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3 Essential Tips for Writing Semi-Autobiographical Screenplays

Indiewire By Mark Tapio Kines | Indiewire February 5, 2014 at 11:28AM

Mark Tapio Kines, the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals, an online course on Lynda.com, provides tips about semi-autobiographical screenwriting.
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Mark Tapio Kines

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 this question.

"If truth just doesn’t serve your story well, the universe will forgive you if you bend it a little."
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. 

You may laugh, but I've read enough "break-up scripts" to 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. 

But 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:

-- Don't 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. 

--Give 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.

-- Let 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?


-- Don't 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.

-- Maybe 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 your script.

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.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting