When a Script Is Too Personal

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Don’t let anyone else tell you what to write. Photo courtesy: Castle Rock Entertainment

Sometimes a script is too personal, at least this has been my experience. What I mean by that is you don’t always have to mine your life for the sake of your art. Why? Because sometimes, it’s just not necessary. I’m not saying this is a hard and fast rule. Let me explain.

I appreciate and respect writers who can bring their darkest stories to the screen. It’s brave, especially given the troll-heavy world we live in. But I prefer to conjure darkness without relying fully upon personal experiences, although I am certainly informed by them. I’m not saying don’t write about deeply personal things. If you’re made for it, please don’t let me or anyone stop you. I’m just suggesting that sometimes you don’t have to, even if you’ve got some really good stuff to draw from.

I don’t know how many times you’ve been told to write what you know but I’ve heard it enough to know when NOT to do it. Let me tell you a story.

I wrote a screenplay a few years back about something that happened in my life. Something pretty heavy. I was pushed into writing about the event during a writer’s workshop. I shared the story after class over beers and the instructor just wouldn’t let it go until I agreed to turn the experience into a feature script.

The entire time I was writing this thing, something felt wrong. Like I should not be baring my soul for the sake of a screenplay. I showed the script to a good friend who said, “This is crazy good and I’d watch it but are you sure you want to put this out there.” I did not. That was it for me. That script will never see the light of day.

The way I saw it, I didn’t want to reveal this dark thing even though I know it would make a good script. It wasn’t worth the exposure and the energy drain not to mention the emotional toll. I’d already dealt with it and didn’t need to retread. There are many out there who will tell you to write the brutal truth, no matter what. And if that works for you, awesome.

In fact, many screenwriters make a living exploring brutal truths. Sometimes it’s their truth, sometimes it’s other people’s. So this advice is not for you. You know how to navigate those waters. This is for those who feel the need to open a vein on the page and are struggling with it. It’s okay to walk away.

Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley and Divian Ladwa as Mantosh Brierley. Photo Courtesy: Weinstein Company

Sacrificing Someone’s Story to Tell Another

Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s book A Long Way Home. We see how cathartic the book and film have been for both Saroo’s birth mother Kamla and family in Khandwa as well as his adopted parents Sue and John in Hobart, Tasmania.

But I often wonder about Mantosh, Saroo’s adopted brother who was beaten and molested before coming to the Brierley family in Australia. The child came to the Brierleys mentally and physically broken.  Mantosh’s trauma is played out on screen from those first few days to a grown up, where the emotional scars clearly hadn’t healed.

The real Mantosh struggled with his depiction and as much as I appreciated the film, I empathized with his reaction. While his brother found closure, Mantosh’s story remained open ended. That is the truth and the filmmakers saw fit to portray Mantosh’s pain. I’m not saying the film shouldn’t have been made or Mantosh should have been given a fake happy ending or anything like that but, well, maybe some of you will get what I’m saying. Possibly Mantosh deserved better onscreen. I don’t know.

In a Hollywood Reporter interview with Lion screenwriter Luke Davies said of Mantosh’s take on the film, “Mantosh loves Saroo and supports him, even though it makes him uncomfortable. Is that pain? Yes.” But is it necessary to show the seemingly unresolved pain of a person while also showing the full resolution of the other?

Leaning on the Past Without Falling In 

I grew up in the backwoods in a kind of redneck Huckleberry Finn situation. I have a lot of funny stories, mostly featuring my grandma trying to put snuff (finely ground tobacco for the yankees) on open wounds. We weren’t a big doctor or hospital kind of family.

But when I’ve sat down to put those stories in a screenplay, they felt flat. I consider them cocktail stories, not the basis for a screenplay or public use. I’ve learned to use my background to inform some characters and in a couple of cases create them but not as a platform per se. This is purely a personal choice and, again, I’m not suggesting that writers shy away from a deeply personal material. It’s just not for me.

Writing completely outside of my experience where I have to research and immerse myself until I come out the other side is where I feel most challenged and satisfied.

