When story begins with loss or reflects on life after loss, you understand the emotional fuel that drives the pursuit. Loss is something that is universal and we can all connect with it on a deeper level. Whether it‘s the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of trust or the loss of reality as we knew it, learning to get back to where we were or how to create a new identity after we experience trauma are the types of stories that will clearly connect with the audience. This is evident in the Oscar nominated films: 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her and Philomena.
In 12 Years A Slave, which is based on a true story, the character of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living the dream one moment… and the next has everything taken away from him after agreeing to discuss an apparent business opportunity over dinner. That quickly, the reality that he knew is no longer there. He wakes up in shackles; his freedom is gone. The emotional stakes drive the commitment of this character to get back to his family and his former reality. We learn from his journey of survival what a man is made of when it comes to how far he is willing to go to get back to love and life as he knew it. It also shows that even though Solomon’s trust was taken, he was able to find it again and trust the kindness of a stranger in his chance meeting with Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) to help him bring his life back into balance.
Since the story opens showing us what life looked like before the loss, we are able to see everything that is driving this man to survive so that he can return to his family. This technique in story links the personal dilemma of the central character to his pursuit. This is done in all of the movies that I mentioned. Each character has a personal dilemma that ignites their pursuit of bringing life back in balance after loss.
In Captain Phillips, which is also based on a true story, we see the life of Captain Phillips’ (Tom Hanks) before and how everything changes the moment he loses control of his container ship to a crew of Somali pirates. Since we saw the life he was living before the loss, we know what is at stake if he loses the battle. So, we watch as he tries to psychologically outwit the Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The stakes are constantly escalated in this brilliant film. We see a Captain who is driven to save his crew and himself so that he can return to his family. The loss of “what was” is the driving factor.
In Gravity, the loss that drives Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes from a past trauma as well as the present loss that she faces when she is on a routine spacewalk with Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Disaster hits when their space shuttle is destroyed in the middle of a mission. The thematic questions that Ryan is exploring are: “Do I want to live?” or “Do I want to die?” These questions relate to her past loss of a child as well as her present situation on the spacewalk. The universal idea of how do we move forward after loss is something that resonates and connects with people on a very deep level. By seeing her ponder this question in the story and seeing her response, it sends a strong message to the audience.
In the movie, Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely and introverted man who writes letters for people with difficulties expressing their feelings. His loss comes from his pending divorce and his struggle to let go of the marriage. As a result, Theodore purchases a talking operating system named “Samantha.” He falls in love with Samantha as their discussions deepen and their connection grows. The loss of his marriage is what is fueling him. The fear of loss is what leads him to attach to the OS. Their relationship is what takes him to a place where he is ready to let go of his ex-wife, Catherine. The loss of love and how life “was”… sends people into “crazy time.” During this time, people often become easily attached to other objects of desire. This beautiful story is a gift because it is such an internal journey that the filmmaker was able to show in both an internal and external way.
In Philomena, we see the loss of a mother (Judi Dench) whose child was taken from her while she was a teenage charge of a Catholic convent. We also see the loss of identity when former journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace. It is the loss that both of these characters experienced and the dilemmas that they face in the present that connect them. They go on a journey to find the truth about what happened to Philomena’s son and during their adventure, discover how their basic beliefs are being challenged. The loss of Philomena’s son and the desire to know about his life and his wellbeing are everything to Philomena and fuel her emotional pursuit. For Martin, what starts as a story that can help him to create a new path after his own loss turns out to be so much more.
When the loss is well placed in the story and we understand the wound that is driving the central character as a result of the flaw, the level of emotion is elevated in the story being told. Loss can lead to growth and gain if we are open to the journey.
When we feel the message in your story, there is an imprint that the storyteller leaves with the receiver. We experience what you wanted to say and we connect our own history and emotions to it and walk away with a stronger sense of fulfillment of what the journey was all about. Stories that make us feel the fuel behind the pursuit are the stories that resonate on a universal level because the message is clear. We understand what is motivating the character toward the goal. There is a quote that encapsulates the experience of life and the idea of choice perfectly, “Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love this quote. It reminds me that this is what story is all about. With the incredible batch of movies this year, I felt a variety of emotions for stories that came from a place of depth and a wide array of topics.
With the movie Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, we felt the pursuit of a son’s desire to connect with his father by helping him on a pursuit that others considered frivolous. It is a story about belief. They go on a road trip. The father has to settle scores along the way. For the son, it was about the idea of allowing his father to believe in something as a way to give him purpose. In doing so, he gets a chance to get to know him more. I really connected with this. Now, the timing of just going through cancer with my mom certainly made the idea of this simple pursuit resonate even more. The humor was perfectly placed. There were lines that made you laugh out loud and moments that tugged at your heart and really made you feel what the storyteller intended. We understood the fuel behind the pursuit. Universally, the desire to connect with our parents before the time passes is a strong one. I loved this film.
With the movie 12 Years A Slave, screenplay written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, I felt so many emotions. One of the strongest emotions that I felt was anger. I really struggled with the concept of human behavior. This was the first movie I’ve been to where I seriously wanted to leave several times because the brutality hurt my heart. The power of the story, the performances and the pursuit of the central character are what kept me there because I wanted to know the answer to his quest. The universal idea of one day we have everything our heart could ever dream of and in a moment, it is taken away. How strong is our desire to get it back? Do we have the strength to survive? What did it all mean? Can we get back to a moment that will forever change as a result of the pursuit and the obstacles hit? This powerful story is a gift. It shows the true meaning of kindness and the will of the human spirit to feel unconditional love.
