June 30, 2017

The Other Hero's Journey: The Emotional Struggle of Screenwriting

Going through emotional journeys is not only necessary for characters in screenplays, but also for the writers who create them.

What does your writing process look like? Do you work in an organized, well-decorated office, or do you throw on some jammies and mow down on chili cheese fries at your favorite dive bar? Regardless of where or how you do it, one aspect of the writing process is the same for everyone: the emotional roller coaster we all experience from Fade In to Fade Out.

In this intriguing video essay, Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay explores the writing process of Pixar's Inside Out— particularly how screenwriter Pete Doctor's real life experience mirrored the intense emotional journey that made the film an Oscar winner.

Tucker touches on many crucial aspects of screenwriting in the video, but perhaps one of the most important insights is that "writing what you want to know" is better than "writing what you know." This is because the latter can actually cause you to creatively and emotionally stagnate. 

When I embark on a new screenplay, I purposely look for things I don't know much about—not just for the plot, but also to serve the emotional arc of my protagonist. Perhaps the greatest step I ever took as a screenwriter is deciding to look inward to find issues I'm currently struggling with before writing a script—something our founder Ryan Koo inspired me to do— because I find it keeps my writing more raw, brutal, and honest.

If you already know the answers to all of the emotional questions in your script, how much of an impact can your character's search really have?

Think about it: isn't it easy to gloss over the things you've mastered? We barely have to focus when tying our shoes, making lunch, or even driving down the street to the cafe we go to every day. The same goes for things we've mastered emotionally. If you already know the answers to all of the emotional questions you raise in your script, how much of an impact can your character's search really have?

'Inside Out'

If you write what you know, that means you're sending not only your hero, but also your audience out on the narrative journey alone. But if you start your writing process off with a question you don't know the answer to, it forces you to search, to struggle, to be vulnerable in the face of uncertainty—which is exactly where your hero is going to eventually wind up.

Furthermore, you end up experiencing the very same emotional battle you expect your audience to go through in watching the movie. Inside Out screenwriter Meg LeFauvre said it like this:

There should probably be, as a writer, a point in the process where to write this scene, you feel like you're going to throw up because it's so emotional. It's so digging into something in your psychology. In other words, you're asking the audience to have a cathartic experience—odds are you probably need to have one when you're writing.

Writing a good screenplay requires many things, including skill, cleverness, and a good sense of pacing and structure. But to write one that is honest, sincere, and authentic will most likely require a little bit of emotional upheaval on your part. It can be scary—especially given the fact that the final act can't be written until you come to your own emotional resolution. But as most heroes in cinema know, achieving the goal is ultimately worth the struggle.     

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This is a wonderful point. I sometimes see movies where the writer clearly doesn't seem currently engaged in the emotional struggle of the characters, and the ending then seems too pat -- even if it's one of the classic unresolved or semi-resolved indie movie plots. You know, where the characters walk down the street in a long wide shot having not changed that much over the course of the movie, and you can reflect on the need to just move forward despite the ongoing uncertainty of life, or a group of characters have realized (once again) that it's not your family that matters, it's the family you find for yourself along the way that's important. And all of that is important and true...except it doesn't feel important or true. It feels trite. Because the writer and filmmaking team aren't feeling the emotional journey in a fresh and current way.

July 1, 2017 at 11:19AM

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Benjamin Reichman
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