Why didn’t I write a version of that heavy real life experience? Even that didn’t feel right. I could change the names and the places but I would know. And that would have nagged at me. It wouldn’t have done me or the others involved any good.

I’ve helped other writers adjust their scripts that were based on true stories. It’s not my story so I’m not burdened with the attachment and emotion. But I am always empathetic and try to imagine any possible fall out from the telling of a story.

That empathy has helped me to help other writers. My job is to navigate through the piece while keeping the drama or comedy in place and offloading things that might be problematic for those involved. But for some reason, I can’t do it for myself. Weird, huh?

Have you ever found yourself in this position? Where a script is too personal and you dreaded it or even experienced some backlash or pain? I’d love to hear your input. You guys are great that way.

author-avatar

Lisa Waugh worked her way through six years of a state college and then decided to work only one job in radio as opposed to three to get a degree that would help her land a job in… radio. She then moved onto TV news, then cable news, and then a fun-filled place that made cartoons. There was a ghost involved. She’s been paying the bills as a writer for over two decades. Screenwriting, copywriting, script doctoring, tons of web content for startups that are digital dust by now, joke writing, and a lot of entertainment writing, mostly about TV. She loves writers and wants to see them succeed because writers rock.

37 Replies to "When a Script Is Too Personal"

  • comment-avatar
    Stevanne Auerbach July 24, 2017 (3:23 am)

    Hi Lisa
    thanks for constructive articles
    do you review scripts?
    please tell me more
    thanks
    Stevanne

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:14 am)

      Thanks for the comment, Stevanne. Not really a script reviewer. Thanks for asking.

  • comment-avatar
    cat bryant July 24, 2017 (5:18 am)

    I came to a similar conclusion years ago. Even though the people involved have passed away,I think any small catharsis gained would not be worth the huge pain of exposure. All my friends and the rest of my family have heard the stories. That’s enough.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:11 am)

      I’m very heartened that you relate. That’s pretty much identical to my circumstances. It’s enough for me, too. Thank you, Cat.

  • comment-avatar
    Veronica July 24, 2017 (5:32 am)

    Your article really hit home for me. I have been struggling with the idea of turning the trauma of my life into a screenplay for years. I even wrote the first two scenes, but that’s as far as it got. Documenting the past was reliving the past, and it was a painful experience. Thanks to you I can finally put the idea of turning my ugly story to bed. I’m gonna stick to writing children’s fantasy. It’s a much happier place to be. Thank you.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:10 am)

      This was exactly where I landed with my story, Veronica. It didn’t need any more air so I cut it off. I’m much happier without it and I’m glad you are too.

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    Bob July 24, 2017 (6:53 am)

    Good article. Thanks for sharing. If there’s anything about the subject of something being “too personal” I wrestle with, it’s in the knowing that on one hand I certainly don’t want to venture down a certain road I closed off years ago, yet on the other hand I wonder if the material being exposed could actually benefit others who are able to relate to it firsthand.
    Obviously “too personal” can mean many things to many people, but in my particular case it’s not so much about an event as it is with, for lack of a better word, an affliction. And this “affliction” is not something unique just to me, so I often have wondered if I put it in a story, would it possibly help others. I’m purposely being very vague in what I’m saying, but you get the gist. Thanks for your time.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:08 am)

      Absolutely, Bob. If you’ve got something you think might help others and you’ve looked it from all of the angles and you’re protected, write it. I agree with “‘too personal’ can mean many things to many people.” Thanks for getting that point.

  • comment-avatar
    Paddy July 24, 2017 (7:09 am)

    Lisa, I love your little essays, thanks. Obviously, well to me at least, your instructor believed you had potential for an earth changing or mind bending opus. Before the first buffalo ever appeared on a cave wall, “art can change the world” attitude emerged to advance civilization. However, one big toe in the ocean will not launch anything. Exploring new worlds does not need to be a lethal weapon either. Dad always said, ‘everything in moderation.’ So, let’s just go with that. big toe now, ankles later. Easy does it. Take your time. Honesty or white lies, it’s what you make of it.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:05 am)

      I like how you put this, Paddy. I think pieces of that time are in a lot of the things I write. I’ve dealt with the past and just don’t need to delve. But I like this as advice in general.