In the movie American Hustle, written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell and directed by David O. Russell, we feel the fictional story of a con man on a quest to survive with a woman that he loves. The two, Irving and Sydney, are caught in the middle of a con when she accepts a check from an undercover cop, Richie, and is arrested. They are given the choice of her giving up her freedom or the two of them helping Richie to get four more con artists like them. They realize to pull this heist off and free Sydney from returning to prison, they will have to make one final play. The idea of “People believe what they want to believe” resonates throughout. We feel the pursuit of moving from the idea of conning people for a living to the idea of legitimacy and truth. The emotional motivation behind the pursuit and the stakes were clear in this story. I loved the themes that were explored.
With the movie Philomena, screenplay written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and directed by Stephen Frears, we feel the story of a man who is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace and a woman who had her son taken away when she was an “inmate” at a Catholic convent. The pursuit is fueled by a mother’s desire to find out whether she made the right choice in giving up her son. There is strong emotion behind this. He helps her in her pursuit and in doing so finds some of the answers to his own. Through her emotional responses to the obstacles that they hit on their quest, he is able to open his eyes to his own flaw and what is holding him back in his life. It is about a man’s search for meaning as we see this odd couple learn about life through the conflicting perspectives that each of them has toward it and the choice that she thinks she made but discovers was really made for her.
In the movie Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, we feel the pain of life after divorce through the lead Theodore. He purchases an OSI to help him cope with the loneliness. He falls in love with an Operating System named Samantha. The gift of this journey is that it is such an internal experience. The writer and director brilliantly figured out how to tell it externally. It is a movie about living after trauma and how we find closure when parts of our story end. I was totally immersed in the gift of this vision. Having gone through divorce, I know what it is to move through the filling of a hole after something major changes in your life. Universally, this hits all of us who’ve known the experience of love and loss.
Storytellers, when we feel your intent with clarity and can define the fuel behind the pursuit, you give us the gift of understanding your message and interpreting it in a way that speaks to our own journey.
How do you develop an idea into a script? What is the evolution process of an idea? After 20 years of working with writers at every level in the story development capacity, I’ve come up with what I’ve surmised is how the creative process goes during the writing process of a TV pilot script.
1. Idea/Concept Seed
2. Pitch Document Hot Mess
3. Outline Controlled Chaos
4. First Draft Possibility
5. Second Draft Potential
I share this as a way to motivate writers at every level to know that they are not alone in their madness. This seems to be how the evolution of an idea transforms as it goes through the creative process.
Idea/Concept – The first stage is often one of the most challenging for writers. How do you come up with an idea? Do you revert to writing what you know? Or, do you use your imagination and go into a world that you can create from scratch? There is a journey in both. If you write what you know, do not write it from an autobiographical place. This is a mistake. Write from a place of emotional truth and add fiction to it. This is how you get to reveal truth and hide it at the same time through fiction. If you choose to go into a world you don’t know, let your imagination go wild. Think of a concept that will take us into a world or life experience that we don’t know and make us want to know it through your execution. A world or life experience that is in the news or current events will give you an instant audience. For example, think of the shows – Homeland and The Good Wife.
In Homeland, many of us heard about the stories of prisoners of war returning home; however, what we didn’t know is what is it like to be held captive for 8 years and then return home to an existence that went on without you. This is taking the idea of fish out of water to a new level. The fertile ground is what happened in those eight years and how it informs the character of Brody and the choices he makes in the present.
In The Good Wife, we saw all kinds of stories on the news about famous politicians and sports athletes who cheated on their wives. Doing a show that goes into this life experience was a brilliant idea because it takes us deep into this journey and in doing so, makes the millions of people who’ve been betrayed, feel less isolated in their experience. We root for the main character, Alicia, to win her legal cases because we identify with her on an emotional level.
Pitch Document – This is part of the cycle that I take writers through before moving into the outline phase.
The pitch document that I like to use includes: Explanation or definition of the title, Write your series log line, Concept (further explanation), Pilot log line (Your pilot log line is how you go into your series through the A story), Themes for your show, Write a small paragraph for your main characters, Write a paragraph for the Teaser and each Act, Write a paragraph giving an overview of your show, Write a paragraph about the back-story of your central character, Write a paragraph for the first 13 episodes of your series. This could just be a log line for the A story and the B story.
The word that I used to describe this part of the creative process is “hot mess.” Typically, this is what happens during this phase. The concept is all over the place. The intention is still being formulated. The concept is being fleshed out. The writer is trying to find the identity of the show. This formula helps with this process. If the writer is lucky, they are able to master this and move to the next level with the outline. There are very few writers who are able to avoid the “hot mess” part of it and many who languish in this. It is ok. When your idea is meant to move to the next level, it will. Be “in” whatever is your creative process and trust that your idea will evolve when it’s ready.
The formula for the log line that I have writers use is set up of who (create empathy), dilemma, action, goal with a twist of irony.
The formula that I have writers use for their story structure is to start your story with a trigger incident that leads your central character into a dilemma. The choice that they make in the dilemma defines the goal. Then, all of the obstacles, escalating obstacles, “all is lost” moment should connect back to the goal. It is when the goal isn’t clear that story doesn’t work.
