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Finding Gold in Your Life Story

Jen Grisanti

How to Use This Book

How This Book is Organized
Who This Book is For
Exploring Story by Understanding the Value of the Log Line
How to Apply This Book to Your Creative Process

1. What Is a Log Line? How Do You Learn to Identify Log Lines in
Your Own Life?
2. Create Universal Moments in Your Story Lines

3. Writing Your Log Lines and How They Apply to Your Story Lines
4. Identifying Your Universal Life Moments
5. Write a Log Line for Your Script

6. What Is a Dilemma? What Are Your Dilemmas? What Are Your
7. What Is Your Central Character’s Dilemma Stemming From Or
Leading To Their Goal?
8. How Does Your Backstory Influence Your Goals and Dilemmas?
9. H
 ow Does Your Central Character’s Backstory Influence His/Her
Goals and Dilemmas?
10. H
 ow Did Your Life Dilemmas Unfold? What Was the Sequence
of Events? Did They Influence Your Goals?
11. How to Structure Your Central Character’s Dilemmas and Goals
into a Compelling Story.
12. What Obstacles Have You Faced in Your Own Life in Pursuit of
Your Goals?
13. What Obstacles Does Your Central Character Face in Pursuit of
His/Her Goal?
14. What Is the Worst That Could Happen in Your Own Life If You
Don’t Solve Your Dilemmas or Achieve Your Goals?
15. What Is Emotionally at Stake If Your Central Character Does Not
Solve His/Her Dilemmas and Achieve His/Her Goal?
16. What Are Recurring Symbols/Themes in Your Own Life?
17. What Is the Theme of Your Story? How Do You Use Symbolism?
18. What Drives You to Succeed?
19. What Drives Your Central Character to Succeed?

20. Did You Achieve Your Life Goal? If So, What Does It Feel Like? If
Not, What Does This Feel Like?
21. D
 oes Your Central Character Achieve His/Her Goal? If So, What
Does It Feel Like? If Not, How Does It Change Your Character?
22. What Is a Recurring Message in Your Own Life?

23. What Is the Message in Your Story?



Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story embodies the idea of learn-
ing to delve inside your personal well of experience to find story. In
your well, you will find your gold. Your gold is your truth. It comes
from being able to add a voice to all your personal life experiences.
This well is where we carry everything that happens in our life. It is
filled with happiness and joy, inspiration and accomplishment, love
and hope, anger and disappointment, sadness and sorrow, heartbreak
and despair. The list goes on. We store it all inside. We all have a story
that is worth exploring and worth recording. If you are writing tele-
vision, features, or novels, this book is designed to show you how to
find, utilize, and fictionalize your truth into your writing. If you’re
someone who is just interested in understanding your own story more,
this book will show you how to find your gold, and my hope is that it
will also inspire and encourage you to write.
I believe that we are all writers. We are all creating story in our life
everyday. Sure, there are some of us who have the courage to make a
career out of this expression, but the potential is there for every single
one of us to reap the rewards and understand the gift of our own story.
Our truth can be fictionalized in a way that will reach the masses, stop
isolation, and create community. Story unites us. It builds intimacy. In
a time when we are all so overcome with the changes going on in our
world, connecting through the power of story is a beautiful way to
bring us together while so much else threatens to pull us apart.
A log line is a brief description of story that often has an emotional
hook and a twist of irony. Learning how to write log lines will help
connect you to your universal life moments. In your universal life mo-
ments, you will find the gold in your story. Through understanding
your own story, looking at your goals and accomplishments, thinking

