Story Expo: 10 Ingredients for Success

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by Emily Jermusyk (@EJemily24)

A few weekends ago, I was lucky enough to attend Story Expo in Los Angeles. Three days of immersing myself in storytelling, pitching, and the business… what could be better?

The weekend began on Friday with an opening keynote from Arnold Shapiro. Mr. Shapiro is an Oscar-winning producer for the 1978 documentary SCARED STRAIGHT. Considering the expo was primarily focused on screenwriting, it may seem odd to have a documentary producer open the event. However, this is a story conference and as I would quickly found out, that means that the discussion of the weekend was going to occasionally take its audience out of the world of blockbusters and three act structure and into novels, comic books, and most importantly, putting your personal story into your writing.

In this way, Mr. Shapiro’s story was beyond compelling. His career is built around trying to make a difference in the world through his work and he often creates work that touches on controversial and uncomfortable topics in order to emotionally touch his audience.

Throughout his career and in achieving his goals, Arnold Shapiro found 10 Ingredients to Success. The list played out like themes throughout the weekend, as you will see below. They are as follows:

1. Interview Yourself

Why do you want to write or have a writing career?

Jen Grisanti is a script consultant and former television executive, trained under prolific television producer Aaron Spelling. In her seminar TELLING AND SELLING YOUR STORY, Ms. Grisanti implored writers to discover what it is that compels them to write and what they are able to bring to a story that no other writer can. She helps writers answer this question by walking them through the process of of creating a “logline for their life.” She asks writers to identify universal life moments and themes in their own lives (a career change, a new relationship, a moment of discovery, etc.) and says in this you will find where “your gold for your writing lies.” Then all you have to do is place them in the context of a logline with protagonist, inciting incident, plan of attack, and goal.

For Grisanti and her many clients, a writing career is not simply about telling the stories of others (whether real or imagined) but telling your own story through your characters.

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2. Go for the Goal

Set goals and timetables to keep your writing moving forward.

Pamela Douglas is an award-winning television writer and tenured professor of USC where she teaches screenwriting. In her lecture, WRITING EPISODIC DRAMATIC TELEVISION, she broke down goals for aspiring television writers building out their portfolio this way:

6 months = writing an original television pilot

6 weeks = writing a television spec

The reason for the difference is simple, the timeline in television for writing a episode is very quick. As a writer looking to be hired for a series, you need to be able to prove you can keep up with this turn around pace. This also benefits you in having more than one sample ready for submission, and the ability to update your portfolio quickly every year. As for the original pilot, that is the most difficult episode of a series to execute. It often requires a great deal of research, outlining, and more drafts than other episodes, hence the longer length of time to prepare a pilot for review.

Screenwriting career coach Lee Jessup often speaks of a client she has whose goal is to write three pages a day. It is a simple goal that does not seem daunting to a writer, and after a month the writer has a first draft of a full screenplay that is now ready for a first round of script coverage and rewrites.

Whatever length of time works for you works, so long as you are constantly moving and building your portfolio. You cannot call yourself a writer if you haven’t written anything, so set those goals and prove yourself!

3. The Infinity of Imagination

Don’t restrict yourself because something hasn’t been done before.

Two speakers stood out to me with this note of Arnold Shapiro’s. The first is BEGINNING TRANSMEDIA with Allison Norrington. Transmedia is defined by Ms. Norrington as “organic, fluid storytelling that retains relevance and continuity across platforms and is infused with the fun of gaming behaviors.” The transmedia landscape is growing rapidly, and as more modes of storytelling are created, the more opportunities there are for writers to make their mark on it. Whether it is a YouTube series, video games, or character Twitter accounts/blogs, there are plenty of ways to contribute. Do not let fear or the thought that you “only” want to write features or television stop you from exploring other opportunities or ways of telling a story.

Another interesting speaker that I had never heard before was Dara Marks and ENGAGING THE FEMININE HEROIC. We have all heard of the “Hero’s Journey” and its major impact on popular culture, but this was an entirely new way of looking at feature screenwriting. The Hero’s Journey is a very clear structure with commonly used archetypes. The Heroine’s Journey is not rooted in female vs. male protagonist, but looks at “male vs. female characteristics” and how suppressing those different sides of emotions creates the protagonist’s flaws, thereby making a person incomplete until they are able to balance both their male and female sides.

When I talk with writers, I often hear a desire to break away from the three act mold, and usually tell them that the structure is there whether or not you approach the script that way. Ms. Marks’s way challenges writers to look at a protagonist’s journey through mature growth and gender balance. It may be an excellent way for you to unlock your own creativity and approach your writing with a fresh perspective.

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4. Listen and Learn

Become world-centered, not self-centered.

The purpose of this ingredient is to remind writers to go out and experience life, gain knowledge, and listen/observe those around you. Many writers are introverted and prefer to spend their nights staying in and writing, but it is important to walk away from your script occasionally. It is not just about being social/networking and getting your daily dose of Vitamin D. Observing the world around you can help you know what is popular now and will be next, and maybe think of new approaches to storytelling.

Allison Norrington’s TRANSMEDIA lecture provided a way to listen and learn from the audience. With so much of social media allowing for a conversation between creator and audience, utilizing these four ways of listening/observing those who enjoy your work can give the product a more world-centric view. In her lecture, the 4 Levels of Conversation Between Audience and Creators are as follows:

  • Broadcast — Closed storyworlds. Not interaction.
  • Listener — Create a storyworld, you remain the boss but you listen to how an audience reacts.
  • Welcome to My World — Create the world and allow fans to play with it, remix it, and collaborate it.
  • Make it Yours — Allows fans to create cannon as media as they want, then the creator comes back in and uses it/listens to it.

