Consultant Corner: Jen Grisanti on Writing Your Life Story

[Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a new column here on LA Screenwriter. Every Thursday, we will post an interview with a top screenwriting consultant. These interviews will highlight the deep experience of each consultant and answer your most pressing questions about writing great scripts and succeeding in this highly competitive industry.]

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Jen Grisanti is one of the most sought-after story/career consultants working with writers today. An accomplished international speaker, Jen is a Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC, a former 12-year studio executive (including VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount), and a blogger for The Huffington Post. She is also author of the books Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit, and her latest book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success.

LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa recently spoke with Jen about one of her core focus areas: writing your own life story.

Angela Bourassa: Writing your life story sounds like a good idea, especially if you’ve lived a truly remarkable life, but it’s a path paved with endless potholes. What is the first piece of advice you give to someone who tells you they want to write a script about their own life?

Jen Grisanti: The “all is lost” moments, potholes, and turning points are where the gold is in your story. Most people that have lived a “truly remarkable” life story have a series of failures and wrong turns before they hit their pinnacle moments. I find that the gap between reality and the dream or the expectation is where story lives. I tell writers that want to write a script about their life to be prepared to add fiction to their story. Writing from an autobiographical place does not fall into dramatic structure. Start with the wound. This is the emotional fuel that propels you forward. It is what connects you to your audience and creates a rooting interest. Wounds are universal. We all have them.

We also all have trigger moments that push us into a dilemma. The choice that we make in the dilemma will lead us toward a goal. We will take actions. We will hit obstacles. There are stakes that escalate with each obstacle we hit. Now, we might not hit our “all is lost” right before our achievement of the goal. However, we do need this moment in the story. I believe that the pivotal moments in story that give us a glimpse inside are the starting catalyst or trigger incident and the “all is lost” moment. These are the moments that you want to take liberty with, drawing from your emotional truth yet being willing to add fiction in a way that serves the story.

Angela Bourassa: What’s the best strategy for honing in on the structure of a story about a true event? How much liberty should be taken with the facts?

Jen Grisanti: I believe that the best strategy for honing in on the structure of a story about a true event is to first think about what is the best story point to enter with. A common studio note given is to use the climax as your opening. Or, you can use your opening as your climax and start from an earlier point in your story. Knowing where to begin is what will make the difference of whether your story will work or not.

I believe that the strongest openings set up a personal dilemma for the central character that links to the inciting incident, or the series trigger and dilemma if you are writing a TV pilot. The personal dilemma of the central character sets up why your character wants what they want. This is the emotional fuel of your story. Then, you want to think about the outcome of the story. I tell writers to think about the question that comes out of the opening dilemma. Then, create the action steps, obstacles, and stakes that the hero will face on her/his way to the resolution.

Writers should be willing to take liberty when writing true stories. If it is a story that you’ve been hired to write that is not your story but someone else’s, the job of the writer is to apply their own emotional truth to the story as a way of bringing the characters and situations to life. When I look at truly brilliant films based on true stories, like NIXON and THE KING’S SPEECH, I know that the writers took liberty to serve the story. You look at the facts of the story. Then, you figure out the wound. The wound could be what you imagine for the character or it could be a wound that you draw from your emotional truth from a similar situation to what the central character is going through. Think about what you are trying to say with the story through the characters and the plot. What thematic question is your central character debating? How does your emotional truth apply to this question? I’d say that when a writer takes the liberty to add fiction where it best serves the story, we all benefit.

Angela Bourassa: Do you have any thoughts on timeline? Production companies seem to steer clear of cradle-to-grave stories these days. What’s a more cinematic time span to cover?

Jen Grisanti: I LOVE the double narrative timeline. The latest strong example of this is THE HANDMAID’S TALE. I think that there is so much value in entering a story at a pivotal moment in time and then, going back in time to earlier moments in the characters’ life that led them to make the choices that they’re making in the present. I also think that going back in time adds a depth to the present moment if it is done well. You always want to be revealing character while advancing plot. So, if going back in time doesn’t fulfill this, I don’t recommend doing it. It is best used if it serves the story in the best way.

I am also a fan of the linear timeline. To fully grasp the heat of the earlier wound, I tell writers to start in that moment and then to cut to the present moment with however much time has passed. This way, we are fully in it with the character. You do not need to go back if you want to stay in the linear timeline.

Angela Bourassa: Writers who turn themselves into characters tend to make themselves perfect heroes. What’s a good strategy for identifying a genuine character flaw?

Jen Grisanti: I LOVE teaching writers how to write flawed characters. We all have flaws. We all do things to get in our own way of success. We all know people that continually sabotage themselves while in a particular pursuit. Sometimes, this is easier to see in others than to look inside. At the moment, I would say that my favorite shows with flawed characters include: FLEABAG on Amazon, THE HONORABLE WOMAN on Netflix, CATASTROPHE on Amazon, THIS IS US on NBC, BETTER CALL SAUL on AMC, and JESSICA JONES on Netflix.

When writing the flaw, you want to think about the wound. The wound creates the negative narrative that we use to get in our way. The flaw comes out of the negative narrative. The flaw often appears when the character makes a bad or faulty choice that leads to a consequence. We can all identify with this because we’ve all been there. The more we see ourselves in your character, the greater our desire to return to the show.

Angela Bourassa: In movies based on true stories, the facts always get fudged a bit. What do you say to a writer who really wants to tell their story exactly how it happened?

Jen Grisanti: I tell the writer that wants to tell their story exactly how it happened that life doesn’t happen in a dramatic structure. Writing a story exactly as it happened doesn’t transfer in the same way as writing a story where a writer knows how to take dramatic liberty and where to embellish. The stakes in story need to be clear both internally and externally, and they need to continually be escalated throughout with actions taken and obstacles hit.  A much better approach toward writing a true story is to write it from a place of emotional truth, not a place of autobiographical truth. Emotional truth gives us a glimpse inside. This is what takes story to a whole new level and makes it riveting versus boring. Be willing to add flavor and take liberty.

Learn more about Jen and her services at her website, Jen Grisanti Consultancy.  Jen is a member of EIACE.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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