Outline – With the outline phase, you are writing a paragraph for each scene in each act and you are adding some dialogue to help bring it to life and set the tone. I’ve seen outlines vary in length. For the one-hour drama, outlines average between 12-17 pages. For a sitcom, the average is 8-10 pages. The more detailed that you are in the outline, the better it will be when you go from this phase into the script phase.
I refer to this part as “controlled chaos.” The reason for this is that the outline forces you think about what your story is about and how you are going to execute it. If you think back to the formula that I gave in the pitch document phase, think about how every scene in every arc has a purpose. It should fall under one of the following headings – trigger incident, dilemma, set up of goal, obstacles, escalating obstacles, “all is lost” moment and resolution. If your scene doesn’t fall under one of these headings, it is not advancing plot.
First Draft – This is often referred to as the “vomit draft”. In this phase, it is all about getting your story on the page, setting up the concept, the structure, the characters and the world. You want to really connect with the idea of just getting your idea out there and then knowing that you will have plenty of time to revise and define.
I refer to this stage in the evolution of an idea as the phase of “possibility.” We begin to see what is working in your idea. As an analyst, I look for many things when I go through a first draft. I look at the strength of the trigger incident and the dilemma. I look for the set up of the goal. I want to feel what the pursuit is and what is at stake if it is not achieved in every scene of the A story. I look at the act breaks. Do they end on an obstacle or a question that leaves the audience wanting to return to get the answer?
Second Draft – You made it! You got through the first four stages of an idea. Now, it’s about applying the notes and making the revisions. In the second draft, you want to fine tune and add touches. What is the theme of your story? This is something that you should have set up in your pitch document phase. In this phase, you want to check your theme. Is it the same? Or, is another theme coming through in a stronger way? Make the appropriate changes and thread throughout if you find that your theme appears to be different than where you started. Can we hear your voice in your scenes? Does your emotional truth appear in one of the reactions from your characters? If not, think about where you can add it. Did you address all of the notes that you received from the first draft? Did you go beyond the note? A common mistake is that many writers just address the place of the note instead of doing the work and threading it throughout.
The intention of taking you through this evolution is to show you that it is a universal process. Your seed has to grow and evolve. Try not to resist the process. Be open to every phase. Know that when the idea is ready, it will move to the next phase. When it does go through the five steps, you are taking a major step toward moving forward with your goal. You can make it happen. Every successful TV show or feature that has succeeded, started as a seed and evolved into something more.
I want to talk to you today not about writing stories, but about being story. Being story means taking action to shape the story of your own life. It means making that story the foundation that your work comes from. It means choosing to live the life you want
The inventor Buckminister Fuller said, “If you want to change how a person thinks, give up. You cannot change how another person thinks. Give them a tool the of use of which will gradually lead them to think differently.” Well, this weekend was all about gathering tools from all the classes that you took on story. When you leave, I want you to apply those tools not only to your writing, but also to your life.
What is more important than the story that you are living? If you spent as much time developing your own personal character arc as you do polishing your spec script, how would your life change?
A few years ago, I worked with a writer named Ryan. When he first came to me, he was part of a writing team. He and his partner were very talented, but they hadn’t sold anything yet. They had a manager, but not an agent. They had a gift but they needed to learn how to get their writing to a stronger place.
We worked together for a little while, we made some progress, and then Ryan got some bad news. His partner was dealing with some personal issues, and wasn’t going to be able to keep working on their collaborative projects. Basically, he was breaking up with Ryan.
This was a huge blow. They’d been on the verge of real success, and now Ryan felt like he was starting over from scratch.
Ryan was looking at this breakup as not just a setback but as something that was happening to him, something that he couldn’t control. And he wasn’t going to be able to move forward until he started to think of himself as the active hero of his own story.
Yes, he was going to have to work twice as hard from now on. Yes, he was going to have to rebuild his writing portfolio from the ground up. But the most important thing was, he was going to have to believe he could do it on his own. He had to choose to see this setback as an opportunity–as the beginning of a new story, with himself as the sole protagonist.
Once he made this mental shift, Ryan felt re-energized. He started writing a lot. We worked together on several more scripts, and I could see that his voice was actually even stronger on its own. What’s more, he started to take charge of his own career. He knew what he wanted, and he took decisive action to go out and get it. He took my Storywise 10 Week TV Writing Teleseminar, he got into Writers on the Verge, and he was wanted for the Warner Bros. Program, all in that same year. He landed a big agent. And today he’s a staff writer on “Chicago Fire.”
Ryan took a big setback and, instead of giving up and becoming a victim, he used that setback to drive him toward success. He let that problem inspire him to take action. He became the hero of his own story.
What if you could create the story you want to live by taking action? What if you could learn to become the active hero of your own story?
If you aren’t living the life you’d want to see on the page–if you’re not happy with the log line for your own biopic–what actions can you take to change it? What’s holding you back from taking those actions?
Many of us let failure or the fear of failure, hold us back.
What if you changed the way you view failure?
I want you to start seeing your falls and failures in a new light. I want you to look at your failures as a step toward success instead of a step away from it.
Failure is what makes us grow. When you fall, you learn what didn’t work. You took an action, and you didn’t get the result you wanted. Fine. Now you know what not to do, right?
When we fail, we grow. And when we grow, we move forward.
No hero succeeds right away. In any great story, each action the hero takes sets up a new obstacle. These obstacles escalate. Things keep getting worse. Finally, it looks like all is lost–until the hero turns things around and triumphs.
