The Martian is an extraordinary feel good film that really takes you into the idea that anything is possible if you focus on a desire, take action, don’t let the setbacks bring you down and always move forward and believe. It takes the idea of being positive to a whole new level. The Martian’s success at the box office is a sure sign that this type of story appeals to the masses. We all want to believe that we can achieve the dream despite the odds. It shows you that the underdog holds a place in all of our hearts. When the focus on the outcome is clear, it is truly amazing to see what can transpire even in what appears to be an insurmountable situation. This story takes achieving the dream to a whole new height. It is universal. It is accessible. It will make you feel like you can accomplish anything if you put forth a plan in action.
I was fascinated by this story. Drew Goddard wrote the screenplay. My first thought was that it is similar to Gravity that was written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron. Both films started with a very powerful trigger and dilemma. In The Martian, the trigger was when Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is thought to be dead after he is hit in the middle of a storm and his crew leaves him on Mars. His dilemma is that he has to figure out how to survive until there is a return visit. He knows that this won’t be for 4 years. His pursuit is to do the math and figure out how to make food and create an environment that will allow him to survive. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission with veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) must face disaster when their shuttle is destroyed and they are left alone in space. The dilemma is clearly to find a way to survive despite the odds. The pursuit is to make it back to earth. In both films, I think that we knew what the outcome would be, but being part of the journey and learning what it took to get there is why we go along for the ride. We want to be able to see what heroes do to get over their hurdles. We want to learn how to be the hero in our own life and to be able to get past what appear to be insurmountable obstacles.
In stories like these, we know that the pursuit feels unattainable. The fascinating thing in The Martian was that the science was simplified and we were able to understand some of the choices that Matt Watney’s character had to make in order to survive. His tactics were so logical. His character remained incredibly optimistic for the majority of the journey despite the odds, the obstacles and the stakes that he faced. There was so much emotion that came from seeing his drive and watching his belief. This is such a strong message for everyone who faces a situation where it seems like “all is lost” and the chances of moving through it seem unattainable. By watching the actions that Watney takes and seeing the obstacles that he is able to overcome, we can apply the same thought to our own lives. What if we took optimism and determination and used it to fuel our pursuits? Usually, our fuel is the pain of knowing what the worst that can happen is if we don’t pursue our dreams. What if we started focusing on what the best is that can happen and believe in this possibility? How could this approach change our lives?
It also comes down to the questions that we ask ourselves. In Gravity, it felt like the question being debated was “Do I want to live or die?” This stemmed from a deep wound that happened in the past with the loss of Ryan’s child. In The Martian, we know that Watney wants to live. Part of what is fueling this is that he knows his crew is going to feel like they made a mistake. He does not want them to feel this. With Watney’s character, more of what is being debated is; can he use his resourcefulness, knowledge and optimism to attain the outcome he wants. Both situations are being fueled by emotion and desire. When you understand how to tell a story where we fully feel the emotion that is fueling the desire, you attain an outcome that appeals to the masses.
It is interesting how the real life story of the author of the book that the film is based on, Andy Weir, has parallels with what could appear to be an insurmountable goal. After dropping out of college and getting rejected for his first two books, Andy went back to working in computers. He figured that with the Internet, he could do writing as a hobby. What he produced was The Martian. The Martian was Andy’s first published book. He self-published it when he couldn’t get a publisher. It sold really well on Amazon. When it started doing well, it got on Amazon’s bestseller list. Random House approached him. This led to him landing an agent and getting a publishing deal. The film followed this.
The insurmountable goal that gets attained is what inspires all of us to believe that anything is possible. This is why these stories work; they make the attainment of the dream seem possible.
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.
I am a story/career consultant. I analyze story for a living. It is very rare that I come across one that is perfectly structured. I feel that the last film that fell into this realm for me was The King’s Speech. I am always on a quest to understand how story can be structured in a way that makes us feel the content, the message and the pursuit in the strongest way possible. I found this in the brilliant story of Philamena. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope wrote it based on the book by Martin Sixsmith. This movie is what strong storytelling is all about.
This is a spoiler alert: Philomena is about a woman facing the shame of a choice that was made 50 years earlier. I will be going through the set up in Act I of the story so that you can see what led to it being crafted so perfectly.
