Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip of the week: Avoid writing autobiographical scripts

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die."

This famous Mel Brooks joke illustrates an important point. Everything that happens to you is the most dramatic thing in the world -- to you. This is why, in general, you should avoid writing autobiographical scripts. You simply don't have the perspective to see which parts of your life story (if any) might be compelling to a wider audience. You don't want your screenplay to be the literary equivalent of that bore at the cocktail party who goes on and on about himself.

Over the years, many people have inquired about hiring me to write their "amazing true life story" of surviving cancer, or overcoming domestic abuse, or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. (One guy even wanted me to write his "inspirational" true life story of becoming a yoga instructor.) Or sometimes it's the true life story of their aunt, grandparent, etc. They always swear it's the most interesting story ever. (Many of these people even think I'll be so blown away by their great story that I'd be willing to write it for free, and we can "split the profit" when the script sells. Um, never ask a professional to spend months of his or her life working on your labor of love on speculation, by the way. It's...well, just plain rude.)

Sadly, not a single one of these "amazing true life stories" has ever proven to be unique enough or compelling enough to be worth my time. I'm sorry to break it to you, but your life, as fascinating/sad/unfair/funny as it may seem to you, is probably more mundane than you realize.

On the other hand, maybe your life really is quite astonishing. Maybe you ran off to join the circus as a six year old, ran away from that circus to become an assassin at eleven years old, ousted the government of a small island country at seventeen years old, and for the past twenty years you've been teaching blind kids how to play professional polo. Well, believe it or not, your extraordinary life is a problem, too, story-wise. Because, as Mark Twain said, "The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible."

Mundane or extraordinary, your "true life story" is unlikely to make a good film. See, life, real life, is full of wild coincidences, vague motivations, ambiguous results, illogical decisions. That kind of "reality" doesn't work in a movie. Drama (and when I say "drama," I mean comedy too) needs to have a direct chain of consequences: This cause (choice/action by the hero) clearly leads to this effect, which then leads the hero to make this choice, and so on, until the big conclusion. Drama needs to make sense. Character motivations need to be clear. Choices need to be understandable. Story threads need to tie up in the end. That's what a "story" is.

Now, go make something up! You're a writer, goddamn it!


Further reading (aka Somewhat Related Posts from People Smarter Than Me):

Here's what TV writer & Jeopardy champ Lisa Klink has to say about writing "reality."

And among Writer on Writing's observations about bad contest entries, he notes that "reality is not a story point."


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