3 Reason the Screenwriters Personal Story is SO Important
Before I even get into this one, let me start with telling you that I know that as soon as you scratch the surface of this particular blog post, you are going to have the urge to click out. To go read something else. Over the years I’ve come to learn that some of the stuff that I know to be crucial, is the same stuff from which many an emerging screenwriter or television writer chooses to shy away from. But in this case let me just implore you: DON’T. Just… hang in there. Because for screenwriters and television writers who want to become working scribes in the professional space, knowing how to talk about themselves, how to tell their story in a compelling, meaningful and resonant way is critical to professional success.
When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, here is what Echo Lake manager Zadoc Angell told me about the need to be able to speak about yourself effectively:
“You know, I can send a writer into a general meeting and if they kind of give a boring general meeting with the executive, it’s not really memorable for the executive, it’s going to be hard for me to get that executive to recommend that writer to one of her shows down the road because the writer didn’t make a strong impression. And they meet tons of writers, right? So you kind of have to stick out. You have to be memorable. You have to be outgoing and high-energy and charming and it’s often hard for writers to do that because most writers are naturally introverted and kind of live in their minds, and so it’s hard to be that outgoing, that social, and sell yourself with regularity. But you have to. If you really want a long-term career in the business, you have to learn to do that. You can’t just hide behind the writing. Most of the time, people are going to read you and judge you for your material and then decide whether or not they want to meet you. And then once they meet you, hopefully they’ve already read your material, so they like the material. So the in-person meeting is about whether or not you can walk and talk and are personable and can hold up a conversation and be someone that I really want to invest in and that I can get excited about.”
Like Zadoc said above, I am sure most writers reading this are thinking: I write screenplays and/or television pilots about other people because I don’t want to write about myself. If I wanted to write about myself, I’d write a memoir. I hate talking about myself. Nothing that interesting ever happened to me. I don’t have an interesting point of view, or unique stories to tell.
Well, then, let me break it down for you right off the bat: If you can’t find an interesting way to talk about yourself, your experience, and what brought you to who you are today, you will likely have a tough time getting people to want to work with you, unless, of course, you are the single most exciting writer on the page. And is anyone ever really that? So… Yeah. Let me break down for you exactly why it is I am taking this stance:
On my very first day with the talented writers selected for 2018-2019’s Universal Writers Program – for which I instruct and mentor – we shook hands, exchanged our Hellos, sat down around the conference room table and immediately dove into the deep end: Each writer was asked to share with me his or her personal narrative. The personal narrative is not a chronology that brings the writer to this moment; nor is it a detailed retelling of their entire life story. Instead, it’s a thoughtfully honed tale, the writer’s first opportunity to meaningfully connect with the person sitting across from him or her. Chronology may serve as an entryway into the writer’s story, but it is not going to be the story itself.
To be clear, I’ve written about this before. This is by no stretch the very first time I have waded into this particular pool. But the reason that I keep coming back is this: New writers I meet continue to tell me how much they hate talking about themselves. How they dread the personal narrative. They mention it’s something that they know they will have to work on “someday.” But for those not yet working in this industry, the critical personal narrative is one that rarely gets the treatment it deserves.
On the flip side, agents, managers and executives continue to tell me how important it is for them to find writers who are not only good on the page, but also good in a room. Who – to use the cliché – give good meeting. At the end of the day, you can read all of this with complete disdain, but in an industry that centers around networking and personal relationships, and requires the writer reveals highly personal truths on the page, your personal narrative is key to getting representation, getting serious consideration for a job, and, ultimately, getting ahead.
So why is your personal story, or personal narrative as it’s come to be known – so important? Here are three reasons that it is critical for your success.