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

about your sorrows and your heartbreaks, and watching for recurring
themes, symbolism, and messages, you will begin to see just how rich
your story is and how much of it you have inside you. You just need
to learn how to access it.
We can all remember growing up and connecting with story whether
we heard it, read it, or watched it on television or at the movie theaters.
Story has this incredible way of engaging us and letting our imagina-
tions go wild. It fulfills and enthralls us. It befriends us, keeps us warm,
and offers us an escape. It doesn’t judge us. In fact, it does the opposite.
It is just there to entertain us. It connects us to the truth of the story-
teller, making us realize that we are not alone in our life experiences.
Think of the way that story has inspired you over your lifetime. Often,
story makes us feel empowered. We realize that no matter how bad
things can get, we can rise above and achieve a goal. We can triumph
and succeed.
Most of the stories that have touched and inspired us over the years
are derived from the truths of the storytellers. The best stories are
written by the people who are not afraid to dive inside themselves and
see what will surface on the page. The writers with the most courage
have the greatest opportunity to connect the audience to their vision.
The intention of Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story is to help you
see the true value that lies within. The book is designed to alternate be-
tween free-thinking and crafting those explorations into your writing.
Each topic discussed begins with a chapter teaching you to draw truth
from your life moments and is followed by a chapter discussing how you
apply that truth to your story lines. Exercises and examples from both
television and film are provided to help guide you.
It is your story. It is powerful. It is eager to come out and join forces with
fiction so that it can reach new heights, touch hearts, and entertain. It is
worth doing the work to get there. We want to hear your voice.



Writing, I think is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living.
The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that
mirror which waits always before or behind.
~ Catherine Drinker Bowen

Writing is a very frightening endeavor for most people. We write to

express ourselves, to emote, to relate, to understand, to make sense of,
to examine, to shed, and, very often, just to be. One of the greatest
goals of writing is to connect with your audience on an emotional
level. To make them feel, to help them identify. How do you do this?
You go inside yourself and explore your own personal well of emotion.
So often in life we look for answers on the outside. Outside ourselves is
where the activity is, so it’s only natural that we seek reason there. Yet,
it is inside that we interpret and feel the effects of what we experience
externally. To connect with others, we need to connect with ourselves.
Your personal story is your gold and your true gift as a writer. The
key to your success as a writer is understanding how to interpret and
express your personal experiences in a universal way and learning to
add fiction to your truth. However, looking inside ourselves is no easy
task. It’s an obstacle most of us don’t know how to approach.
Going within means shining a light on what is. What if others see
what is really going on inside your mind and heart? Are you afraid
of feeling judged? Do you worry that they won’t love you anymore
or that you might feel the pain of rejection? Are you afraid of feeling
unworthy? What is self-worth? Do we ever really feel it?
What if our words hurt our family? What if our anger takes on a life
of its own? Delving into our core emotional selves is definitely fright-
ening, but if we’re totally honest, others will connect with us and our

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

story. It is identifying our truth and having the courage to put it on

the page that is our greatest challenge. Plus, often, when we put it out
there, there is a sigh of relief. A weight has been lifted, and we realize
that we are not alone.
Your truth matters. Chances are that the emotions you are burying in-
side are what millions of others are feeling and afraid to identify with.
I have analyzed story for over 18 years. I helped launch many writing
careers. During this time, I noticed one common thread tying together
all the writers I’ve seen gain tremendous success: They understand how
to look inside themselves for answers. Their writing reflects depth, emo-
tion, and connection. They’ve learned how to fictionalize their own per-
sonal experience, allowing it to surface in their writing through the use
of theme and symbolism and drawing audiences into the stories they tell.
As a television executive for over a decade at CBS/Paramount and
Spelling Television Inc., staffing and working with writers, as well as
developing story for top prime time shows, was my job. When I met
with writers, I often asked about their personal stories. I did this as
a way to understand how I could best market them to my executive
producer so that they would have a stronger chance of getting the job.
As we dived into their stories, I would often ask the question, “Have
you ever written about that experience?” First, I would see doubt.
Then, I’d see fear. Then, I’d watch their face light up and recognize that
there was something worth exploring. Since I knew that completely
autobiographical stories rarely transfer well, I taught them to draw
emotion from these experiences as a way to authenticate and make
their writing stand out. The results I saw were phenomenal. Suddenly,
writers who hadn’t been staffed, got staffed. Writers previously stalled
in development were suddenly selling pilots. Writers who couldn’t find
representation suddenly had many agents vying for them. The key to
their success was looking inside themselves.
My last staff job in the corporate world was VP of Current Programs
at CBS/Paramount. After this, I started my own business in January of
2008. I identified a niche in the market with regards to story. I knew
that what I was able to pull out of writers had value for their success.

What is a Log Line?

So, I started a business that purely focuses on the development of story.

