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 V alue of the Log Line How to Apply This Book to Y Creative Process our INTRODUCTION 1. What Is a Log Line? How Do Y Learn to Identify Log Lines in ou Y Own Life? our 2. Create Universal Moments in Y Story Lines our PART 1 - SET UP 3. Writing Y Log Lines and How They Apply to Y Story Lines our our 4. Identifying Y Universal Life Moments our 5. Write a Log Line for Y Script our PART II – DILEMMA 6. What Is a Dilemma? What Are Y Dilemmas? What Are Y our our Goals? 7. What Is Y Central Character’s Dilemma Stemming From Or our Leading To Their Goal? 8. How Does Y Backstory Influence Y Goals and Dilemmas? our our 9. How Does Y Central Character’s Backstory Influence His/Her our Goals and Dilemmas?

PART III - ACTION 10. How Did Y Life Dilemmas Unfold? What Was the Sequence our of Events? Did They Influence Y Goals? our 11. How to Structure Y Central Character’s Dilemmas and Goals our into a Compelling Story. 12. What Obstacles Have Y Faced in Y Own Life in Pursuit of ou our Y Goals? our 13. What Obstacles Does Y Central Character Face in Pursuit of our His/Her Goal? 14. What Is the Worst That Could Happen in Y Own Life If Y our ou Don’t Solve Y Dilemmas or Achieve Y Goals? our our 15. What Is Emotionally at Stake If Y Central Character Does Not our Solve His/Her Dilemmas and Achieve His/Her Goal? 16. What Are Recurring Symbols/Themes in Y Own Life? our 17. What Is the Theme of Y Story? How Do Y Use Symbolism? our ou 18. What Drives Y to Succeed? ou 19. What Drives Y Central Character to Succeed? our PART IV - GOAL 20. Did Y Achieve Y Life Goal? If So, What Does It Feel Like? If ou our Not, What Does This Feel Like? 21. Does Y Central Character Achieve His/Her Goal? If So, What our Does It Feel Like? If Not, How Does It Change Y Character? our 22. What Is a Recurring Message in Y Own Life? our CONCLUSION 23. What Is the Message in Y Story? our ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story embodies the idea of learning to delve inside your personal well of experience to find story. In your well, you will find your gold. Y gold is your truth. It comes our 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 television, 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 moments, 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. Y just need ou 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 imaginations 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 storyteller, 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 between 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? Y go inside yourself and explore your own personal well of emotion. ou 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. Y et, 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. Y personal story is your gold and your true gift as a writer. The our 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 frightening, 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. Y truth matters. Chances are that the emotions you are burying inour 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, emotion, and connection. They’ve learned how to fictionalize their own personal 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 amazing. 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 providing 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. Y want to set ou 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. Y can take a theme in your life or ou 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

Y can start thinking about log lines in your life by thinking of univerou 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 fictionalize 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. Y will feel a ou 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. Y voice is what will set you our 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 moments. For example, just before my marriage ended, a necklace that my husband 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 recovery 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 diagnosed 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 clarity 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. Y life our has changed. Y are put in a position of choice. Y can take action, ou ou 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. Y on the other side of darkness, we often find light. So, if we can et, begin to embrace our darkness by understanding that light will eventually 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 something 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. Y start to doubt the ceremony. A part of ou 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 particular 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 other 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 wedding, 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 assumed 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 television 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 experience 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. Y our 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 entire 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. Y it speaks to et, 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 rotation, 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 disconnection 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 (Abigail 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 differently, 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. Y often, confronting our truth is what finally et, 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 seeing 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 understand your own truth. Y have to be willing to look deep inside yourou 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. Y will connect with your ou audience and discover the sound of your voice. Y script will stand our 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.

EXERCISE 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.


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