By listening to those around you, you can continue the conversations in these ways in order to not only grow the base of fans for your work but also understand what it is in your writing that people respond to.

5. Selling or Selling Out

How to take notes/collaborate. See the big picture and have a thick skin.

Some of the most fun panels of the event are always those that include professional screenwriters, and for me it is even better when they’re television writers. One of the best was Peter Mehlman, a writer and producer on SEINFELD who did a panel analyzing his work on the series with the episode “The Implant” in particular focus.

Prior to writing for SEINFELD, Peter Mehlman wrote articles for female-focused magazines such as Mademoiselle, Self, and Glamour, which if you see Mr. Mehlman is a little laughable. I do not know how he looked thirty years ago as a writer for these magazines, but today he has Einstein-inspired hair and a fairly casual style. Mr. Mehlman had a lot of unexpected thoughts on the beloved series. For example, he believes the infamous “Soup Nazi” episode does not live up to the hype, and less surprisingly he said “THE CONTEST is out of this world. That may be the best episode of a sitcom ever.”

SEINFELD existed in a time when shows were given more time to develop, whereas today a show can be cancelled after the first episode airs. According to Mr. Mehlman, the room would pitch ideas, then individual writers would take episodes and go off on their own to write the outlines, which would then be passed onto executive producers Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David before the first draft was done, then working its way up through the studio and network execs. This is the typical process for most writers rooms, but in today’s world you not only have executives giving notes, you also have the fans.

seinfeld-celebration

Mr. Mehlman discussed at length how difficult it would be for a show like SEINFELD to exist today, not just because of the pressure to be successful instantly, but also from social media. He stands firm in his belief that, “You can’t have the audience dictating what you’re doing.” You are no longer getting notes from your bosses, you are getting them in real time on Twitter. So whereas in Transmedia you embrace that dialogue, in traditional formats you have to be careful and think about the bigger picture of what your series is working towards.

6. Your Power

Every project carries power to influence. Always be aware of the potential effect. Do No Harm.

In the long list of speakers, one in particular seemed a little out of place: Father Steve Porter and his lecture STORY IN RELIGION. Arriving early Saturday morning I found the priest standing before a group of about twenty people, wearing a Hawaiian-shirt pattern over his traditional white collar. I expected that Father Porter would go over how he analyzes the weekly mass readings to create his homilies, but instead the approach was much broader.

Touching again on the idea of self-introspection, Father Porter spent a good amount of time discussing “guilt.” It began simply with a writer asking a question pertaining to their own script and how to convey the inner turmoil of loss, guilt, and redemption. His response took time to get to as a few other writers piled on similar questions, but Father Porter’s response was ultimately the same each time, “God can forgive you, the church can absolve you, but can you forgive yourself? If you can’t, you’re saying you’re bigger/more important than God.” For some of the writers listening to Father Porter, this may have been a cathartic moment, and for others it was a reminder to maintain a world-centric and not a self-centric view. Either way we were watching a man tell his own thoughts and opinions and seeing the power they have on the listeners.

Not every story has make people get involved in politics or change the world, but the goal of any writing is to make an impact, and Father Porter and Mr. Shapiro remind writers to use that power thoughtfully and purposefully.

7. Your Reputation

Follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

This rule pops up on these lists all the time, but was only mentioned occasionally throughout the conference, and only Mr. Shapiro made it a major highlight. It is one of those rules that we often take for granted without always applying it into our daily actions. You never know who is within earshot in this town, you never know what assistant can halt your career if spoken to the wrong way, etc.

Having been an industry assistant myself, I have plenty of friends who had terrible experiences climbing up the ladder, but you would never know it because they do not burn bridges with any contacts, regardless of whether it was a positive or negative experience. Always try to take the high road and you will go far.

8. Passion

Have laser beam focus and take necessary risks.

The best part of any writing conference is the passion that fills the hall and lecture rooms. Hundreds and hundreds of people arrive from all over the country, sometimes all over the world, to participate in learning more about an art form that has existed since the beginning of humankind. It is fascinating when you think about how much people love to share stories, whether they have been passed down through generations or come from our own experiences.

It is this same passion that led to my sitting down with a small group of writers during the Cocktail Bash on Saturday night. It was supposed to end at 8:00, but as the conversation gained momentum and our group grew larger it was suddenly 11:00. It may not have been the best idea to stay so late when I needed to be up and ready for another 8:00 am panel the next day, but we could not help sharing our stories, journeys, and experiences. There was so much passion for the craft and business in that group, as well as support for one another. I have even kept in touch with these writers since leaving and am excited to hear where their passion will take them next.

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9. Mind Games

Use fear to motivate you. See the glass as half empty.

These last two, particularly their phrasings, were unique to Arnold Shapiro’s keynote. I have heard of setting deadlines, rewarding yourself, etc., but I have never heard of fear! It seemed like a very quick way to make a writer feel defeated. The heart of the rule clicked into place when he reached the last ingredient:

10. You’re on Your Own

You fill in the blank for what you need to achieve your goals. Have some talent. Make it a priority. You will succeed.

It can still feel self-defeating, but at the end of the day whether or not you succeed is all on you. You cannot sell a script you have not finished or sell it to someone you never meet. It is incredibly helpful to have good friends supporting you. It is also a huge help if you are talented and have a marketable idea, but none of these things matter if you are not putting in the work. Do everything possible to chase your dreams, and if that means scaring yourself to do it, knock yourself out.

The weekend ended as quickly as it began, and I hoped that I had gotten a card from every writer I had met and been inspired by while I was there. Through introspection, passion, setting goals (with some fear behind them), and reminding myself that I am the only one who can make my goals happen, I went home with some great resources and ready to write, making Story Expo 2015 a very successful weekend.

~

Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.

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