I figured that the best way to see results was through one-on-one
consults. I give the individual writer their own personal development
executive to help them navigate the terrain that often accompanies a
career in writing. Since I launched my company, I’ve worked with over
200 writers. The results of the one-on-one consults have been amaz-
ing. I’ve helped writers get agents and managers, get staffed, sell pilots
and helped the right people to see their work creating a possibility.
I also teach seminars. It was during one of these seminars that I came
up with the concept of getting writers to write what I call a Log Line
For Your Life. What is a log line? Wikipedia’s definition is, “A log line
is a brief summary of a television program or movie, often provid-
ing both a synopsis of the program’s plot, and an emotional ‘hook’ to
stimulate interest.” I tell writers to write their log lines by thinking
about the setup of who, dilemma, action, and goal. You want to set
up empathy for your central character, present the dilemma and the
action that is taken, and the goal. Strong log lines often have irony in
them. A perfect example is the log line from the feature, Pretty Woman
(Touchstone Pictures, 1990): “A man in a legal but hurtful business
needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute
he meets... only to fall in love.”
Personal log lines involve taking moments in your life and phrasing
them in a way that makes a story. You can take a theme in your life or
a life moment, add some fiction to it and see what you come up with.
A log line that reflects a moment in my life is, “A new bride who lives
in a fairy tale fantasy falls through a rabbit hole and when she awakens,
finds herself President of Cheated On Anonymous.” A second log line
that reflects a pivotal moment in my life is, “When a work-obsessed
corporate executive experiences a fall from grace, she is forced to turn
her plan B into her plan A and discovers that her plan B was her plan
A all along.” Writing a log line is a way of detaching from your story
and looking at it from an objective viewpoint. By going into your own
life experiences, extracting your truth and learning how to frame it
into a log line, you will strengthen your awareness of how to organize
story and this will help you to write stronger log lines for your scripts.

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

You can start thinking about log lines in your life by thinking of univer-
sal life moments that you’ve experienced. By “universal life moment”, I
mean moments in your life when your world was turned upside down
and your sense of reality, as you knew it, shifted. Throughout this
book, I will teach you how to dive into these moments and fictional-
ize them, writing log lines that reflect your universal life moments and
helping you build and elevate the fictional stories that you are working
on. When you write what you know, you write from an authentic
place. Having the courage and the insight to do this will elevate your
writing and connect you with your audience.
The beauty of this exercise is that it will help you relate with people in
a new way. One group I did it with said that they’ve been sitting next
to people for years in their guild and they had no idea that these stories
were under the surface. They suddenly saw people in a new light. This
is the gift of story. When you go inside and uncover what is there, you
will be surprised by the depth it adds to the way that you write and
how this depth will connect you with your audience. You will feel a
passion that maybe you haven’t felt before, because when you write
what you know, you write from your truth. When you write from
your truth, you identify your voice. Your voice is what will set you
apart from other writers.
At this point in my career, I’ve probably read over 3,000 scripts. The
ones that really stand out to me are those that have mastered the use
of theme and symbolism. This is the icing on the cake of story for me.
Theme and symbolism can often be drawn from our universal life
For example, just before my marriage ended, a necklace that my hus-
band had given me broke. I remember this very vividly because the
necklace breaking was a symbol of things to come. I’ve had many signs
like this in my life. While these symbolic moments may be painful,
they also present an opportunity to add depth to the stories you tell.
If you have experienced true moments, chances are that millions of
others have as well, and finding a way to use these moments in your
writing will connect your audience to your story.

What is a Log Line?

