I've been reading Richard Walter's new book Essentials of Screenwriting. I've sorta maxed out how many screenwriting books I'll buy, but I was sent this one for free and I'm really glad about that. It's a great read. And it's not dry, which some instructional books can be. The thing I love most about it so far (I'm only about 60 pages in) is that it doesn't start with the three act structure.
It doesn't start with structure at all.
My favourite chapter so far has been the chapter entitled "The Personal Screenplay." Write what you know has been a popular and controversial maxim for writers everywhere. Walter encourages writers to weave their story into every story they write. "Whenever writers sit down before blank paper or glowing pixels, they should write their own personal story."
There are a lot of reasons NOT to do this. It's self indulgent, no one else will find your personal whine and cheese fest interesting, it's amateur, you won't be able to edit and rewrite effectively. And to *that* Walter says, "If a writer fails to personalize her story, if she fails to make it her own unique tale, regardless of how well turned it may be it will nonetheless also be flat, hollow, heatless, heartless, pale, frail, upholstered, laminated, and not wholly human."
He argues that it doesn't matter what a story is about - if the writer is fully vested it will be innately interested because it will be full of real human drama [Not that skill and craft does not matter. Just simply - they do]. And if I think back about which stories that I've written that I both like best and think are the best stories, the ones which take liberally from my own life and questions and problems are the ones that rise to the top. I think that's one reason my rom com floundered. No matter how well structured it was, I had zero connection to it. If I'm not able to find that connection, an audience surely won't. And it's not that I won't be able to invest myself at some point, but I know that if I try to write it now it will be flat and dry and void of any real emotion.
I also just rewatched (500) Days of Summer with a friend who had never seen it. That movie is so great. It communicates so much. It's intricate and interesting and true. And it's based on the writer's real life.
This all was marinating in my mind as I was driving home to Jersey last week. Also I was trying to unravel the problem of what to write next. Keys to the Garden needs to age a little before I tackle Draft #4. Also I need to find a project that's a little more sellable as a spec.
And then I hit traffic.
I'm pretty sure nothing is more frustrating than hitting traffic during the eleventh hour of a twelve hour roadtrip. Bumper to bumper parking lot. I'm playing the sappiest music I have on my iPod, and since I have no driving to do to distract me, I start to think about my near disasterous relationship life.
"ARGH," I say. "If only there were SOME way to take all these negative situations and turn them into something creative!"
Which, of course, there is.
But no one would want to see my personal story. That's self indulgent and it's boring and it wouldn't fit a screenplay structure...
Wait a minute.
And I don't know what it was. It was some crazy combination of Richard Walter philosophy and (500) Days of Summer and the sappy music and being forced to just sit in my car in the middle of traffic and think, but for the first time I felt like I was given permission, like I finally relented to myself and said, Yes, it's ok. You can write about that.
It's difficult to victory dance in a car, but when the seed of a beautiful story finally appears, you find a way.