But that triumph wouldn’t have happened without the failures that went before it, right? Heroes learn from each obstacle they face. A hero has to keep focused on her destination, but she also has to learn from her journey, or she’ll get to the end of the story without the knowledge she needs to succeed.
When you choose to become your own hero, you choose to transform your failures into obstacles just waiting to be heroically overcome.
There are three key ingredients you’ll need for this kind of real-life heroic journey:
And a Defined Goal.
Most of my friends would call me an optimist. And I think for the most part, that’s true. I’ve been working in Hollywood for 21 years. I’ve seen a lot of people’s dreams come true. I’ve seen a lot of magic happen.
But when it came to my own dreams, well, I just wasn’t quite as optimistic.
The legendary Aaron Spelling was my boss and mentor for 12 years. He was constantly telling me to write. Every time I turned in notes on a script or even wrote him a birthday card he’d say, “You should be writing.” But to become a writer, I’d have to leave the security of the executive world. That security was what I’d grown up with. It was what I knew. So the idea of leaving it to pursue the dream of writing terrified me.
I helped to launch a countless number of writing careers. I staffed over 15 top primetime shows. I saw what it was to go from non-working to being a working writer. The thought “what if” constantly filled my mind.
I knew how to do it. I just didn’t quite believe that I could.
It took a failure to light that fire of belief in me. I lost my job after 15 years with the same company. I felt like I was going through a second divorce. But recovering from that failure taught me how to redefine what I wanted, and take action to get it. I got where I am today by taking action to achieve a clear goal–but the very first step was igniting that belief in myself. The first step was for me to believe I could be the hero of my own story.
Of course, belief alone isn’t enough–you’ve got to carry it out. You’ve got to become the active hero of your own story.
Like TJ. TJ was one of my first clients when I started my consulting business. He was in his mid-thirties and already living one version of the American dream–steady job, nice apartment, loving fiancée. But he had another dream that was closer to his heart. His dilemma was, was his dream of becoming a writer worth leaving his safe, steady income?
TJ believed in himself. His writing was great. He had strong ideas and he knew how to execute them on the page. He just needed his actions to meet with an opportunity.
TJ referred his friend, Rasheed to me. We worked on several scripts together. Then, TJ told me that he and Rasheed had written a feature together and were contemplating the idea of writing TV together. TJ was a master of idea and structure. And Rasheed was great at character and emotion. We worked on several scripts together to build them a strong portfolio as a team.
We also had to figure out the right goal for them–they had to pitch the right kind of scripts. UTA loved their spec script for MAD MEN. They also liked their spec for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. But nothing quite clicked until they wrote their second pilot, which showcased both of their strengths–the emotional strengths Rasheed brought, and the creative ideas TJ came up with. After they pitched this pilot, UTA signed them. And four days later they were staffed on LIE TO ME.
I found out later that TJ had created a vision board for himself years ago, showing the house he wanted to be living in and the family he wanted to start with his then-fiancee. Well, he is living that vision now. His fiancée is now is wife. They have two kids and they live in the house from his vision board. And he got there through belief, decisive action, and a defined goal.
Becoming the hero of your own story will help you achieve your career goals. But it’s not just about external markers of success. It’s also about changing the way you see yourself and the events in your life. It’s about deepening the connection between your life and your work, so that you’re not just successful in your work, you’re fulfilled by it.
I worked with another writer named Brian who’d worked his way up to a pretty high rank in the military. That experience gave him the courage he needed to take action, and the discipline he needed to pursue his goals. But there was still something holding him back from totally throwing himself into this work.
His mother was dying of cancer. Now, I’m not saying he should have ignored that pain to focus on his work–far from it. I wanted Brian to take that pain and use it to fuel his writing.
For a while, he held that part of himself back. But after his mother died, something changed for him. He took that grief and put it on the page. He wrote from a truer and more honest place. Not only did his work get better and better, he felt more grounded in that work. He truly became the hero of his own story when he let that story incorporate all of himself.
Brian built up a really strong portfolio of smart, sensitive pilots and TV specs. He landed an agent. Then he got into Writers on the Verge. Finally, he staffed on ARMY WIVES–truly the perfect show for him. Now he’s staffed on a new NBC show, “Ironside.”
In each of the stories I’ve told you, our hero took a challenging situation and turned it into something positive. These heroes were fueled by belief, and they took action to achieve defined goals. They did the important emotional work on their life stories so that they had even more to draw on when they sat down to write. They became the active heroes of their own lives.
In the book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman, talks about four components of the journey to success: being, doing, having and becoming. He says, “Our attention is normally drawn to that which we can see (the effect), which obscures the importance of what remains hidden (the cause). We focus on results (the having) and forget the process (the doing) necessary to achieve those results.”
To me, this means you can’t focus too much on your destination. You’ve got to have a goal, but you need to keep eyes open on the way there. If you don’t, you’ll miss the chance to learn from the obstacles you hit on the way there.
If you believed in yourself and you took action to start that journey towards your goal, what’s the worst that could happen?
You could fail. But that failure won’t be the end of your story. When you fall, when you fail, you get new information about how to do what you’re doing better. Take it. Recognize that your failures move you toward success, not away from it. When you shift the way you see your pain, the creative world you’ve dreamed of can become a reality.
In my own life, the dream of being a writer became the reality of being the author of three books when I changed the way I looked at my pain. I realized that my falls gave me something to write about. My failures took me toward my dream, not away from it. Learning how to emotionally process those falls gave me the emotional fuel for my journey.
