How a Big Life Leads to Better Writing

The other night I read a script that could be simply and, without question, described as one thing and one thing only: Derivative.

The first act was almost 100% a poor man’s INCEPTION, the second and third act had bothersome parallels with EDGE OF TOMORROW, conceit and all. I had communicated with the writer previously, who wrote to me passionately about the pursuit of his chosen profession. I knew how badly he wanted it. But as all the movie references started to unfold before me page after page as I was reading, I had to admit that I wasn’t surprised. And I wasn’t surprised for one single reason: I knew the writer was young. Not-yet-legal-to-drink sort of young.

The writer had reached out to me about “finding his voice,” and I knew first-hand that voice is very hard to harness when you’re young and haven’t yet experienced much. By some miracle, I managed to have my own script set up a million years ago when I was just 23. Mind you, by the time I was 23 I had lived on my own for 6 years. Worked production for 4. Traveled all over the world. And back then, I thought I knew EVERYTHING. I was convinced I understood my voice. I knew what I had to say. It was only when I looked back from the safety of my 30s that I began to understand just how little I knew back then.

Don’t get me wrong: In my many years doing what I do, I’ve met plenty of young, talented writers. I’ve seen those writers, who jumped into their chosen career in their early or mid-twenties go on to become staffed writers in their late twenties, show creators in their early/mid-thirties, land writing assignments and sell their feature scripts around that same age. But the one thing those writers had in common? An abundance of life experience, to set them apart from the pack and help crystalize what it was that they had to say.

Writing for film and television is tricky; after all, you’re often inspired to do so by other movies and TV shows that first blew you away, that enlightened a truth, that spoke to your desires, your hopes, your humanity. Today, when my writers, be they professional or emerging, develop new work, the question often comes up: “What’s the comp here?”, i.e., what are some comparable titles in the same space? The directive then is deceptively simple: Go watch it. Learn it, so that you are fully aware of the tapestry you will be adding to. Then write something wholly your own and original.

But a new project, be it a screenplay or television pilot, should not be an homage to all the TV shows and movies that inspired it (STRANGER THINGS notwithstanding). Instead, it should take guidance from story mechanisms, characters or themes found previously and set the writer off on a whole new path. Because the last thing you want your script to be is too much of This meets That. You want your screenplay or TV pilot to be the same, to have a clear place within a genre, but decidedly different. You want it to be wholly yours. You want it to never, ever be… DERIVATIVE.

In the industry, DERIVATIVE is akin to a kiss of death. A dirty word. It speaks to a lack of originality, a blandness, an absence of original voice. It is, then, and as I previously blogged, the one thing you don’t want your screenplay to be (LINK TO BLOGPOST).

But how do you avoid it? How do you make sure that while fitting within a genre and drawing inspiration from works that came before it, your work is in no way derivative? The answer is again, deceptively simple, and seemingly one that is ripped right out of the title sequence of FX’s POSE: The answer is to LIVE.

You can’t develop a wholly unique voice, become the interesting storyteller you want to be, without knowing and experiencing that hard-to-define thing that is your self. Your self not in theory, but in action. Your self as it shows up in challenging moments. Your self that shows up in the choices you make, and how you experience the world.

A few months ago, a frustrated writer I’ve known for a while showed up to lament feeling in a creative rut. He felt like he had little if anything left to say, nothing to bring to the page anymore, despite the success and opportunity previous projects had generated. To use his words, he felt like he’s just chewing the same old very stale gum. The writer turned to other working writer friends for advice. Their two cents? Pack your bags and go travel. The writer had been single for six years, so… sign onto a dating app and get out there. Fall in love. In short? Go fill your well of experience. That is the surest and fastest way to infuse your writing with your own interests, world view, and unique stories, moments and themes prevalent in your own life.

When I interviewed working TV writer, novelist and TV writing teacher at Script Anatomy Hollie Overton for my WHEN ARE YOU READY TO STAFF? blog post, she aptly stated:

“If you’re right out of college, then I’d wager (your first script) isn’t the one. It’s not impossible. Maybe you’re a Lena Dunham prodigy, but usually, you still have a lot to learn, not just about writing, and the business, but about the world in general. Your ideas need more time to mature. This is the time to get life experience, get a job on an agent or manager’s desk and build your contacts. Do zany jobs that will make you interesting in a writer’s room and give you a unique outlook on the world.” 

It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s true. Living a rich enough life beyond the writing, one that continues to affect, influence and shape your interests and your point of view is ultimately what is bound to keep your writing vibrant, dynamic, and fresh. In an industry that is eternally looking for those voice-y and noisy writers, getting a sense of the writer, not only the unfolding story, on the page is critical for initial interest that can one day turn into ongoing screenwriting success.