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3 Essential Tips for Writing Semi-Autobiographical Screenplays

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

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. 

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting






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