With belief, action, and a defined goal, you can make your dream a reality. You can turn your failures into obstacles on the way to success.
This is the most important story you will ever write: your own story. Learn to be in your story. When you write your own life story, we will see the real you in your writing. And that’s what any audience wants: We want to see you be story.
The key to your success is connection. Well, the question that comes to mind is how do you connect? I mean, really connect? The key to connecting is in the telling of your personal story of triumph as well as loss. Many people focus on the triumph because they fear that the loss or failure makes them look weak. It is the opposite. The story of your loss is what makes you look strong. It is what connects you with your audience. Chances are that the emotions you felt in your loss are the same emotions that the person you’re speaking with may have experienced in a different situation. Your ability to fall and get back up speaks in a way that your story of success alone will never be able to compete with. I have worked in story for over 20 years now. I’ve had the chance to really absorb and observe what is the link that connects people to success. I’ve found that the true link to a successful outcome is the telling of your story. When you reveal your truth from a place of confidence as well as vulnerability, you increase the chances of building a bond with your audience. When you do this, you connect. When you connect, there is no limit to your potential.
In fictionalized story, a common question is why does she or he want what they want? When we understand why your central character wants what they want, we connect with the emotion behind the pursuit. Why do they want to achieve the goal? What do they have to lose if they don’t achieve it? Think about this in your life. How is your personal dilemma fueling your professional pursuit? Are you utilizing your personal story to help motivate you toward your goal? Are you telling your story so that people can get on board in helping you reach your accomplishment? What if you did do this? If you reveal your story in a meeting in a way that supports why you want what you want, you have a much greater chance of hitting your destination.
Recently, I was in a consult with a woman about her career and some scripts that she has written. I heard about her scripts and the challenges that she is facing with getting them made. She does have a lot of heat on one and personally, I see the concept. However, what really connected me to her actually didn’t have a lot to do with her savvy story sense with her scripts but more with what she revealed to me about her life. Toward the end of the meeting, she opened up to me about a personal part of her story. It was very personal and it told me a lot about who she is. My heart felt immediately connected to her truth. With this feeling of connection, I suddenly saw her ability to tell story in an even stronger light. She showed me that she knew how to connect with her own truth and to reveal it without shame. In doing this, it told me that she knows how to tell story.
In another situation, I had someone reach out to me who had read my article in Tiny Buddha called “Moving From Ego To Spirit”. He was drawn to my message and my truth about my own fall. It made him want to buy my book, “Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Success” and to set up a meeting. When I met with him, he immediately told me his story of triumph and loss. His triumph was very big so I knew that his fall was a hard one. With the loss, he didn’t leave anything out. His world was truly turned upside down and reality as he knew it, shifted in a major way. I identified with his fall. This connected me to him. I loved the courage that he showed in revealing the consequence behind some of the choices that he made and his feelings of regret. He revealed his truth without fear. This made me know that his potential is unlimited. He has the emotional fuel to get back to a place of strength in business. It will all come down to the revelation and telling of his story. I know that if he connects with others like he connected with me, there is no limit to his potential.
If we tap into our truth that often surfaces from our loss and we are able to share it in our story in a way that connects our personal story with our professional goal, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Where we plant seeds, things will grow. Our personal story is how we connect. It is our gold. How we tell our story and what we reveal determines where we will go in life. If you want to successfully connect, understand the strength of your story.
Are we that different when it comes to our emotional truth? This is a question that I ponder when I travel to other countries to teach story.
In Israel, the truth that I discovered went much deeper than the perception. I went to Israel to teach the TV Writers Summit. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. From the news coverage we’ve seen here in the US, I wondered whether safety would be an issue. I knew about the suicide bombings, the political tension, the riots and the military. I have to admit, the idea of this kind of chaos intrigued me with regards to the depth of the storytelling. When the wound is deep, there is a lot of emotional truth to be explored. I know that from Israel, we (the US) have borrowed formats of shows like HOMELAND and IN TREATMENT. I love both of these shows so I was excited about going deeper and hearing the voice of the storytellers there.
We got there on a Thursday afternoon. We met for dinner that night at a spectacular Italian food restaurant. We met our hosts: Ruth Lenzner Lev Ari, Ofra Eiber, Sandy Raischer and Michal Yeshanov. Little did I know that in less than a week, these people would become like family. Friday, we met to discuss the details of the event. Friday night we had another incredible dinner. The cuisine in Israel is delicious! On Saturday, we headed out for a day in Jerusalem. Ruth set us up with a celebrated filmmaker, Yoram Honig, to be our tour guide. He only does this on very special occasions. Yoram took us through Jerusalem. Being Catholic, it was very surreal for me to be in the place where Jesus was crucified and to learn about all of the sectors between faith as well as divisions amongst the Jewish people. It was eye opening to hear about the divides between the faiths and the cultures. It was inspiring to experience it all as a group and to have an opportunity to soak it all in before going on stage to teach. We ate hummus and falafels. We took pictures of this magical place, knowing that we were creating a memory that would live on forever in our hearts. Saturday night, they had a cocktail party for us at an exquisite lounge that was part of the Messa restaurant. The who’s who in the entertainment community attended this event. We met a head of a major network, the head of the guild, the head of the film financing and the creator/writers of many of the hit shows on the air in Israel… and the list goes on. Many of the writers there were represented by Creative Artists Agency here, showing just how small the world is. Having the opportunity on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to meet the people and absorb the place really set us up for the event, which began on Sunday.