  • comment-avatar
    York July 24, 2017 (7:13 am)

    Hi Lisa. I’ve written a screenplay depicting a painful time in my own mother’s life, urged on by family members who want the story told. I did change the names of all involved in the 1940s New Zealand breech of promise to marry case and am glad of the catharsis it has provided me, as it is also my story. But I do understand what you say and expect explanations will be required if the screenplay is ever produced. Thanks for posting on a touchy topic.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:03 am)

      Thank you, York. I think in many cases, screenwriters such as yourself have the material and the mindset to put it out there. I don’t think my story would do anyone much good. The fallout would outweigh the entertainment value.

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    Gloria Wendroff July 24, 2017 (7:15 am)

    Interestingly, In the Lion movie, the young boy Saroo, so brilliantly acted by a five-year old, I saw throug Saroo. His voice gripped me to the core. I was totally invested in him and his story through his heart. The second half I seemed to observe from the outside . The rest of the film couldn’t didn’t come up to the first half. I wondered why Mantosh took up all that time. Something didn’t connect for me. I didn’t feel inside connection. Something of the same with the girlfriend. And even the adult Saroo’s reunion with his mother — I didn’t FEEL it. Now I certainly want to read the book and perhaps get closer. .

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:01 am)

      Maybe that’s what it was for me, too. I felt a disconnect from adult Mantosh, even though the actor was terrific. Almost like they didn’t finish what they started. Thanks for weighing in, Gloria.

  • comment-avatar
    Humphrey Sarkisian July 24, 2017 (7:45 am)

    Pain is pain interior or exterior. For most of us, coughing it out will soothe the sole.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (7:59 am)

      I hear you. But I think for me, it would do the opposite. Thanks for your comment, Humphrey.

  • comment-avatar
    Christopher Crumb July 24, 2017 (8:00 am)

    Almost everything I want to write is personal in some way. In fact, the working title of one of my scripts is My Story. This article of yours is a real eye opener for me. Thank you so much. I understand a little better why it is hard for me to see this story through until the end. Thank you.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (8:20 am)

      Yep! It’s brave to put yourself out there. It’s also tough, at least for me, to know when to filter or not filter deeply personal things. I can’t help but put a piece of myself in most everything I do. I just don’t care to put myself front and center. Thanks, Christopher.

  • comment-avatar
    Pauline Cronin July 24, 2017 (9:03 am)

    Hi Lisa, Appreciate your perspective on writing screenplays based on personal experience. Just curious on your thoughts on the following… I am writing a screenplay inspired by my real-life experiences as a woman on the inside trading floor of a major investment dealer. Because it’s set in the 80’s it has the appeal of a “period piece. Further, the shenanigans, the egos, the sexual politics and harrassment (some of which is actually quite funny) provide fodder for a comedy while simultaneously being enlightening about that world and what some of us women went through to pave the way for others. The truth is actually stranger than fiction and I’m concerned that it will be seen as grossly exaggerated when in fact I don’t need to exaggerate anything. If it is written as a “comedy inspired by real-life events” do you see this as a way to avoid this kind of scrutiny/criticsim?

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (9:14 am)

      I love it! I’d write it as it happened and then see how it plays. It’s funny, dramatic, over the top, all of that? Put it all into that first draft. I don’t tend to put a genre on the things I write beforehand so I’m not confined. That way you can end up with “_______ inspired by real-life events.” Just write it without putting it into any one box and let it rip. If it’s as real as you say, you’re probably going to get some kind of scrutiny but that’s part of the gig, right? As long as you’re protecting yourself. Don’t get sued! Hehehe. That’s my two cents. It sounds like a blast.

  • comment-avatar
    Joseph Chastain July 24, 2017 (10:20 am)

    One of my screenplays is semi autobiographical but VERY Semi it’s very personal, about my struggles with self-injury and bi-polar disorder…. but I couldn’t write about my mother’s death when I tried recently. It just hurt way too much.

