapy. You need acceptance. That emotionally painful part of your life is over and will now have a renaissance through a screenplay.
Think about what sort of story worlds you most gravitate toward. Are they real, embellished, or fantastical? Are they filled with action or relative serenity? Are they violent or peaceful? Happy or sad? Are the outcomes upbeat or negative? The answers to these questions are the equivalent to ink blot cards therapists use to determine your personality.
Consider why you find these worlds more attractive than others. Next, you can think about the typical characters that inhabit your preferred worlds? Are they helpers, doers, goal-oriented, victims, heroes. or problem solvers, to name a few?
These worlds and characters are manifestations of your deeper self that demand to be expressed. Their expression may differ wildly from their origin. That’s where your imagination kicks in.
Wanting to write stories set in outer space may not mean that you’ve always wanted to fly to another galaxy, but they may represent your desire to explore the unknown or escape your circumstances. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad once claimed that there was always a piece of Walter White deep inside of him. Fortunately, Gilligan didn’t cook the best meth on the planet.
Once you define your worlds and have some idea of why you want to write in that space, ask yourself why you understand the machinations and nuances of these worlds in a way another screenwriter might not. Let’s say you love writing medical dramas. You’ve been an ER nurse for most of your career and you know the world inside out on a certain level.
But there are millions of ER nurses on the planet. Many who want to write similar stories. What is your take? Are you a Nurse Jackie or a Jackie O? How did you feel knowing that a COVID-19 patient died while you held their hand and their loved ones couldn’t visit them? Maybe you secretly wanted them to die, but couldn’t share it with anyone? Why would somebody feel that way? Did they recognize them as the driver who killed their child, or did they realize the patient would never have a normal life again?
Mine your inner secret life as much as your outer one. Visit your demons once in a while. Turn your pain into gold. Turn your joy into gold too. As a screenwriter, define what you’re feeling. Then ask yourself what you want to say in that moment. Your job is to simultaneously heal and entertain society.
After you’ve worked through all these mental acrobatics, you can start to define your writing voice. Even if you write across multiple genres, keep writing in a singular voice so its qualities are recognizable to those who read your work.
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