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Back to the Chalkboard: Personal Connection

Have you ever had to write something you didn’t care about? Think back to high school, college, grad school, or even your job – there must have been some paper or assignment that you simply could not motivate yourself to write until the last possible minute. Or, you actually started writing this burden of prose because you’re a diligent and responsible person, but then you got bogged down and lost your motivation. I’d wager this has probably happened for you on a screenplay or two, as well. You slogged through an outline, then ripped through act one, only to rewrite that first act five or six more times before finally abandoning the project all together. Or maybe you finished. You’re a bulldozer who slammed straight through to “Fade Out,” then rewrote and polished that sucker because, damn it, that’s what professionals do. But when you handed it over to friends, their notes came back as something akin to – “meh.” It’s well written, but it doesn’t pop.

These are all clear symptoms that your script lacks a strong personal connection. For all the brainstorming, character bios, and plot points you scratched out, you forgot to find yourself in the story. I teach my students that personal connection is as important as any other fundamental craft element. Why? Because I’ve had all of those symptoms myself multiple times in my career, some of them unfortunately on professional assignments, and eventually I learned that if some core aspect of the story doesn’t matter to me personally – beyond just writing it well and making money – the script will inevitably feel hollow despite the best execution in the world. An incredible premise, the most original character, or the most fantastic world will all fall flat and fail if you can’t define how or why the story matters to you. If you don’t care, neither will the reader– just like the second act of a bad movie that has no stakes.

You have to ask yourself, “Why am I writing this,” but also, “What’s my personal connection? Where am I in this story? Why does it matter to me?” It can be a theme, a situation, a character, or an experience. It can even be something that frightens or fascinates you. Your personal connection to the story is what gives it life and originality. What makes it fresh. Your individual take and your point of view will be different than almost every one else’s. Your life experience, your voice, and your worldview are unique. That is to your advantage as a writer. You must use it.

Do you have a personal connection to your screenplay?

Photo by Lori Bowen:

Your personal connection instills passion in the storytelling. It carries you through a tough first draft, and is what you fall back on when nothing else seems to be working. It’s the phrase you tape to the wall above your computer to remind yourself why the hell you’re doing this again as you begin your ninth infernal draft! For instance, a script I'm writing right now is about feeling excluded, and whether exclusion really costs us everything we think it does. This matters to me personally on a number of levels, and my protagonist battles with exclusion on nearly every single page.

There's also this: screenwriting is a relationship business. People want to know who you are. They want to like you. They want to connect personally with you. So your personal connection to the story is what gives them confidence that you care. That this matters to you. That you will deliver. A clear personal connection sounds great in a pitch or a meeting, and will certainly help you get a job or representation, but it also shines through on the page. It’s something we can feel. There is energy to the work. The story pops off the page. We’re in the hands of a writer who knows.

Like theme, personal connection is something that may jump out at you from the very beginning, or you may not find it until you’re writing the first draft or the fifth. Be mindful of it in your development process and keep looking for it on every page of every draft, because your story won’t truly be finished until you can see yourself in it.

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