STORY STRUCTURE: Fictionalizing Your Truth

Jen Grisanti encourages writers to extract emotions from your own lives and fictionalize your truth to elevate your stories to award-winning levels.
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International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed Story/Career Consultant at Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc. Grisanti is also a Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. Follow Jen on Twitter @jengrisanti.

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Fictionalizing your truth is the key to your success as a storyteller. Your story is your gold. It connects you with your audience. How did I come to this conclusion? After analyzing story for over 18 years, 15 of them spent at two major studios, I often get asked the questions, “What makes story stand out?” or “How does the storyteller connect to his audience?” These questions intrigued me.

I know what makes story stand out for me — an original voice and emotion beneath the words. In an effort to see what is behind the storytelling that stands out to others, I went on an exploration.

I examined the Emmy®-nominated TV shows and the Oscar®-nominated movies. I reviewed the stories being told. The common thread in these stories is truth of emotion. Truth comes from within. The writer-director has to deeply connect with the scenario to be able to reveal it on the screen. Universal truth is the goal of every storyteller.

When I studied the stories that stood out enough to get nominated, I also recognized a commonality in the structure. I discovered that most of the stories started with a powerful dilemma, forcing the character to make a difficult choice and stemming into a clear goal. When the goal is clear, your audience understands what they’re rooting for. When the goal is unclear, pivotal moments don’t carry the weight that they could. If you have a clear goal, your obstacle, escalating obstacle (or mid-point for features), and your “all is lost” moment should reflect your goal in some way. This structure doesn’t mean the goal can’t change, but we should always know and understand what your character wants (external goal) and why he wants it (internal goal).

The best way to get to the heart of your story is to think about what the story is about and why you want to tell it. When you ask yourself these questions, you will discover that the answers are filed within your own library of life experience. In order to connect with your fictional story, there should be an emotional truth from your own story fueling your writing. You need to connect to your story first in order to get your audience to connect. If you dive into your own emotional well and bring your own story to the page by adding fiction, you will increase your chances of connecting with your audience and elevating their level of consciousness. Emotions are the core of your story. When you write from a place of authenticity, your audience will see the “aha” moments in your story. By inserting parts of your truth into your writing, you allow your audience to hear your voice. Your voice makes you unique and sets you apart in your craft.

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What sets apart the brilliant writer with an Emmy Award-winning show or a blockbuster hit? Often, what sets them apart is the writers’ ability to tell their story from a genuine place. After interviewing many top screenwriters, showrunners, writers and producers for my Storywise podcast series, I’ve learned that, for many of them, the piece of writing that’s garnered them the most attention is the story that’s most truthful. Not necessarily an autobiographical story, as autobiographical stories often miss the mark. Life is just not as interesting without the imagination infusing and embellishing upon it. These are the stories that came from a place of honesty. The writer knew how to extract emotions from his own life and fictionalize them into his story.

I find that a lot of people seem to really connect with this concept—fictionalizing your truth. It helps to believe that we go through ups and downs in our own lives for a reason and that our pivotal life moments can lend great value to our ability to tell stories and connect with others. Knowing our emotions have tremendous value validates our life experience. By recording our stories, we allow others to see through our characters how we processed tough life situations and this, in turn, sheds light on how they can make it through a similar life experience. The purpose of story is to stop isolation and create community.

We are all storytellers. We all have a story. We use story in the way that we communicate with others on a daily basis. Understanding how to tell our story in a way that connects us is something that can benefit each one of us on many levels. Our ability to connect with our own emotional well and bring it to the page is a gift that we give to others. If we went through a moment of pure joy or total devastation, chances are that millions of others have gone through the same type of moments. They arrived there through different means, but their emotion is the same. If they see this emotion expressed in a fictionalized way in the stories they watch, it will help them to feel less alone in their own experience and connect them to the story being told.

When we watch TV or go to the movies, we want to feel the journey in front of us. We want to lose ourselves in the world of the story and gain a new perspective. We want to feel that it was worth the time we spent with the characters to get to the outcome. We want to root for the outcome. We want to relate to what the characters are going through. We want our own emotions to feel validated. We want to feel transformed in our own lives and in how we face our own dilemmas.

Think about the episodes of TV that really stand out. For me, I’d have to say the episode of Mad Men called “The Suitcase” was a standout episode. Other ones were the last two episodes of The Big C. I also loved an episode of Blue Bloods called “Officer Down” and an episode of Friday Night Lights called “The Son.” Another was a standout episode of The Good Wife was called “Heart.” Modern Family’s best was titled “En Garde.”

I think I connected with these specific episodes the most because of the truth that resonated from them. The characters hit pivotal and memorable moments in their story. The writer or writers hit certain moments emotionally where my heart felt the story that was being told. I felt the emotion of the character or characters and their plight. The writer allowed me into his vision. I knew what I was rooting for and I cared about the outcome. I connected with the emotions.

If you do the emotional work to process and understand what goes on in your own life, you will have stronger means to communicate your vision to others. Being conscious of your own experiences and learning how to manage them will allow you to raise the consciousness of your audience. We write to express ourselves, to emote, to relate, to understand, to make sense of, to examine, and, very often, just to be. When you learn to fictionalize your truth, it will help your audience to understand your story. It will allow you to leave your imprint.

If you want to learn more about adding fiction to your truth and drawing from your emotional well, check out my new book Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story.

Originally published in Script Magazine March April 2011

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