It begins when Philomena hears in church, “You are the cause of your shame. You and your own indecency.” Then, they show flashbacks of a Young Philomena during the trigger moment, when she meets John. This moment would later lead to the choice. We see the symbolism of an apple with regards to the forbidden fruit.
When we meet Martin who is set up on page 3, he is at the doctor’s office. We learn that he lost his job and he is in search of a way to process the change. This creates empathy. His doctor suggests that he try running.
We see more flashbacks of Young Philomena with John. In the present, Philomena tells her daughter, Jane that today would have been Anthony’s 50th Birthday. Jane doesn’t know what she is talking about. She shows her a picture of when Anthony was a baby. This sets up the “why now” in regards to why we are entering the story when we are.
In the inciting incident from the flashback, we see Philomena when she is pregnant and talking with Mother Barbara. Mother Barbara asks her if she took her knickers down for him. She says, “He got an awful lot for a toffee apple.” She asks about Philomena’s mother. One of the other nuns says that she died ten years earlier. This builds on the empathy that we feel for Philomena. She was left motherless at a young age. So, when she gives birth to a child as an unwed mother, she has to make a choice of what to do that will be for the betterment of her child.
In the present, Philomena’s daughter, Jane, meets Martin at a party. She hears that he lost his job and that at one point he was a journalist. She tells him that she knows a story about a woman who had a baby when she was a teenager and kept it a secret. The nuns took the baby away from her and made her have it adopted and she’s kept it a secret for all of these years. Jane tells Martin that the story is about her mother. She asks him if he’d want to do a story on this.
This is the trigger that brings the two worlds of Philomena and Martin together. Both have gone through loss. Both are on a quest for meaning. I think it’s fascinating that shame is what drives Philomena; yet, through the story, the question of who should be feeling this is debated.
The trigger incident from the past was the choice that was made. The trigger incident in the present had to do with the sequence of when Philomena hears about “shame” in church and the fact that it is her adopted son, Anthony’s, 50th Birthday. The trigger incident is continued with the moment when Jane runs into Martin, a journalist, at a party right after he lost his job and asks him if he wants to cover this story.
The dilemma for Philomena is that if she doesn’t find out what happened to her son, she will never know the answer of whether she made the right choice or not. The dilemma for Martin is that he has no job and he is given the opportunity to write a story of human interest that could bring him more opportunity, which could also help in processing his own loss.
The pursuit has to do with getting the story for Martin. For Philomena, it is about finding out what happened to Anthony. The obstacles have to do with getting information from the nuns, uncovering a secret that they were keeping, discovering what really happened to young unwed mothers at the Abbey, finding people who knew Anthony and could share the truth.
The part of the story that mesmerized me was the idea of who really should be feeling shame from the choice that was made. I found the story to be so powerful. The movie was phenomenal. The script is simply brilliant.
My Storywise 5-Week TV Pilot Teleseminar will start on Tuesday, May 6 at 7:00 p.m. PST. It will meet every Tuesday night. There will be a break between Week 3 and Week 4. So, the last class is on 6/10/14.
Participants will get a recording either the night of or the day after the teleseminar. So, if you miss a night or if you’re on a different time zone and can’t make the call, you will get all of the information sent to you if you are signed up.
Participants will be allowed to ask questions at the end of each call.
Here is a LINK to a YouTube video on the event.
Here is a list of the SPECIAL GUEST SPEAKERS. They will critique your pitches.
5/6/14 – Jeff Melvoin (EP/Showrunner – ARMY WIVES)
5/13/14 – Craig Sweeney (Executive Producer – ELEMENTARY)
5/20 – Julian Meijos (Writer – WHITE COLLAR)
6/3/14 – Jim Brandon & Brian Singleton (Co-Producers – BIG TIME IN HOLLYWOOD)
6/10 – Michael Narducci (Executive Producer – THE ORIGINALS)
SERVICE FEE – $200.00
At this level, you will get to participate in all ten (5) weeks of the Storywise Teleseminar; this includes listening to the calls (up to 2-3 hours in length per call). You will have an opportunity to pitch your pilot, and you will get to turn in a 2-3 page pitch document on your pilot script for a written critique. There is no limit on the time of when you can turn in your pitch document.