If you draw from moments of truth in your life, you will write your
themes and symbolism from a stronger place. Current movies that
have utilized theme and symbolism well and are likely drawn from
the true life experiences of the storytellers are: Star Trek (Paramount,
2009), with the theme of “logic versus emotion,” Frost/Nixon (Universal
Pictures, 2008), with the theme and symbolism behind exploring recov-
ery after a fall from grace, and The Lives Of Others (Arte, 2006), the
German film that won the best foreign film in 2007, explores loyalty
in depth. Avatar (20th Century Fox Film, 2009) explores the theme
of freedom and symbolizes it through the use and paralyzation of the
central character’s legs.
The final and probably most important part of story that I like to
reflect on in reading your log line and your writing is the goal and
dilemma faced by your lead character. In simple terms, what does your
central character want? This covers the goal. If you want to go further
and strengthen your story even more, develop the dilemma part of the
goal. Jeffrey Kitchen covers this incredibly well in his book Writing A
Great Movie: Keys Tools for Successful Screenwriting. He writes, “Dilemma
may be defined as a situation with a choice to be made in which neither
alternative is acceptable.” If your goal is crystal clear, stemming from
a dilemma or leading into a dilemma, your story has a much greater
chance of working.
Feature-wise, strong examples of this are found in Avatar. We know
that the lead character Jake (Sam Worthington) wants the use of his
legs back as an external goal. The dilemma he faces is that if he does
what the antagonist wants him to do, he will get his legs back; however,
in doing this, he will have to betray his love interest. The strength and
clarity of this dilemma heightens the emotional stakes tremendously.
Internally, he wants to fill his brother’s shoes and earn his place, being
held in higher esteem. This self-worth is taught to him through his love
interest Nitiri (Zoe Saldana) and the character, Dr. Grace Augustine
(Sigourney Weaver.)
Television-wise, Breaking Bad (Sony Pictures Television), Big Love
(Playtone Productions), and Mad Men (AMC), do beautiful jobs of

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

exemplifying with clarity what the central character wants and the
dilemmas that they face. In Breaking Bad, there is a great overall series
dilemma faced by Walt (played by Bryan Cranston). After being di-
agnosed with terminal lung cancer, he realizes that when he dies, his
family will be left with nothing. So, since he’s a chemistry teacher, he
comes up with the idea of dealing meth. The two sides of his dilemma
are, first, if he deals meth, he risks getting caught and going to jail,
but he will have money to leave his wife and their handicapped son;
second, if he doesn’t make meth, he will have very little to leave his
family and will die feeling like he didn’t provide enough for them. The
series explores both sides of this dilemma. A prevalent dilemma leading
to a strong goal or stemming from a strong goal elevates the strength
of your story. If this goal, resulting from the dilemma or leading to the
dilemma, is blurred, your story will suffer, but if your goal is clear, your
story will be stronger.
I find that many writers have difficulty defining their character’s goal
because most people are not totally clear on what they want in their
own lives. So, if you don’t know with clarity what you want, how do
you write it? By finding clarity in your own life, you will find clar-
ity in your writing. Doing this involves, “Developing from Within,”
a phrase I’ve adopted as my brand. I believe that the stronger you are
inside, the stronger you are on the page.
We will explore universal life moments, theme, symbolism and goals
and dilemmas in depth in this book because they are elements that
go into defining the log lines for your life. By defining your life log
lines, you will bring yourself personal clarity and enhance and elevate
your writing, increasing your chances of a long career as a successful
working writer. However, the first step is looking inside yourself and
embracing your own story.



Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.

~ William Wordsworth

As a way to help writers reach inside themselves, I ask them to identify

a few universal life moments. A “universal life moment” is a moment
when your world turns upside down and your sense of reality, as you
know it, shifts. Often times, this is an “all is lost” moment. Your life
has changed. You are put in a position of choice. You can take action,
or you can choose to stay where you are, but either way, your reality
will never be the same again.
In my seminars, I ask writers to think about these moments in their
lives and share one with the class. This is a scary request. More than
likely, what we felt during these moments was dark, and it takes true
courage to approach the unknown scariness that is our own darkness.
Yet, on the other side of darkness, we often find light. So, if we can
begin to embrace our darkness by understanding that light will even-
tually follow, it may help our fear subside.
Digging into our personal unknown allows us to experience a myriad
of emotions and fears, and this is the core worth of the experience.
When we react, we often feel we are reacting to an external event, yet,
very often it is not the event at all that we are upset about, but rather
the emotions that it stirs up inside of us. The event usually symbolizes
a greater secret or pain. The event often forces us to uncover some-
thing that we swept under the rug and deal with our demons before
we can move forward.
One of my most memorable universal life moments occurred when
I attended the wedding of a childhood friend shortly after my own

