Film Courage: You say writers don’t spend enough time making sure that the idea that they’re putting out there is viable. Wouldn’t you think that most writers are choosing an idea that’s very personal to them in some sense? Even if the story is not really about them, it’s the core idea that affects them. Why wouldn’t it translate if it’s so personal and deep and rich to that writer? Wouldn’t putting something so deep and personal that the writer is choosing to focus on be enough to make the script viable?
Erik Bork, Screenwriter/Author: Well that’s a great question. First let me say when I talk about writers, I’m talking about myself too because I’m a writer and that’s still the main thing I do and I make these things that they might call mistakes. So it’s not me on high say Oh, those writers. What idiots they are. It’s me saying We all naturally do this stuff. I just want to make that clear to your audience.
But that’s a great question and I’ve made (I wouldn’t call it a mistake) but I’ve done this myself many times which is write something that is personal to me that I think I felt something deeply about, so audiences will too. And one hopes they can pull that off and there are some pitfalls in that approach that often happen. One of them being we so internalize what we went though, what we were thinking and feeling and why it mattered so much in our life to put it actually on the page in a way that audiences looking at a character based on us, having experiences based on ours, for the audience to get those things that are internal for us is harder than it looks. And often just because we felt it deeply doesn’t mean we can write a character feeling that same thing deeply and the audience will get it. Sometimes they will, sometimes those are the best movies, but a lot of times they won’t. And a lot of times that thing we went though in our personal life that mattered so much to us doesn’t necessarily have the ingredients of entertaining to watch story for an audience (like a movie or television audience) that builds and complicates and gets worse in a really fun to watch way.
“I’ve done this myself many times which is write something that is personal to me that I felt something deeply about, so audiences will too. One hopes they can pull that off and there are some pitfalls in that approach…”
Often when we’re writing real life (and this is any kind of true story. I’ve worked a lot on true stories) and people come to me a lot with true stories because I worked on BAND OF BROTHERS, it’s kind of where I got my start professionally. What I really learned is that true stories sometimes are really harder than fiction because real life doesn’t have story structure typically. Real life doesn’t have the things that we writers have learned that audiences need to be really emotionally invested and entertainment and to stay emotionally invested and entertained over the course of an hour, half-hour or two-hours. It just doesn’t and writers have to bring a lot of manipulation to a true story to make it comprehensible to an audience, to make it that kind of emotional journey with that classic narrative build to it and entertainment value to it. It just doesn’t come naturally, we have to impose it. So a lot of the things in our own life we don’t have perspective on them, we can’t see them from that third-party person who had a very different life from us. And how do we portray it on the screen to where they will be really entertained and invested in this character like us? And often we aren’t able to write that character with enough perspective and enough clarity so that people will get what they’re going through because to us it’s already so obvious, it’s like a given, it’s inside of our head, and getting it outside of our head and getting it outside of our head and onto the page in a way that others will really get it, I think it harder than it looks.
So when you’re identifying an idea for a story, coming from a place that is passionate to you or that you’ve experienced is a good start but it’s usually is not enough. You usually have to sort of test it yourself by putting yourself in the shoes of a third party anonymous viewer with a different life story of yours, how do I make this universal? Because our own pain and our own drama and our own situations don’t necessarily have deep and compelling universally relatable elements to them that anyone or millions of people would be able to instability grasp and be emotionally invested. I use that term a lot emotionally invested because to me that’s the key thing we’re always going for. As an audience that’s the key thing we want, we want to care. And a lot of this focus on the idea is about finding an idea that people (strangers, millions of strangers) will have a chance of really caring about this idea, caring about this character or these characters in this situation. What makes them care? And so these seven elements a lot of it is about me trying to put into words here are the qualities I think are inherent in story that can make an audience care. And when it’s coming from our own life experience, a lot of times some of those elements can be missing and we may not realize it.
About Erik Bork:
Erik Bork is a screenwriter best known for his work on the HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, for which he wrote multiple episodes, and won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards as part of the producing team. Erik has also sold series pitches (and written pilots) at NBC and FOX, worked on the writing staff for two primetime dramas, and written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension, National University and The Writers Store, and offers one-on-one consulting to writers.
BUY THE BOOK – THE IDEA: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story
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