Updated: Feb 16, 2019
For every single writer (screenwriter or a playwright) the first and most important question is always, “what am I going to write about?” Young filmmakers ask me this question again and again: “what is the perfect story for me in this moment of my life?” The answer is not a straight-forward one.
The choice should be wise, elegant, obvious, relevant and important for you and for the audience, and it should be yours and yours alone. John Truby says in his book, The Anatomy of Story: “Write the story that is going to change your life, if producers and the audience don’t recognize its potential, at least you did something important for yourself.” That is really the best and most difficult piece of advice anyone can give you. First of all, because there is only one life you can really change – your own—to think anything else is an illusion. Also, keep in mind that you are going to spend every single day of the next year or two with this story, so… what is potentially going to change your life?
And what does ‘change’ even mean anyway?
It usually means what makes you better, more open, more loving, more aware of yourself, more humble, more in touch with your heart, more at peace, what makes you feel in alignment with yourself during and at the end of the journey – and also what makes you a better writer and storyteller? If money comes it’s absolutely more than welcome, but in my opinion, and you may well disagree with me, it should come as a result of you feeling good. I say this because more and more I hear, “well, it’s a job, it brings me money and audiences like it.” Well, I think audiences will like it even better if you like it and if you like it, it might as well be good. Your first job should be to feel good.
Of course, the market has its own rules and preferences, and maybe there are some tricks that producers usually know and teach, but throughout history we see again and again that the best stories were told because they were written by people who felt they had to tell them. If you don’t believe me, watch Sunset Boulevard (1950) if you haven’t already, and if you have, watch it again. An artist is someone who is essentially either free to choose or subversive – if he is not, he "dies in the swimming pool".
So, what will make you feel god and alive, I mean good? :)
I suggest that you write about what you know but what still intrigues you, excites you and surprises you.
Write about what you have recognized as the law in this world that surrounds you, on what you can base your premise.
What feels true in your heart? This is important in a world where you can easily be deceived by fear.
When you see a whole experience before your eyes or in your imagination, every time you think about the detail of the story, that is usually a good sign that the story is ready and offering itself to you.
Write about the emotions you want to explore.
Write about what you are obsessed with, about what always comes back as an idea even when you want to forget about it.
Write about what is relevant to you today, personally and socially; about what you have never written about before but somehow know you can grasp.
Write about what you feel invited to write; what you feel bad about and what are you ashamed of.
If your heart shines when you present the idea to yourself or to someone else, and if you feel afraid at the same time, this is what you need to write about. Write about paradoxes, about opposite forces, about opposite feelings. Use conflicted emotions or themes.
Always choose archetypes over stereotypes.
Think of archetypes in this way: we are all children, we have all experienced either being a mother or a parent or being parented, we all love, we are all lovers one way or another. We all fear death or the unknown, we all believe, or have difficulties believing… we all strive for a better life, a part of each of us can envy, can lie, and even can kill. Only this kaleidoscope of human behaviour that is known to every single one of us can bring us some truth about human nature.
So write about human nature and give us your unique angle on it. What is your new and fresh opinion of the ancient, and what is still good and what is evil?
Think of stereotypes this way: not all white people are rich, not all women are vulnerable, not all men are warriors, not all poor people are losers... even not all politicians are liars. On the contrary, it would be more than interesting to see a story about an honest politician struggling to find his way.
When writing for film, the choices of the theme of the idea and the characters are particularly complex because screenplays serve as a template for multi-dimensional art. Within this “template” all of the aspects of the film must already be outlined, structured and synchronized.
Dramaturgy has long recognized that there is no rule to tell you whether it's better to start with an idea, a situation, or a character. The idea gives birth to a character, characters give birth to ideas and situations and structures, structures give birth to characters. A good piece of advice: it is always better to start from the concrete and move on to the abstract, not the other way around. So, it is good to find and identify actions and situations that in certain structures can carry the quality of the abstract idea.
Simply put, film is always an action that carries an emotion in itself, and thus an idea. The ideas themselves do not cause emotions.
If you are a beginner, autobiographical material can be both an advantage and a trap. Even within a story that is interesting, not everything that has happened to us is interesting enough for the story. A writer or a filmmaker needs to be aware of this. Real life and art will both always inspire us, but film is much more than life; it is the essence of what reality can offer.
So, once you feel the story is right for you in that particular moment in your life, once you feel drawn to it, honor it, treat it as a gift, really, and let it shine through you, commit to it, even if you might be the only person committed at the moment. And if this story does not change your life, it will surely lead you to the one that is going to. Believe in yourself and in your talent.
The only real trick is: what’s important to you and your heart is also important to a wider audience. Open hearts usually recognize each other.
What are your criteria when choosing the story you are going to write?