Stories Without Borders: Why Screenwriters Matter

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Co-existThe stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, about our worlds, are very powerful. We need them. When we believe our stories, we can cope with what we think is truth. And we desperately need some truth to hang onto these days.

And that’s where you come in, dear screenwriters. You are storytellers in what is arguably the most powerful medium of the modern era. Your influence, should your film get made, will reach hundreds of millions of people all over the world, on every continent.

If you doubt the importance of stories in our lives, watch this Ted Talk by Tyler Cowen. I think this is the best Ted talk I have ever seen, but then, stories are my life.

I happen to live in what is probably the most storied part of the world – Israel. And while you may think that a land dispute is what keeps us in conflict here, you are only half correct. In the big picture, it’s a battle of narratives. Of whose story is the correct one.

As writers, we know ambiguity is, in many ways, the beauty of our stories. Because we know there is no one truth. As screenwriters, we get to explore many points of view and truths through each character.

But there’s more to think about than that. Just what IS your message, your truth, contained in your script? The other word for this is theme. What is your theme?

If you have read my book, Just Effing Entertain Me, you know that theme is best and most interesting when posed as a question – so rather than saying my theme is “violence will never bring peace” maybe your theme is “CAN violence bring peace?” Do you see the difference? In one case, you’re saying, “Okay my theme is a statement. Violence cannot bring peace.” You will quite possibly, just state your theme over and over again on every page through every character. Even as your antagonist, who embodies the WRONG answer to your theme antagonizes the main character – we know he’ll be defeated. But if your theme is a question – wait – could violence create peace? That means you have to actively entertain the opposite belief – that it could. And now you’re cooking with gas because that is interesting. Goodbye flat story.

Remember the huge impact that movies have on people all over the world. This doesn’t mean your theme always has to be “nice” or “acceptable” but it does mean you are contributing to the human narrative. For a little perspective, here is one of my favorite movie openings ever, from Contact.

One of my favorite films – full of ambiguity by the way – about the importance of storytellers and entertainers is the great Preston Sturges film, Sullivan’s Travels, with the luminous Veronica Lake and of course, Joel McCrea.

We need you. All over the world, we need you right now. To tell stories that help us cope with the hopeless ambiguity of life and that help us both feel and bear our sometimes difficult lives.

Do us a favor and get your movies made. Do you know how you can do that? You can write your buns off and you can do it well.

Writing scripts isn’t about winning competitions or making money. It’s about being part of the human narrative. Now that’s a payoff that is hard to quantify, isn’t it?

just_effin_entertain_meGet more story advice in Julie Gray’s book
Just Effin Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas

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