Mark Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals, an online course on Lynda.com.
He has written and directed two features, and is the first filmmaker to
ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Mark can be reached at his
production company’s site, http://www.cassavafilms.com.
I’ve read a lot of spec screenplays over the years. Often,
after I’ve finished reading, I’ll ask the writer, “Did this story actually
happen to you?” Their eyes will light up, impressed by my apparent powers of
perception, and they will excitedly say, “Why, yes, it did!” Then I tell them that it’s usually not a good thing to hear
Here’s why: A lot of writers, whether they’re first-timers
or seasoned veterans, fall into the same traps when dramatizing their own
personal experiences. In many cases, they will wind up sacrificing a good
dramatic narrative in honor of What Really Happened, or they will treat their
protagonists – i.e. their alter egos – far too reverently.
As a good chunk of my own first feature “Foreign Correspondents,” was semi-autobiographical, I’ve been there. Allow me to share some tips:
1. The Cardinal Rule:
Never Write a Screenplay Right After You’ve Been Dumped.
conclude that this is a problem of epidemic proportions.
We all get emotional when a relationship goes south. During
these times, it’s easy to believe that our gut-wrenching arguments and/or
imaginary conversations with our exes will make for some powerful dialogue.
while heartbreak in the form of a 4-minute love song can have universal appeal,
when it’s stretched out into a 120-minute film it can come across as
self-indulgent, to say the least.
You might say, “But I can name lots of great break-up
movies! Annie Hall, (500) Days
of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind…” But those films surrounded their sad sack protagonists with cutting
humor, unusual structures, and plenty of cinematic fun-and-games.
The break-up scripts I’m warning you about are all angst and no fun. All navel-gazing and no momentum. All passion and no story. If you’ve had your heart stepped on and you want to work out your feelings, then go ahead, write your break-up script, then stick it in a drawer. A year later, if you still think your story is solid – and not because you’re still hung up on your ex – then you can get serious about showing it to people. Otherwise, move on.
2. Find Ways to Distance Yourself from Your Protagonist.
I realize this sounds counter-intuitive. After all, as screenwriters, aren’t we supposed to identify with our characters? Well, sure. But when your protagonist is clearly a thinly-disguised version of you, you should give them a better disguise, if you catch my drift.
Make that person more of a product of your imagination. When you have to work harder to get to know them, you will make them a more unique individual, and you’ll have a stronger story as a result.
Try one, or more, of these shortcuts:
make them a writer or a filmmaker. I know,
tell that to Fellini! But see what happens when you give your protagonist
career aspirations and day-to-day trials that are alien to your own. You might
have to do some homework, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
them a sex change. Whenever I’ve got a
story idea, and I realize that one of my characters is a little too obviously
me, I try to imagine what the story would be like if that character were,
instead, female. Changing your “he” to a “she,” or vice-versa, sounds like a
simple solution, but channeling your experiences through an opposite-sex
character can be quite eye-opening. If nothing else, it’ll keep you on your
toes as a writer.
them be the most interesting character in the story. In a semi-autobiographical script, your protagonist may serve as your
de facto narrator – whether they actually narrate anything or not. You might
thus be inclined to keep them passive, there only to observe the colorful
characters and react to situations. But instead of making your protagonist the eye
of the hurricane, why not let them be the hurricane?
be afraid to make them a little unlikable.
As self-deprecating as screenwriters can be, I’ve found that their cinematic
stand-ins are often too flawless – or, at the very least, too blameless. This
also feeds into that “passive narrator” problem.
When I wrote Foreign
Correspondents, I took a character who went through some of the
real-life experiences that I went through, and I made him do some rather rotten
things that I myself never actually did. It did a lot of good for the story,
and it turned the character into someone I could deal with more objectively.
your alter ego shouldn’t even be your protagonist. If your Uncle Teddy and Aunt Margie lived incredible lives, consider
what a movie about them might be like if the story didn’t have to filter all
their adventures through the eyes of their little niece or nephew (a.k.a. you).
Just because you were there in real life doesn’t mean you have to be there in
3. Never Let the
Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story.
For many writers, this is a tricky one. These days, every
time a film comes out that’s based on actual events, it’s not long before
someone criticizes said film for playing fast and loose with the facts. So when
it’s time to write your own screenplay, you might decide, “This one’s going to
be 100% accurate!”
That said, we all know that truth can be stranger than
fiction. It can also be more confusing, and certainly less structured. If you
care that much about adhering to the facts, then maybe
your film should be a documentary. But if you’re already making concessions to
drama – for instance, changing the names of the characters from their real-life
counterparts – then you should allow yourself the freedom to veer from the
naked truth, as long as it helps your story.
Like a lot of the tips in this article, this one may sound
like a no-brainer. Yet I can’t tell you the number of times a writer has said
to me, after I critiqued an implausible scene in their script, “But that’s what
really happened!” There are tricks for making such scenes appear less
contrived: a little foreshadowing, a skeptical character who stands in for the
audience, or something hopefully more elegant. But if the truth just doesn’t
serve your story well, the universe will forgive you if you bend it a little.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. He was the second of eight children. His mother had been in service to Lord Crew, and his father worked as a clerk for the Naval Pay office. John Dickens was imprisoned for debt when Charles was young. Charles Dickens went to work at a blacking warehouse, managed by a relative of his mother, when he was twelve, and his brush with hard times and poverty affected him deeply. He later recounted these experiences in the semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield. Similarly, the concern for social justice and reform that surfaced later in his writings grew out of the harsh conditions he experienced in the warehouse.
