A Screenwriter’s Guide to Personal Narrative

My husband is not an industry guy. Marrying me, and becoming son-in-law to my producer father, is as close as he ever wanted to come to this business. So when a director friend came over for brunch one Sunday a few months ago and told us how, after his first studio film release he is now spending the better part of his weeks going on general meetings, my husband was eager to find out what these mysterious “generals” were all about. Our friend explained to my husband – in broad strokes – how these meetings run. He goes in, he meets and greets, he tells the folks he meets a bit about himself and a bit about the projects he is currently working on. Finally, my husband asked him, “I don’t get it – are you just hanging out? What’s your job at these meetings?” Our friend answered casually, “My job is to tell them about me in a way that makes me memorable, and to be nice and personable so when there’s a job that comes up that’s right for me, they want to bring me in for it.” Luckily for him, this particular friend is both nice and memorable. Everyone wants to work with him.

With fellowship season just behind us, many of my writers put their thinking caps on for artistic statements and personal essays. Equally, more and more of my writers are getting out there for “generals” on a regular basis, so I find myself digging deeper and deeper into how to best prep them.

Talking to Markus Goerg, founder of powerhouse literary management firm Heroes & Villains, whom I met earlier in the year and interviewed recently for Final Draft, I was happy to find him generously  shedding more light on the matter of prepping his writers for generals:

“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, or this book that just dropped into my lap that we’re going to need a writer for? 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? What makes you different? What do you bring to the table? 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? That’s what a general meeting is all about.”

With that in mind, here are a few pointers to generate an effective personal narrative, whether you’re utilizing it in an essay or a general:

Give your story a beginning, middle and end.

Just like the fictional stories we share, your story should have a clear progression going from introduction to some sort of a conclusion rather than meandering with no end in sight. Endless stories do tend to come to a close only when the listener’s eyes glaze over or, worse, when they are interrupted because the listener is no longer interested in being on this personal journey you are sharing with them and therefore finds a way to wrap it in up on your behalf by changing the subject.

Your story doesn’t have to be spectacular. But it does have to be interesting.

Not everyone gets to tell a personal narrative that includes their days in the circus. But you have to remember: interesting doesn’t mean spectacular. Tell us about a defining moment in your life. A unique experience that is going to be memorable. Share with us your unique take on a seemingly ordinary experience. Despite the meat (or lack thereof) of your story, just make sure that it is very much your own.

Chronology does not a personal narrative make.

Many writers mistake the chronology of their life (My family lived in Chicago, then I went to collage at Penn State, after which I moved to Los Angeles and sold real estate until I decided to try my hand at screenwriting) for their personal story. The truth of the matter is that no one is going to remember that personal story unless you give them something to sink their teeth in to, and tell them the sort of story that makes you memorable. Of course, you may choose to highlight a particular event or a unique experience, such as serving as a soldier in a war or traveling to do charitable work in Africa, that is part of the overall progression of your life. But don’t share these unique experiences as part of a much larger chronological story – instead be sure to effectively lead us straight into the parts of your story that would be the most relevant and interesting.

Don’t rely on your accomplishments to be memorable.

To most of my clients I say, “Don’t try to be memorable based on accomplishments.” In such a scenario, there is usually someone who can out-accomplish you. But let’s start this with the exception, rather than the rule. One of my clients recently shared with me that she had two PhD’s by the time she was twenty-one years old. Who does that? That is definitely memorable, so she can talk about her PhD’s and the road that lead her there all day. That is the type of unique, specific accomplishment you can share all you want. Less unique accomplishments can come off much more commonplace, and therefore significantly less memorable. For that reason, you don’t want to pitch yourself as the guy who made semi-finals in the Screencraft and PAGE competitions as the executive is likely to have met many other writers who’ve accomplished that, which means that they will fail to set you apart from the rest. Instead, focus on the story that is unique only to you, which is much more likely to resonate, and you can talk about lower-level contest placements as they relate to a particular script.

Be specific and personal.

Do what you can to avoid broad statements like, “I like writing complex characters,” or “I grew up in suburbia.” Remember, being memorable goes hand in hand with being specific, and that means efficiently and effectively digging into the details of your story and your point of view. All this means is that you’re going to have to get personal. Find a way to logline and summarize relevant life experience in a way that tells us more than what we would find in a biography or resume. A successful general meeting is one where, after you’ve left the room, the executive feels like he’s really gotten to know you.

Imply wound.

A big part of crafting an effective personal story is creating the sort of story that inspires others to ask questions. While your wound should not be put widely on display for everyone to look and poke at, if you can find a way of sharing a bit about the wound that informed your story and helped define who you are, it can go a long way for being both well-presented and memorable. One of my comedy-writing clients tells the story of how he found out he was adopted. He tells it in the funniest way so it never feels like a therapy session, but every time the executive listening on the other end goes on to ask what it was like the first time he met his birth mother. By sharing this powerful, defining story in a lighthearted fashion, the writer angles towards his brand (comedy), immediately makes himself emotionally available, and also manages to hint at a wound right beneath the surface.

There is such a thing as too much information.

If you can’t speak about something comfortably, or if the information is the sort of shocker that stops the fluid, casual conversation dead in its tracks, always, always leave it out of your narrative. If you are on a first date, you would likely not tell the person sitting across from you that you were raped or abused as a teenager, correct? Same goes for generals. There are certain subject matters that should not be shared publicly, because they’re 1) nobody’s business, 2) near impossible to casually talk about, and 3) sure to make everyone uncomfortable, and everything you’ve said up until that moment and anything you say after it entirely forgettable. The side effect to which is that, after this first general in which you shared an overwhelmingly terrible detail from your past, most executives are just not likely to want to bring you in again.

Summarizing who you are is a million times more difficult than log-lining a 90-page screenplay. I totally get that. But at the end of the day, you are a storyteller. So find a way to effectively tell the personal story that will position you for the career and the success you want to have.