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

divorce. After you’ve been through a divorce, weddings tend to take

on a whole new meaning. You start to doubt the ceremony. A part of
you wants to jump up and shout, “Don’t do it! If it doesn’t work, your
heart will be shattered!” However, you compose yourself, restrict the
crazy scenarios you’re imagining to the confines of your mind, and try
to enjoy the ceremony, truly hoping for the best. Well, this particu-
lar wedding was back home in Whittier, California, the small suburb
of Los Angeles where I had grown up. I was raised in a picturesque
neighborhood called Friendly Hills, and as I looked around at the oth-
er wedding guests, I saw many of the supposedly happy couples that
had been part of the Friendly Hills community when I was a child.
These were the couples that had helped construct my conception of
marriage. After experiencing my own divorce so shortly after my wed-
ding, I found myself on a quest for answers. As I inquired about each
couple, many of them no longer together, but all of whom I had as-
sumed to have a strong marriage, my mother enlightened me to some
of the truth behind the facade. It wasn’t what I had imagined it to be.
Each of these couples had their own issues, their own struggles, their
own darkness. The perfect picture of marriage that I had held onto so
tightly as a child was shattering into a million pieces. It wasn’t real. I
had crafted a fantasy in my mind and heart, and now a new truth was
revealed, shifting my reality as I knew it.
This moment linked to other moments during my career as a tele-
vision executive. One of the popular “spec scripts” being submitted
during my divorce was Ally McBeal (20th Century Fox, 1997). I recall
reading 50 of these specs that season and constantly finding myself at
the point of tears because it felt like there were so many people who
understood my pain. I wasn’t isolated. In my writer meetings, after I’d
share my story as a way to get writers to define and feel comfortable
sharing their own, I’d hear story after story about cheating spouses. A
part of me didn’t want to admit that this truth was part of my expe-
rience too. I realized that when I got divorced, I became a reluctant
member of a new club. In a moment, I was forced to grow up and
let go of the fairy tale. I was left wondering when I would be able to
paint a new picture of a life that was realistic and not based on fantasy.

Create Universal Moments in Your Story Lines

It is in these moments that we go through a transformation, a rebirth.

We have to “man up” and face our new reality. We have to shed the
skin that was and be ready for a new layer to cover the wound. The
scar will remain forever, but with time, the pain will lessen, eventually
becoming a distant memory.
I encourage writers to dive into these moments, however painful they
may be. Your emotional depth stems from these moments. As you
explore them, you’ll realize that your pain exists for a reason. Pain is
like a rite of passage. We all encounter it. It can weaken us and deliver
us into a state of victimhood, or it can help shed light on our reality,
giving us an opportunity to embark upon a new beginning, pursuing
a new reality. Moving past your pain makes you stronger and prepares
you to pass your story on to others.
Often times, the rawest moments in movies and television, the ones
that really connect with the audience, are those inspired by the writer’s
universal life moments. For example, in a key line in the movie Up
In The Air (Paramount, 2009), Ryan, the central character played by
George Clooney, says, “The slower we move, the faster we die.” This
philosophy/theme resonates throughout the entire film. For Ryan,
marriage and being “settled” equates to slowing down and thereby
having to face his own mortality. This is the foundation that the en-
tire story is built upon and it’s what makes the film so powerful and
moving. My guess is that this theme stems from one of the writer’s
universal fears birthed from a specific life moment. Yet, it speaks to
the masses.
Similarly, in The Hurt Locker (Voltage Pictures, 2008), written by Mark
Boal, there is another key line of dialogue, likely based on a universal
life moment, that really resonates with the audience and underscores
the entire story. Will James (Jeremy Renner) sits with his son and says,
“The older you get, the fewer things you really love. When you get
to my age, you only love one or two things.... I think it’s one.” Then
the film cuts to Will going to war and starting another year of rota-
tion, risking his life to dismantle improvised explosive devices. He’s
not comfortable with the emotional side of life. Instead, he feels most

