“Everything is copy.” — Nora Ephron
When I was a young college student, I hated the screenplays I wrote. Seriously hated them. It was impulsive. As soon as the words were on the page, I was pretty much against it. Not a great start for an aspiring writer. But what I hated more than my work were the words “write what you know”. The screenwriting mantra repeated by seemingly everyone infuriated me. As soon as I heard those words, my brain rejected it. After all, was E.T. based on an actual event? Uh, no! Yes, I did once believe that was a good argument. Looking back on it, it ties with ‘Barry Sonnenfeld’s Nine Lives is a commentary on the legacy of George W Bush’ for my most misguided and poorly-considered argument.
Suffice to say, I spent a long time working to write something I liked, something that I could be proud of. I failed a lot. I learned even more. Most of the stuff I’ve written about on this blog came directly from my own failures, actually. Nothing I wrote seemed to ‘work’. It was all too contrived, too ‘movie-ish’. I tried to lighten my own expectations by rewriting those screenplays heavily. However, as you all probably know, you can’t polish a… bad concept. And if you have no emotional connection to what you’re writing about, it’s a bad concept.
This isn’t anything new. This has been a trend for a long time. In Hollywood especially. This year, I’ve seen more disappointing movies than truly profound ones. In fact, 2017 has been one of the worst years on record for the film industry, with word of mouth being the number one influence on the successful movies. There’s a reason people turned out in droves for Get Outor Baby Driver, but not The Dark Tower. The first two had something to say, and got people excited. The latter… well, it happened? I want to encourage writers to learn what I learned, faster: your story is you.
Writers expect a lot. We want to write something that has a certain effect on an audience, that also means something and will stand the test of time. On top of that, we want it to be entertaining and fun, with characters that linger in the mind and eminently quotable lines. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, and we want to get to that point as quickly as we can.
Personally, I’m lucky if the first draft of my screenplay features or does even one of the things I just mentioned. It just doesn’t work that way. Screenwriting is a craft. Every screenplay takes time and care and effort. You work at it, sharpen it, refine it until everything ‘clicks’.
There comes a point in writing when the story ‘clicks’. This can be anywhere from the outline to the final draft. There’s no certain moment it happens. I like to believe this is the subconscious revealing itself through your writing. Without thinking about it, you’ve written something down that makes sense. But it would never have been your first thought. The more you write, the more sophisticated the drafts, the more they feature your ‘voice’. But more than that, the screenplay feels more ‘real’. You feel it. The first draft is almost always terrible. It’s too big, too cold, too epic, whatever the complaint is. But the fourth draft has uncovered something incredible.
This is what opened my eyes to the ‘write what you know’ mantra. I wrote a road trip comedy with a killer concept. It was light and entertaining, but nothing more. Then I started to rewrite it. And it gradually turned into something much deeper. I had subconsciously put myself onto the page. What began as a fluffy comedy about two guys travelling across the country became a painfully honest metaphor about a traumatic experience I’d gone through. The main character was an unflattering portrait of myself. The character interactions felt infinitely more genuine than they did on the first pass. The comedy felt earned, because, like Nora said, everything is copy. I had mined my own life for a story without knowing it. I wrote ‘what I knew’ emotionally, not literally. And it made the screenplay come to life.
Every writer has a point of view. And this article is nothing more than a straight up plea. We need more honesty in screenwriting. We need more purpose in mainstream cinema, not just in the arthouse and indie world. Genre movies can mean something too! Logan wasn’t just a slash-and-hack superhero flick. It was a surprisingly deep exploration of death and the end of life. Moana had a lot more going for it than just some cool animation and incredibly catchy tunes.
Screenwriting is an art, and you are an artist. You have a political opinion, a whole bunch of beliefs, passions, dislikes. But you also have a life. And this is what those quotes are getting at.
Cinema is life in a visual medium. Screenwriting is life in a prosaic medium. Your job is to take reality, as you know it, and to reflect it through a fantastical lens. Every great line you hear on the street, every quirky character, every insane situation, steal it. Keep a journal of interesting things you see and hear. Write down your thoughts. I guarantee it will set you apart from the crowd. Why did people find the deli scene in When Harry Met Sallyso hilarious? Because the women in the audience knew that fake orgasms happened, and the guys had no idea! The scene rang true, partly because it stemmed from a real conversation between Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner (and, again, she knew it was true and he had no idea)!
Our lives are a series of stories. Every time we meet someone new, we start a new story. A new job is a new story. As screenwriters, we tell those stories on a grander scale. We should be using our real life stories to craft meaningful narrative. And this is where those beliefs, passions, etc. come into play. Use them. Don’t write a social media paragraph about the jerk barista that insulted you! Write a scene with it! Use your anger or your joy or rage to fuel your art. Tell the world why it’s wrong. Tell the world why that guy is a hero, or that girl just wasn’t right for you. It makes your life infinitely more productive, and your work even better.
PEOPLE LOVE THE TRUTH
They don’t. I mean, we hate the truth in the real world. But, in our art, we love it. We remember the characters because they remind us of people we know. The dialogue rings true, the scenario reminds us of a situation we’ve been in. All of this makes for a piece of work that resonates with an audience, that they can immediately resonate with. The only way to do this is to understand yourself and what you’re saying. If you write comedy, what are you satirising? If you write thrillers, what do you find truly, deeply terrifying?
Asking yourself these questions gives you a clearer idea of who you are and what you stand for. You have a whole world inside of yourself; deep thoughts hidden away beneath the layers of our social facades of politeness. Too many writers withhold those things, too afraid of alienating others or, more likely, too afraid to delve into the depths of their own psyche. But, as anyone that’s been to therapy will tell you, the best stuff is in the back of your mind. See, I was wrong about E.T. It was based on a real event. A young Steven Spielberg dreamed up E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during his parents divorce. He described the alien as "a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn't feel I had anymore”. He invented a character based on a sadness he knew and understood.
Until you understand what a story means to you, it doesn’t exist and doesn’t work. This is why Romeo & Juliet will last forever, but Battleship has already faded from consciousness. Shakespeare understood what his story meant and what it was saying, but the people behind Battleship wrote what they thought would look cool. Which is fine, but it could have been so much more.
WRITE WITH MEANING
Ultimately, this is a plea to all screenwriters: make your writing mean something. Don’t just write because it’s ‘cool’. You have something to say. Your work says something about who you are and what you stand for. Embrace that. There is so much power in taking your personality, your struggles, your strength, your pain, and turning it into art. That is what makes a story so powerful. And it’s inside of you, waiting to be unlocked.
Everything is copy. Including you.