On Sunday, the event started with Chad Gervich teaching for half the day and then, Ellen Sandler taught for the second half of the day. Then, we had a panel that night that was moderated by TV writer, Daniel Lappin. He asked some thought provoking questions about our backgrounds and about what we think of the shows in Israel, etc. We were each given several shows to watch. This added to the gift of the experience and really being able to feel the voices of this culture. Some of the shows that I saw that stood out to me include; The A Word, Mice, and Arab Labor. I found that their themes paralleled some American shows but the depth of the subtext really made them stand apart.
On Sunday, I taught for the first half of the day and Troy DeVolld taught for the last half. I knew that this was my opportunity to really hear their voices. So, to give them incentive, I offered a TV Pilot Consult (valued at $600.00) for the winner of the “Log Line For Your Life and Dilemmas Contest.” I do the “Log Line For Your Life” exercise at every event that I teach as a way to connect me with the stories of the audience. I get people to open up about their life through this exercise. What I discovered was that we are all linked through the common themes that we share. Some of the common themes that connect us include; job satisfaction, pursuit of love, pursuit of career, familial dysfunction, midlife crisis, abandonment, rejection, feeling trapped in our choices, disease, pregnancy at an early age, desire to have a child, to be single or a couple, financial crisis and emotional breakdowns. Where we differ in some of what we experience is that in Israel, they deal with things like emotional responses to the military, post-traumatic stress disorder, to leave their family and their country to pursue the dream, response to segregation, etc. Our themes are definitely influenced by our cultural experience. There is so much heart in this culture. I loved that out of 125 participants, 47 people turned in responses. I loved this especially because I know that it’s hard to write in another language. The winner for his log line and dilemmas was Pete Sickle. His winning log line is “A wandering gentile with chronic Peter Pan Syndrome abandons a promising career in politics and diplomacy to follow the love of his life to Israel and become the father he never had.”
On Day 3, we had a writers’ room experience. In Israel, they do not have a writers’ room. So, we wanted to give them a sense of what this experience is. We divided the room into four groups. A majority of the writers there were working writers. We gave them an exercise at each table. Every group got to rotate through each instructor. At the end of the day, we had them pitch their ideas and we gave them critiques. It was a very valuable and bonding experience. I am so proud of the work that was done. It connected us in an even deeper way to the voice of the storyteller. We ended the day with a superb dinner at a new restaurant called Night Kitchen. The cuisine and the ambiance were sensational.
On the last day, we went to Tel Hai College in Northern Israel. We did a panel at the college for the students. It was a very rewarding experience. It gave us a sense of where they are in their learning of writing. We also went wine tasting. We went to the border of Israel and Lebanon and we went to the Sea of Galilee. We came back and 45 minutes later, we went to the airport to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. I left with a heart full of so much love for the people I met and the experience that I had.
On the return home, I realized that I received the gift of hearing and understanding the voice of the storytellers of Israel. I was connected with a new family abroad. I want to express tremendous gratitude to Ruth Lenzner-Lev Ari and her phenomenal team. Ruth and I continue to correspond. Ruth wrote in response to one of my recent emails, “Now we are anchored in each other’s hearts. Will find some treasure there.” This sums up the gift of this life changing and memorable experience.
Creating a short or a feature that has award-winning potential at any film festival is no easy task. When writing and/or directing a short, the key is finding a thought-provoking life moment that will intrigue and connect your audience in a short amount of time. You have to enter the story at the right point to make it a success. With a feature, it’s about telling a unique, strong and emotional story that moves your audience while entertaining them.
I thought a lot about these key-winning ingredients at the 8th Annual Big Island Film Festival this past Memorial Day weekend. The festival takes place at the Fairmont Orchid Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii, and is organized by Leo and Jan Sears. This is the second year that I was invited to be a part of it.Experiencing the beauty of Hawaii while celebrating your accomplishments as a filmmaker and sharing your passion with other filmmakers is a phenomenal life experience. It gives all filmmakers an achievement worth pursuing in their careers. Making it as a finalist into this festival is a reward like no other. So, what do you need to do to qualify as a finalist in this film festival? For starters, you need to write a great short or feature. In the feature arena, there is a strong need for the family drama. In the short film arena, I’m going to share with you a few of the key story elements that I took note of.
Here are some pointers of how to create a finalist worthy submission:
· Enter your story at the right moment
· Create an intriguing dilemma
· Establish strong stakes
· Have a powerful message and theme
· Have an active protagonist
· Your ending should loop back to the beginning and answer the thematic question
Here are some of the highlights from the shorts that won.
The film, “A Perfect Day,” written and directed by Adam Rubin, won for Best Short and has all of the story elements that I mentioned. The film’s brief reads, “A teenager on the morning of ‘going Columbine” is confronted by an unlikely stranger, the only person who can stop him. This is a tale of angst, of irony, and ultimately of hope.” I love the film’s protagonist, the postman. The postman is able to interrupt the plan of action of an angst-ridden kid with a conversation that makes a difference and changes the outcome. This film is very memorable and has a strong message that really resonates with its audience.
Don Sniffen’s film, “Good Dog,” was awarded the Audience Choice for Best Short. The beauty of the film comes from the strength of the starting dilemma and how the protagonist, the dog, is able to use his vision to change what could be a tragic accident. The film’s log line reads, “Dog lives with the Person family. Dog has a vision of the future. Dog must change the future. Good Dog!” I’m captivated by the concept of an intuitive dog. I love that the starting dilemma is the dog’s vision that something bad is about to happen. I love the action that the dog takes to stop this from happening. The ending loops back around to the beginning.
