If you’ve been writing – and getting your work out there – for any length of time, chances are you’ve developed a pitch or two. After all, these are some of the most important tools in the writer’s arsenal. Knowing how to talk about your work is integral to communicating your ideas effectively. Whether you’re going into a general meeting or pitching at a pitch event, I’ve come to expect from writers to know how to pitch their work. And so long as they do that, the meeting will go well. That is, until the executive on the other side of the desk turns to the writer and says, “So? Tell me more about yourself.”
Allow me a generalization here (and those who don’t fit with the generalization, bear with me): Most writers who have yet to go from “emerging” to “professional” are not prepared to talk about themselves. After all, this is why most writers – smart writers – write stories about other people, other places, which hold a great deal more interest. When asked to speak about themselves without preparation, most writers will do one of two things: Start in the beginning, and share way too many details of their life story, or otherwise deliver an unprepared personal story that will paint themselves as entirely unremarkable and wholly uninteresting. How do I know this? I’ve sat across from hundreds of writers and asked them to tell me about themselves.
A few weeks ago, I got together with a manager friend in West Los Angeles. This manager and I have known each other for awhile now, and based on her sensibility, client list, and the company she works for, I hold her in the highest esteem. As we drank our tea, we dove into an in-depth discussion about the importance of prepping our writers for their general and pitch meetings, and the integral role that the personal narrative – otherwise known as the personal story or personal pitch – plays in the success or failure of such encounters.
Let me share with you some of what we touched on:
In today’s environment, where most spec screenplays don’t sell the first time out of the gate, and original pilots take years of development before they are picked up by a network or cabler, most writers start taking General Meetings early on in order to begin discussions about potential writing assignments and television staffing positions. And while an original TV pilot or feature spec might have put you in that room in the first place, it’s often the personal narrative that will get you the writing assignment or place you on that staff. There is no question that the quality of the work at hand is critical to your success. But oftentimes, it’s the personal stories, the unique point of view and the specific experiences that you bring to the table that will ultimately swing the decision your way.
For an example, look no further than my friend and past interview subject, Marissa Jo Cerar. Marissa had been writing for years; she had an agent and a manager, an entire team of people who believed in her and advocated on her behalf. In 2012, one of her screenplays made it onto The Black List. The first job she got, however, was a staff position on The Fosters. Her personal story, which included specific family history and was widely shared in her general meetings, had some similarities to the stories and characters the show was exploring. When it came time to staff the show, Marissa was an obvious fit. And yet another example: This year, one of my writers is fortunate enough to be a finalist in the Humanitas fellowship. While the writing sample got her in the door, the executives in charge then asked her to develop new show concepts based on what – in Hauge speak – would be her character “wound” – a seminal personal event that had shaped who she is today. From this, the writer developed a number of pitches, one of which she will be presenting to showrunners in a number of weeks. The writing got her in the door, but her personal narrative took her all the way through to final interviews. The rest, at least for this particular writer, remains to be seen.
So what is a personal narrative?
The personal narrative tells the listener your story, the relevant plot points of your life which made you the person and the writer that you are today. This can include influences, life events and milestones which all culminate and compute into your cohesive story. While many writers are confounded by this, the truth of the matter is that your personal narrative doesn’t have to be a BIG story; it has to be an honest and compelling one, the sort that an executive will remember long after you leave a meeting. After all, when considering a writer for a writing assignment or a staffing position, the conversation usually veers to “remember the writer who…” as opposed to “remember the script about… ”
Roughly a month ago, I sat down with one of my writers who promised me that, despite being a talented comedy writer, she doesn’t have any meaningful personal narratives to speak of. As far as she was concerned, her life up until the moment she packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles, was dull, unremarkable, and boring. This is the position many writers take when beginning to consider their personal story. However, when we dug into her life of no major incident, we quickly discovered that the majority of her childhood was spent under a cloud of bad luck, which in turn taught her to laugh at EVERYTHING in her own, unique voice. In order to protect my client’s privacy and allow her to get the best bang for her personal narrative buck when she does go into those all-important meetings, I won’t go into too much detail here, but let me tell you that while her stories weren’t BIG, they were definitely memorable, and ones that, when carefully chosen and thoughtfully arranged into an effective personal narrative, would be sure to resonate with whoever she told them to.
In order to identify and effectively develop your own personal narrative, start with a list. Choose 10-15 “story points” from your life, ones that molded either the person or the writer that you are today. These can include an early childhood experience, a unique family structure, your academic experience, a country you lived in or a formative life-changing experience. Be sure not to go on too long or include every last detail; much like a project pitch needs to be efficient, so does your personal narrative: short, concise and effective. Then, share this narrative with friends and colleagues, identifying what struck a chord with the listener and may require more development, and which story points seemed irrelevant.
Just remember, in today’s industry, a writer’s way into a paying writing gig is often NOT through a first sale. Therefore, you have to make sure your arsenal of tools to land that writing gig or staff position are in place. No question, a strong body of work containing compelling writing samples is the first and critical step. But once you have those, along with your material pitch and your one sheet or TV concept sheet in place, a strong, focused personal narrative can help you seal the deal and push you effectively towards screenwriting success.
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