1. You are a storyteller. Your first story is your own. In an interview I conducted with Literary Manager Marcus Goerg of Heroes & Villains for Final Draft back in 2015, which ultimately inspired the writing of my BREAKING IN book, Markus said to me: “A writer’s supposed to be a storyteller, so tell a story – what’s your story? The idea is to be memorable to that person sitting across from you so in a few weeks if a project comes up that might be right for you they’ll say: what about this girl or that guy? The one who had that great story that might have something to do with this project we’re doing? The story of how you grew up in Indiana then went to USC and now you’re here is not a story that’s going to get anyone excited. It’s like, what’s your world experience? How do you stand out? How do you leave an impression when you walk out the door? What are they going to remember next week about you?”
2. In an industry where scripts don’t sell, the writer is more important than ever. There used to be a time (in the olden days of the 90’s) when the writer, in the great scheme of things, didn’t really matter. In the days of the one-and-done business model, when a writer would show up with a script, find an agent and quickly generate a sale only to never be heard from again, the writer herself didn’t really have to resonate. After all, all the business to be done was already on the page. But today, in a world where most writers make their living writing in the room or writing pages, connecting the writer, who they are and what makes them tick, to the material is more important than ever. And never is this truer than in the TV writers room: Here, it’s all about the personal experience that you bring into the larger collaborative, which then allows you to make a meaningful impact. Conveying who you are, and what you have to add to the collective, begins in your showrunner or executive meetings, and in the telling of your nuggets (as the wonderful Carole Kirshner calls them – short stories that speak to who you are as a person and a writer), as well as your broader personal narrative.
3. Sharing is caring. The key to building a screenwriting career in the industry is building substantive industry relationships. And the key to building substantive relationships? Connecting. Building relationships is all about candor, opening up to the person you are talking to and sharing your experience in order to become memorable, interesting and – hopefully – hirable, whether as a writer in the room, or for a writing assignment which can include anything from a page-one rewrite to a book adaptation. Your personal narrative, and the individual life stories that you share, should make you uniquely memorable to the person you are meeting with and talking to, an invaluable quality for executives and reps who meet with potentially dozens of screenwriters every week! Sharing who you are and the depths of your experiences will allow you to begin to connect with people, and start building long-lasting industry relationships.
So how do you craft a memorable personal narrative, and what are some of the personal nuggets you should share?
- Find your unique story. As Markus Goerg suggested, going to college, moving to Los Angeles from wherever, and deciding to pursue writing does not a unique story make. Nor does the story about how you grew up all alone with few friends, with only television as a refuge, a family of familiar characters you adopted as your own. Most every writer trying to make it or working in Los Angeles has some version of one – if not both – of these stories in their back pocket. Find the story that is unique to you, be it by experience or point of view, and figure out the best way to share it.
- Become the protagonist in your own story. Everyone loves an active protagonist, and the same holds true when it comes to your personal narrative. Don’t tell us about your mother/father/grandmother/brother and how fascinating their lives were. We want to get interested in you, not them.
- Don’t shy away from a humble brag. Accomplished amazing, unusual things along your path? Be sure to share with the listener (as long as it’s relevant to your story), though in a humble and gracious way.
- Get personal. Meaningful relationships are borne of personal revelations; executives, managers, agents and showrunners become invested in people they care about. While the personal narrative should be akin to a therapy session, it should allow the listener a window into who REALLY you are and the life events that defined you.
- Hint to a wound. One more time: Your personal narrative shouldn’t provide a convenient set-up for a therapy session. My rule is to never bring into a room a story that you can’t get through with ease and grace, or one that will suck all the air out of the room with its disturbing impact. However, if you can hint to a wound as part of your larger personal narrative – which would then hint at themes and potentially shed light on meaning and emotions you weave into your work – then you will successfully provide insight into your much-needed writerly depth.
But those are just scratching the surface. Ultimately, every writer tells her unique personal narrative in a manner, rhythm and context that works best for her. To read more on this, check out an article I wrote for ScriptMag.com a few years back, as well as a breakdown of the Personal Narrative which I shared on my own blog in the not too distant past. However you get to your story doesn’t matter: Write it down for yourself, or try a few different versions on family and friends. Consider carefully which of your experiences you want to share. The important this is that you get there, so that when opportunity knocks, you are prepared to resonate, be memorable, and impress.