SERVICE FEE – $700.00
At this level, you will get to participate in five (5) weeks of the Storywise Teleseminar; this includes listening to the calls (2- 3 hours in length per call). You will have an opportunity to pitch your pilot script, you will get to turn in a 2-3 page pitch document on your pilot script for a written critique. You will also get a Pilot consult with this service. I will read one (1) draft of each script and give you written and verbal notes. This includes one (1) meeting up to one (1) hour in length to go over the notes.
SERVICE FEE – $2,400.00
At this level, you will follow alongside the Storywise Teleseminar and receive written and verbal feedback from me at each phase of the pilot writing process. This includes written and verbal feedback on your concept, your outline and three drafts of each script. This includes five (5) meetings up to one (1) hour in length to go over the notes, the log lines, the pitches and career guidance.
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.
A story begins when the world of a central character is thrown out of alignment. This triggers a call to action. The central character takes action in pursuit of the goal that will bring his/her world back into alignment. Without a story, we the audience could not connect to the central character nor to the storyteller. Which brings me to an important point: there is a specific structure to a well-told or well-crafted story. It begins with creating empathy for the central character. In fiction as well in life, can you skip this essential ingredient and have a story be as compelling without it? A writer once asked me this question. He was referring to the way we tell our true stories in order to give people a sense of who we are. He asked if he could tell his story by focusing on his strengths instead of his weaknesses.
As most of you know, I am a story/career consultant for writers. As if in support of his question, he brought up stories that I’ve shared at my seminars related to my two pivotal life moments: the end of a long relationship in a short marriage and the end of a career as a studio executive after fifteen years. To his question I answered this: in your pain lives your truth. When you allow your audience to see the wound that drives you, then you connect to your truth. Others may not directly relate with the specifics of your story but they do respond to the idea of pain and having to do the work to move past it. This makes them root for your success because they know what it’s like to be there.
I recently attended a seminar where the speaker announced, “Now, people say that when you share your story, you should open up about your weaknesses. I don’t believe this. I believe that you should share your unique abilities with the audience.” He went on to share all of the things that make him great. In my opinion, he lost the audience. Personally speaking, he lost me. I left the event half way through the first day and I did not return. The reason was because I did not identify with the speaker. He came from a place that did not allow me to truly see him. By doing this, he taught me a lot about the significance of positioning our stories. Luckily, there was a gift in the experience.
In fiction, a story starts by giving us a sense of what the “old world” looked like before the trigger incident turned the central character’s world upside down. When we know where a character was, we have a better understanding of what has to be done to bring their life back into alignment. This makes us feel empathy for their plight. It also makes us as an audience root for their success. By having a picture of what life was like before, we have a fuller view of the transformation that needs to happen on the path to bringing life back into alignment. This set up is crucial to the success of a well-told story.
In the 2011 film Warrior, we learn the story of two estranged brothers torn apart earlier in their lives. The brother who stayed with his mother was with her until her death. The brother who stayed with the father felt robbed of this moment. We clearly understand the wound that is driving each man. We feel empathy for both sides. While competing in a mixed martial arts tournament where the stakes are incredibly high, the underdog brother must confront the moment that tore him apart from his brother and do what needs to be done to close the rift. This story works in an incredible way because of how the writers – Gavin O’Connor and Anthony Tambakis – take the time to create empathy for both characters so that we understand the stakes that are driving them. This way, we root for their success.
I use this movie to illustrate the significance of creating empathy for central character(s) at the start of a story. When you do this in fiction as well as in life, you create a connection with your audience. One last comment about the writer who asked me the question about leaving out this ingredient from his story: when he learned to share two specific life moments that fuel his pursuit to succeed, his world opened up in ways that he never imagined.
When you are sharing your story, give your audience a sense of what your life looked like before your call to action and what you did as a result of it. When you skip this step, you take away the opportunity for them to connect with you and know you. By giving your audience a sense that you know what it means to fall and to get back up, you allow them a chance to know who you are and what drives you. By doing this, you allow them to identify with what you went through. When you do this, both in fiction and in life, your audience (i.e., those around you) will root for your success.