The German film, “Spaghetti For Two,” written by Betina Dubler and directed by Federica Kitamura-De Cesco, won Best Foreign Short. It tells the story of “how a seemingly ordinary day becomes a significant turning point for an unremarkable man, thanks to a minimal shift of fate.” I love the twist of fate that takes place in the story. The message that stems from the strength of the twist in this film really resonates with me. It shows how one act of kindness can totally change the outcome.
The beauty of being a part of a film festival is the chance to create a community with other artists who share your passion. I wanted to give you some noteworthy things I saw at Big Island Film Festival and a small peek into some of the winning stories in hopes that it will help you to create a short or a feature that will make you a finalist in a successful film festival. It’s all up to you. You can do it!
I am giving tremendous gratitude to Leo and Jan Sears and Chris Leudi, Vice President and GM of the Fairmont Orchid Hotel for making this event a memory of a lifetime.
Your personal fall can be what drives you toward your professional win. As a story consultant, I like fiction that connects the central character’s personal wound to the professional outcome; their personal dilemma is tied to their professional dilemma, so that accomplishing the external goal signifies a win on both an internal and external level. For me, this is what drives story. When we understand why the central character wants the external goal and what is at stake if they don’t get it, we root for them to get what they want. If you learn how to apply this same concept to your life, you will be astounded by what kind of results you will see.
I’d like to give you an example of a recent film that I thought could have been even stronger if the personal dilemma of the character had been better connected to the professional outcome. In Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal, the dilemma is 9/11. The goal is to get Osama bin Laden. The lead character is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative who is in pursuit of the whereabouts of Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. My question is why her? What is motivating her character to want to achieve this goal on an emotional level? How is her personal dilemma connected to the professional outcome? For me, this is something that could have made this great movie even stronger than it is.
In the new TV series, The Americans, written by Joe Weisberg, the personal dilemma/wound is strongly connected to the professional outcome. We learn early on in the pilot episode that Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is a KGB agent in pursuit of an ex-KGB Colonel who is a whistle blower on undercover agents. When Elizabeth and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) apprehend him, they miss the ship that was their chance to complete the mission and hand him back to Russia. This is the professional dilemma. The goal that stems from this is to figure out what to do with the Colonel in order to complete their mission. Elizabeth wants to kill him. Through a flash back, we discover the personal wound driving her to achieve the professional goal: When Elizabeth was training as an agent in Russia, the Colonel took advantage of his position and raped her. This is an excellent script and pilot episode. This story really moves because we know why the central character is in pursuit of the professional goal and what the personal stakes are if it is not achieved.
In your life, I want you to think about how you can do this to add fuel to the fire of your professional goal. Have your life turns caused you to move away from your goal because of the scars they’ve left behind? Learn how you can connect this wound and use it to motivate you toward a new professional goal. By using what you lost to propel you further, there is no end to what you can accomplish.
In my own life, I lost a job after 15 years with two sister companies. It was a big fall for me that was very unexpected. After learning how to take inventory of what happened, I learned how to use this loss to move forward instead of falling victim to my fall. I knew what my strength was as a studio executive, my notes on story. I used this strength and designed a business around it. Since my personal story was a large part of what led to my new professional goal (i.e., teaching story on a global level to stop isolation and create community), I learned how to link the loss I went through to this professional outcome. This year, five years after opening my own company, I taught in London with The TV Writers Summit and I am about to go to Australia to teach the TV Writers Studio. I achieved my professional goal by linking my personal wound/dilemma and using it to propel me forward instead of hold me back.
In my upcoming book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success, I teach, based on the concept of life imitating art, how we can learn from fiction, and how we can apply it to our own lives so that when we go through a turning point and experience a fall, we can get back up and use the fall to achieve a professional goal that can enrich our lives more than we ever imagined. We can become the active hero in our own story.
As a Story/Career Consultant I am constantly designing frameworks and tools to help people understand how to tell their story in a way that results in their audience feeling their message. There is no better feeling than when a story resonates in a way that strikes an emotional chord and makes you understand and feel the message at a core level. After working in the entertainment business for 20 years, I am still fascinated with why some stories work and others do not. By story, I am referring to any story being told on TV, in film, theater, and in real life. I have come to believe that the way we tell our story or stories equates to our success on so many levels, both in our professional and personal lives.
When you learn how to utilize tools that will enhance your story, you increase your chances of connecting with your audience. The key to telling a strong story is allowing us into your vision. Here is one of the frameworks I’ve designed to help you achieve maximum results with the stories you tell.
- What are you trying to say? Is your message universal?
- Do you build a powerful starting dilemma and will the dilemma in your story resonate with your audience?
- Do you establish the “Why now?” for entering your story when you do?
- What thematic question are you debating?
- What is the central character in pursuit of? What does he/she want? Why does he/she want it? Why do we empathize with him/her?
- What is getting in the way of the pursuit? What is at stake if he/she does not achieve the goal?
- Is the goal achieved?
- Did your central character grow and move from ego to spirit in the process?
One of the most common errors made in storytelling in general is a lack of clarity in what is being said. What is your central character in pursuit of? Do we understand the message? Are you taking your audience in a direction that will allow them to connect with your intention and apply it to their own lives?
