You have a true personal story. Are you ready to write it?
From Insecure to Minari, contemporary creators have found critical success and personal catharsis in their semi-autobiographical offerings. It’s true that most of us have experienced significant events that, if interpreted with care, might find a sympathetic audience. After all, the idea of character-driven content is all about taking advantage of human connectivity. In the Entertainment world, this creative generation’s bread-and-butter is all about unique perspectives. And for every artist’s signature lens, there is usually a moment or era in their life which defines—or redefines it.
But what determines the viability of adapting these real-life scenes for the screen may have much less to do with any stringent rules around the subject matter and depend more upon the execution and timing of the story. Yes—It can be argued that there’s a time and a place for just about any true story, including yours. However, there are a few checklist items to consider before diving into that first draft and they all help find the optimal WHEN of it all.
Below are the top questions to ask yourself to ascertain whether the world is ready for that little piece of you that you’ve been holding onto. And just as importantly, whether you’re ready, too.
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How Comfortable Are You Telling Your Story?
Some of the most effective semi-autobiographical fare elicits visceral reactions. Michaela Coel is in my opinion the undisputed queen of this, having mastered the secondhand-cringe end of the spectrum with her TV debut Chewing Gum as well as the heart-wrenching side with her acclaimed follow-up I May Destroy You. Works like these only tug at the nerve endings of the viewer when the writer has successfully channeled their own intense feelings around the subject matter. This begs the question, “Are you ready to do that?”
Writing about personal events can be therapeutic in and of itself. It can also be triggering—particularly if the writer is expected to converse about the topic at length as screenwriters must, especially when there’s a distinct personal connection to the material. Sensitivity is not the forte of most Hollywood professionals. The writer may find themselves on the end of insensitive feedback from representatives, executives, etc. Some of these parties will be much more interested in making the piece marketable than keeping it true to the essence of the writer’s actual experience. You should be prepared to field impersonal approaches to what could be your most formative affairs.
A way to gauge this is to think about how much experience you have in telling the story in other ways. Have you shared it with a therapist? In class? Via blog posts? How comfortable was that for you? And how well were you able to cope with outside reactions to your internal truth? Being able to converse freely about the story is a necessary stepping stone to putting it on the market.
Have You Considered the Format and its Place in the Current Market?
This point falls under the issue of timing for a reason. We are in the Golden Age of semi-autobiographical content—particularly, in TV. Writers across all levels of notoriety are popping up with stories based on their real lives. That means that the marketplace is chockfull of content about day-to-day life and disruptions thereof. Be honest about how exceptional the circumstances of your story truly are. For example: if you happen to be recounting a true alien abduction tale (we all saw that UFO video from the Pentagon, right?) you may have to worry less about standing out than if you’re writing about your friend group’s revolving door of “situationships.”
On a personal note, I feel comfortable pitching my latest semi-autobiographical half-hour pilot because it revolves around spiritual mediumship—a rare topic among creators telling their own stories. That’s not to say the execution of your slice-of-life perspective won’t have buyers salivating. But if you are pitching a “grounded” half-hour comedy/dramedy about your everyday circumstances, there’s quite a long list of competing projects to contend with.
Think about alternative formats that are underutilized in self-told true stories. These days, the feature format is usually the most prosperous for previously produced writer-directors. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, especially in the independent space.
The format question might also present an opportunity to play the I.P. game if you don’t mind a multi-step process. If your story can translate to a direct-to-audience medium such as an Op-Ed, a webcomic, podcast episode, or series then you may be ahead of the curve. Having told my own story on a friend’s YouTube show has made the process of pitching it for the screen much more intuitive because it proves both audience belief and interest.
Have You Found the Deeper Meaning in Your Experience?
This is a consideration that may take years to call in a verdict. If your story is as significant to your life path as you believe, it will only prove more so with time. Writers tend to want to get down to brass tacks as soon as a killer concept manifests itself. Depending on how juicy the tale is, they may only be encouraged by their peers to get a-typin’ as soon as humanly possible. But the best true stories are always worth taking a beat to digest.
Whether it’s an event that calls for forgiveness, healing, or simply hindsight perspective from the writer—timing can change the entire tone of a true story project. What feels like a horror story at the time it occurs can end up hysterically comedic in its final iteration if the writer can find the humor in it. It’s a paradigm shift that only Time can offer.
Distance between the writer and their true events provides another very important opportunity: a chance to reflect upon who else may benefit from this story. In instances where a certain amount of bravery is required of the storyteller, the latitude to let this aspect settle means everything.
Bear in mind that you don’t have to be some renowned figure for scenes from your life to resonate with a wider audience. In fact, there are plenty of examples of individuals who rose from obscurity to prominence only because fate granted them a true story that touched the lives of others. If after reviewing this post you happen to find you’re not yet ready to tell your own true story, please don’t feel discouraged. Simply meditate on the likelihood that you may be living out its epilogue.