As a young boy, Charles Dickens was exposed to many artistic and literary works that allowed his imagination to grow and develop considerably. He was greatly influenced by the stories his nursemaid used to tell him and by his many visits to the theater. Additionally, Dickens loved to read. Among his favorite works were Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and Arabian Nights, all of which were picaresque novels composed of a series of loosely linked adventures. This format no doubt played a part in Dickens' idea to serialize his future works.
Dickens was able to leave the blacking factory after his father's release from prison, and he continued his education at the Wellington House Academy. Although he had little formal schooling, Dickens was able to teach himself shorthand and launch a career as a journalist. At the age of sixteen, Dickens got himself a job as a court reporter, and shortly thereafter he joined the staff of A Mirror of Parliament, a newspaper that reported on the decisions of Parliament. During this time, Charles continued to read voraciously at the British Library, and he experimented with acting and stage-managing amateur theatricals. His experience acting would affect his work throughout his life--he was known to act out characters he was writing in the mirror and then describe himself as the character in prose in his novels.
Quickly becoming disillusioned with politics, Dickens developed an interest in social reform and began contributing to the True Sun, a radical newspaper. Although his main avenue of work would consist in writing novels, Dickens continued his journalistic work until the end of his life, editing The Daily News, Household Words, and All the Year Round. His connections to various magazines and newspapers as a political journalist gave him the opportunity to begin publishing his own fiction at the beginning of his career. He would go on to write fifteen novels. (A final one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished upon his death.)
While he published several sketches in magazines, it was not until he serialized The Pickwick Papers over 1836-37 that he experienced true success. A publishing phenomenon, The Pickwick Papers was published in monthly installments and sold over forty thousand copies of each issue. Dickens was the first person to make the serialization of novels profitable and was able to expand his audience to include those who could not normally afford such literary works.
Within a few years, Dickens was regarded as one of the most successful authors of his time, with approximately one out of every ten people in Victorian England avidly reading and following his writings. In 1836 Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a co-worker at his newspaper. The couple had ten children before their separation in 1858. Catherine's younger sister Mary lived with the couple, and Dickens was very attached to her. He was deeply traumatized by her death at the age of seventeen, and she is believed to have provided inspiration for a number of his idealized, angelic heroines such as Little Nell and Florence Dombey.
Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby followed in monthly installments, and both reflected Dickens' understanding of the lower classes as well as his comic genius. In 1843, Dickens published one of his most famous works, A Christmas Carol. His disenchantment with the world's economic drives is clear in this work: he blames much of society's ills on people's obsession with earning money and acquiring status based on money.
His travels abroad in the 1840s, first to America and then through Europe, marked the beginning of a new stage in Dickens' life. His writings became longer and more serious. In David Copperfield (1849-50), readers find the same flawed world that Dickens discovered as a young boy. Dickens published some of his best-known novels, including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, in his own weekly periodicals.
The inspiration to write a novel set during the French Revolution came from Dickens' faithful annual habit of reading Thomas Carlyle's book The French Revolution, first published in 1839. When Dickens acted in Wilkie Collins' play The Frozen Deep in 1857, he was inspired by his own role as a self-sacrificing lover. He eventually decided to place his own sacrificing lover in the revolutionary period, a period of great social upheaval. A year later, Dickens went through his own form of social change as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities: he separated from his wife, and he revitalized his career by making plans for a new weekly literary journal called All the Year Round. In 1859, A Tale of Two Cities premiered as a series in this journal. Its popularity was based not only on the fame of its author, but also on its short length and radical (for Dickens' time) subject matter.
Dickens became involved in theatrical collaborations with his friend, the novelist Wilkie Collins. In 1857, while interviewing actresses for a play the two had written together, Dickens met Ellen Ternan. Despite already being married, and the age difference between the two (Dickens was 45 and Ternan 18), the two fell in love. This meeting precipitated the end for Dickens of what was already an unhappy marriage. Dickens separated from his wife Catherine in 1858. While his relationship with Ellen was kept very discreet, especially considering Dickens's celebrity, the two travelled together regularly, and Dickens supported her financially until the time of his death.
Dickens' health began to deteriorate in the 1860s. In 1858, in response to his increasing fame, he had begun public readings of his works. These exacted a great physical toll on him. An immensely profitable but physically shattering series of readings in America in 1867-68 sped his decline, and he collapsed during a "farewell" series in England.
On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died. He was buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Though he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, he had already written fifteen substantial novels and countless shorter pieces. His legacy is clear. In a whimsical and unique fashion, Dickens pointed out society's flaws in terms of its blinding greed for money and its neglect of the lower classes of society. Through his books, we come to understand the virtues of a loving heart and the pleasures of home in a flawed, cruelly indifferent world. Among English writers, in terms of his fame and of the public's recognition of his characters and stories, many consider him second only to William Shakespeare.