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

at home doing what he does best, even though it involves risking his
life. This is symbolized beautifully in a grocery store scene when Will’s
wife asks him to grab a box of cereal and we see him looking up and
down the aisle, completely bewildered by the multitude of choices. It is
in this moment that we truly feel his isolation and sense of disconnec-
tion with this part of his life. How many of us can relate to this? Work
actually comes easy. It’s relationships and baring all that’s truly difficult.
I heard the writer, Mark Boal, speak at the Writers Guild Foundation. I
asked him about this scene. He said that he drew this from his own life.
He said that he is never comfortable in the grocery story. He utilized
his own truth and fictionalized it into story.
Television-wise, there’s a great moment in the fourth season finale
of Dexter (Clyde Phillips Productions), written by Melissa Rosenberg
and Wendy West, that has real universal relevance. In his voice over,
Dexter (Michael C. Hall) asks himself, ”Why is it that with killing, I
feel no regret, but disappointing Rita makes me feel like the scum of
the earth?” Sometimes we can disassociate from external actions that
one would think would be our most terrible regrets, yet disappointing
a person who we love is almost always painful.
In an episode of Mad Men (AMC), written by Matt Weiner and Kater
Gordon, there is a great moment when the teacher, Miss Farrell (Abi-
gail Spencer), with whom Don (John Hamm) is having an affair, relays
a question that an 8-year-old boy asked her: “How do I know that you
see blue like I see blue?” Don replies, “People may see things different-
ly, but they don’t really want to.” This line sets up the entire episode,
which explores both Don and his wife’s indiscretions, and is further
symbolized with a basket of dirty laundry. Universally, it forces us, as
an audience, to explore the difference between how we see things and
how we want to see them. That is to say, we each live life in a healthy
sense of denial, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses,
denying the truth behind our actions. This is something we can all
connect with and relate to in one way or another.
Very often, the most powerful moments in a story reveal a writer’s
truth. It is through your truth that you submerge your audience into

Create Universal Moments in Your Story Lines

your vision and make them feel your story. Diving into our personal
truth can be terrifying. Yet, often, confronting our truth is what finally
releases us from the paralyzing hold it has on us.
After losing my job in the corporate world after fifteen years at the
same company, I took a trip to Esalen, a magical place by the Pacific
Ocean in Big Sur. After I went through my divorce, I had, in essence,
married my job. So, when my job came to an end, it was like I was
going through a second divorce. It was a very numbing experience. I’ll
never forget the ride up the California coastline. It was like I was see-
ing the coast for the very first time, finally truly able to see its beauty.
I worked in the corporate world since the moment I had graduated
from USC. Despite the tremendous fear of the unknown that I was
facing, for the first time in my life I was totally free. For the first time
since college, I didn’t have a specific reason or purpose to wake up in
the morning other than to do things for myself, like workout and plan
for the next stage of my life.
While I was at Esalen, I took a five-day course called “Completions
and Transitions” with thirteen other people. On the first day, we went
around the room and told our stories. Some of the stories were so deep,
so painful and so raw. It made me feel like a fool for being there. I had
only lost my job and some of these people had lost so much more. It
made me feel selfish and egotistical. Who was I to think that my pain
compared with theirs? On the first day, I felt like I didn’t belong, but
by the fifth day, that feeling had changed completely. Through the
tremendous instruction by Mary Goldenson, author of the book It’s
Time: No One Is Coming to Save You, I began to see that all of our pain
is relevant. If we dig into the backstories of our lives, much like we do
with the backstories of our characters’ lives, we find that so many of
the themes highlighted by our universal life moments are similar. The
actual scenarios may be totally different, but the pain behind them is
the same. We all have a right and a need to grieve.
As a writer, you have the gift of being able to provide a tremendous
sense of relief to others, by allowing them to see their pain explored in
a fictional way, showing them they are not alone. There is no greater

STORY LINE | Jen Grisanti

feeling than when a TV show or movie really speaks to you and makes
you feel like someone understands. Drawing from your real pain and
experience is what will bring your audience to tears and convince
them to root for your characters. But to do this, you need to under-
stand your own truth. You have to be willing to look deep inside your-
self and extract it, look at it, feel it, expose it, process it, and express it
on the page.
Universal life themes are your gold. If you can learn to tap into and
fictionalize these moments, adding the truth of your own emotion,
you will find new depth in your writing. You will connect with your
audience and discover the sound of your voice. Your script will stand
out from the masses. The key to your success as a writer lies within.
The way you interpret your universal life moments is what will inform
your story and connect you with your audience.

Write down five of your most memorable universal life moments.
Think of the times in your life when your reality shifted and your
world turned upside down. Go into these moments.