Does the starting dilemma provoke an emotional response from your audience? Have they faced a similar dilemma or can they see themselves facing the dilemma? Are the two sides of the dilemma equally as difficult to choose from? Does the choice made by your character make us (the audience) root for the outcome?
Do you establish the “Why now?” for entering your story when you do? This is often triggered by an event that happens. This brings your audience into the heat of the moment establishing why we are entering your story when we are.
What is the thematic question you are debating? This can involve taking a stance on one side of an issue in order to get a point across. Your story should support the point you are trying to make. This links to what you are trying to say.
Here is one of the most important questions I ask my clients and others I work with: what does your central character want? My next question: why do they want it? The reason so many people have difficulty conveying what their central character wants is because they don’t know what they want in their own life. This is why I encourage my clients and my audience to do the emotional work. When you do the emotional work in life, you help clarify what you want and why you want it. When you clarify what you want, it helps you define what your character wants in the stories you tell.
What is getting in the way of your central character’s pursuit of the goal? One of the most important parts of any story is having strong obstacles that escalate and clear stakes that also escalate as a result of the obstacles faced. When we understand what is at stake, we root for the success of the central character in achieving his/her goal. The external stakes arc is often one of the key things that could be strengthened in the stories we tell
Does your central character achieve the goal? What is revealed in the achievement? How did your central character move from ego to spirit in the process? Moving from ego to spirit is a large part of what I teach. In the beginning, we often want to achieve a goal for ego-related reasons; the attainment signifies validation. After hitting a number of obstacles and escalating obstacles, we are often humbled. When we are humbled, we begin to awaken to how we are approaching the goal. When we move from ego to spirit, we learn that the achievement of the goal isn’t just about us: it can affect the greater good. When we do this, we evolve. Stories illustrate the journey of our evolution.
I’m happy to have shared with you some of the tools I use to help people understand how to tell their story in a way that will have a maximum affect on their audience. If you tell your story from a place of depth, the authenticity of your message will resonate with your audience and beyond.
Sharing passion is the gift that connects us all. It is the glue that makes a dream a reality. When we connect with others who are where we want to be, we start to believe the dream is possible. All we need to do is define our dream and then give everything we have to making it happen. Once we identify what it is we love, we find ourselves in pursuit of it. If we are driven, we put everything into the dream being realized. Obstacles appear; some are higher than anticipated. We can get over some but others may test our commitment to our dream.
Collectively, in the past weeks, we watched the London 2012 Olympics and shared in the gift of seeing dreams realized when medals were won. We also shared the pain with those that faltered or fell as they pursued their dream – the gold medal. We think about how this feels in our own lives. Are we doing everything we can to realize our dreams? Are we going for the gold or are we losing the race? Are we sharing our passion with other like-minded individuals or did we leave our passion somewhere along our path? If we abandoned the dream, can we get it back?
I’d like to share a moment where I truly felt the power of shared passion in connection with the dream. During the second week of the Olympics, I was in Chicago speaking at the Chicago Screenwriters Network and participating in the UFVA (University Film & Video Association) conference with my publisher, Michael Wiese Productions, and other screenwriting authors from his company. University and college professors from across the U.S. congregate for the week-long UFVA conference to participate in panels, workshops and screenings and to connect with the numerous authors also in attendance, whose goal in attending UFVA is to get their books added to a professor’s curriculum.
I arrived in the Windy City on Saturday, August 4th, just in time for a huge thunderstorm. On Sunday, I taught my class “Selling Your TV Pilot Script” for the Chicago Screenwriters Network at a restaurant called Porkchop. I looked out at the room full of writers hungry for knowledge. It filled my heart. I thought to myself, there is no greater gift than imparting knowledge to a group that has a shared passion to create. I could see their dreams and I wanted to fuel them. I’ve worked in the entertainment business for twenty years now. I’ve seen dreams realized and I’ve seen dreams abandoned. I wanted to send the message to this group that the dream is possible.
At the UFVA conference, I moderated two panels on “Pitching.” The panels consisted of brilliant writers from Michael Wiese Productions, all of who had realized their dream and written a book. Some of them knew what it was to experience only success in their area of expertise and some of them knew what it was to succeed and then fail but find success again in writing about their experience and the value that they gained from their field of expertise. They all realized their dream by putting their experience into words. They shared their wisdom by offering tools to succeed to the participants. To hear the wisdom that was shared and recognize that I was part of this group was enlightening and empowering.
My own dream started with the pursuit of being a head of a studio. Aaron Spelling inspired my dream and was my mentor for twelve years. By believing in my path, he enabled me to believe in my dream. I climbed the ladder to Vice President of Current Programming. I was almost there. Then, my dream was interrupted when my contract was not picked up. I had to quickly define a new dream and begin a new path. I decided to start my own business working with writers and guiding them toward their dream. I had a new dream and it awakened a voice inside of me. I wanted to write to inspire others to believe. And, I just turned in my third book to my publisher, Michael Wiese Productions. Michael Wiese picked up where Aaron left off. Michael helped me to believe in my new dream — writing books that help others realize their dreams.
The trip to Chicago was a gift. I was part of a platform about shared passion. I was inspired by the energy of the many gifted writers who are on their way to realizing their dream and the gifted writers who have already realized their dream and were there to share their passion. The week showed me that anything is possible. Do not lose sight of the dream. If your path is interrupted, create a new one. Use the energy of the shared passion to fuel the possibility. Reach for the gold. It is possible.