My first job in a writers’ room was as an intern for the creator of a basic cable show back in 2013. I was still in college, and eager to spend half my days learning first-hand about breaking a story, developing characters, and dealing with networks. The creator of the show became somewhat of a mentor figure, quickly promoting me and taking me under his wing as the Luke to his Yoda.
Though I was happy to accept the mentorship, a lot of the things he told me I’d already learned while at USC. It’s the classic stuff that, although clichéd, is worth repeating: Be as personable as you can (nobody wants to be stuck in a room with a jackass for twelve consecutive hours), but remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about the writing. The only way you can prove yourself is on the page.
But one thing this mentor told me stuck with me above all else because, in the last few years, it’s something I’ve been dealing with quite regularly. What he taught me was the importance of selling “my story”.
Now by “story” I don’t mean your script or your teleplay. I mean the story of you. As an aspiring writer (and filmmaker, actor or artist), it’s important to not just sell your work, but to sell yourself. Who you are, what you can bring to a project, and why people should hire you. And a great way to do that is to sell your story. “You’ll love Paul – he writes families really well since he has 12 brothers and sisters” – that’s the kind of thing agents love to say.
So, with my limited experience, I can say that one question you’ll inevitably get as you build your career (during a job interview, networking event, or above all, as you seek representation) is: “What’s your story?”
Agents and managers not only love to ask this, they also expect a short and succinct answer that gives every detail of your personality in one witty logline.
For most of us, that seems impossible. How are you supposed to condense a lifetime of experiences into a one-liner?
My ex-showrunner boss told me the story of one of his friends, a venerated and prolific writer who made his career writing coming-of-age and young-adult scripts.
As the story goes, this writer (let’s call him George) decided to drive to Los Angeles from his native New York to begin his career as a filmmaker. Three-quarters of the way there, his beat-up car broke down on the freeway. Since this was before the days of cell phones, he decided to walk down the nearest road to ask for help. Lo and behold, the first establishment he found was a high school, which was right in the middle of celebrating their senior prom. Curious, he walked in, and began observing the festivities. After talking to a few students, George got an intimate insight into the lives of American teenagers. So, after fixing his car, he decided to stop at one high school in each state on his way to California – and used that experience to infuse his scripts with an honest, original, and realistic understanding of the teen mind.
Of course, that story was utter bullshit. George never stopped at all those high schools. He didn’t stumble into a prom. He never even road-tripped to LA. It was something he made up to sell his writing. And boy, did it work.
Now I’m not suggesting you create an elaborate lie to sell your scripts. But if you really want to be remembered, it’s important to make a strong, quick impression. To have a story that will stick in someone’s mind.
Really, it’s all about what makes you the unique, inimitable, original person that you are. What makes you good at writing what you write? What makes your voice so special?
It’s hard to come up with a pithy anecdote that describes who you are, but fear not, dear reader, for I’ve compiled a list of questions that can help you determine the best way to uncover ‘your story’:
1 – What is your strangest quality?
Do you have a tick or mannerism you always do when you’re alone? Do you have a secret passion or party trick?
2 – What’s the one thing you could write in your sleep?
Is it bitchy dialogue? Teen slang? Pop-culture-referencing repartee? Emotional speeches? You’re probably good at a lot of things but what are you SO AMAZING at that you’d challenge anyone who’d dare to question it?
And once you have that – what made you that good? How did you learn this skill?
3 – What was the first thing you ever wrote and why did you write it?
The way people start writing usually makes for a good story.
4 – If you were a character in a script, what 2-line breakdown would the casting director write to hire the actor who plays you?
GETRUDE – Pub Trivia addict. Hates Cats. Sheltered upbringing brought her to a speedy marriage at the age of nineteen. Now she’s a twenty-two-year-old divorcée.
5 – What’s the first thing you would change about yourself?
And if someone were to change absolutely everything about you but let you keep ONE attribute – which one would you keep and why?
This is just a starting point, of course, but a good way to brainstorm a wonderful story that will make you memorable and sell-able. And if all that fails, consider planning your next High School-themed road trip.