Typing Faster

November 16, 2009

Newbie Mistakes: Why Your Life Story Doesn’t Make For A Good Film

Filed under: Craft, Features — petertypingfaster @ 6:54 pm

A couple years back the production company I was working for sent me and some colleagues to Robert McKee’s Story seminar. The seminar took place over a weekend, lasted about 10 hours a day, and was essentially one long monologue by the guru. He waxed poetic on everything and anything, and occasionally even dropped some worthwhile screenwriting advice.

Now I’m not a rabid McKee fan by any stretch of the imagination, but he definitely had a couple of things to say that made a hell of a lot of sense. One of my favorites, and I’m paraphrasing here, went a little something like this:

There are two kinds of bad movie that a screenwriter can write. The “Teenage-Boy-Nonsensical-Orgasm-of-Special-Effects” (ie. Transformers), and The-Personal-Life-Story.”

The first type is problematic because movies in that vein usually amount to nothing more than a series of huge explosions with no story connecting them. They can be fun to look at, but most people will forget them thirty seconds after leaving the theater, or even worse they’ll spend the duration of the movie going “that makes no sense.” Pretty obvious, right?

The second is a little more problematic to explain. A lot of neophyte writers make the mistake of just translating their lives to the screen, the reasoning is usually that they lived it, they know it, and it sure is interesting to them and their friends.

Problem is that it’s rarely interesting to anyone else, and most neophytes don’t know how to trim the boring bits.

The problem with being slavishly devoted to a life story, even if it’s a really interesting one, is that life is messy. There’s rarely and logical progression to it. Instead of having a strong narrative thoughline, most lives tend to careen chaotically from event to event. The events may be interesting individually, but string them together and they just start to feel random.

Instead of just throwing everything up on screen and seeing what sticks, you got to edit it down into a comprehensible story. Screenplays are not reality. The narrative rules that apply to real life have nothing in common with the narrative rules in screenwriting. If you insist on turning your life into a screenplay, at least turn it into a stylized one. Figure out what story you want to tell, the narrative throughline that’ll let you tell it, and then don’t be afraid to cut everything and anything that doesn’t fit on that throughline, regardless of whether it “really happened” or not.

The people that are going to be reading your script don’t know you, and they sure as hell don’t care if the story really happened to you (unless you’re a marketable commodity). Leave that shit out and focus on giving them a well crafted story instead. If you can’t face doing that, if you can’t face fictionalizing your own life, then don’t write it. Make a documentary or something instead. Production companies everywhere will thank you.

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