    I guess I can write personally, but that story at this point of my life is too much, maybe because it’s too fresh. A few years from now I may be able to write it, but not yet.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (11:11 am)

      Only you can know how much time you need if any before you can tell a story. I can pull up things from the past that were very painful at the time and put them in a story and feel varying degrees of things. Other things, not at all. Ultimately, I want to entertain my audience. I wish you the best and healing on your journey. Thanks, Joseph.

  • comment-avatar
    Mauryne July 24, 2017 (10:49 am)

    There are stories of Eugene O’Neill collapsing into tears after working on his tragedies. How’d he do it? The other aspect of writing out your demons is that you are so close to the story that you fall into the trap of making it therapy instead of art. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, and we’ve all been on that high wire at some point. I appreciate hearing your experience and the comments from other screenwriters.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (11:07 am)

      Thank you for making an important point about therapy and art. Nicely said.

  • comment-avatar
    Lilia July 24, 2017 (11:18 am)

    Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for posting this. I’ve had an issue where my partners want a scene written exactly as it happened in real life, an it turns out to be one of those “you had to be there to think it was funny stories.” Should I play nice and go along or suggest notes that hint that I think the idea isn’t as funny as it seems. Tough call?
    Thanks in advance,
    Lilia

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 24, 2017 (11:26 am)

      Oofta. This is a tricky one. Well, our number one job as writers is to entertain our audience. If they weren’t there to get the joke, you’re going to have to do some work to make sure they get it, right? But… telling your partner that and not getting into a conflict is also not fun. I don’t know your dynamic. I’ve had a writing partner where I could just deadpan look at him and go, “No.” He could do that to me. Then I had a partner who was a lot more sensitive about these things and I did one of two things 1) Gently try to address the issue and be kind about it but make sure they get it or 2) Write it and hope they see that it doesn’t work and/or THEN give the criticism because now you can make your case a little better. Obviously the second one is more time-consuming. Good luck, Lilia!

  • comment-avatar
    Shar July 25, 2017 (8:16 am)

    hi there Lisa,
    Thank you so much for this article. I am a writer putting down various notes for a book. As yet unsure whether some info would better portray by film (my writing goes across print and film stories), I read your article with a fog dissipating from my mind. Still unsure yet which way I will go, but your words resonate and help me to think a little clearer. I wish to help others think clearer about any background similarly painful to mine, but as you express, the reliving of such pain *through* the writing, do I need it? If the material were successful in any way, would I be able to cope with even more attention on the topic, the questions by any publications interested thereafter?
    You give some very good food for thought. I shall consider my progress carefully with my writing, wherever it leads. Your words will help me to reach a decision that suits my preferences for the coming years. Thank you, hugely.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 25, 2017 (1:58 pm)

      You’re welcome, Shar. I appreciate you saying. I’m happy that his article is relatable to so many. I thought it was just me. I’m learning so much from you and the other writers who’ve shared their own stories. So, thank you. The part about dealing with the aftermath was a huge consideration for me as well. If the project became successful to any degree, did I want to have to babysit that?

  • comment-avatar
    Jim Roddy July 25, 2017 (3:34 pm)

    Thank you for this writing, Lisa. Most of your articles are written as if you have read my mail! My first feature was comedy and I thought that was the only genre I would write. However, my second was based on a dark time in my past. I changed situations enough to distance myself. It was a very cleansing task. Once completed, I put it away. Of course, it is award-winning, but no one will ever know 😉

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh July 25, 2017 (4:23 pm)

      I like that you included this. Writing it out and being cleansed by it. Put it out there or don’t. That’s completely up to you. Your mental Oscar is in the mail. Always appreciate your comments, Jim.

  • comment-avatar
    Jessi Rita Hoffman July 26, 2017 (2:52 am)

    Richard Walter, author of some great screenwriting books and director of the graduate school of screenwriting at UCLA, argues that ALL great fiction writing is autobiographical. He doesn’t mean literal autobiography, of course, but that for a story to move us, it must be based in emotional truth, and how can we write emotional truth for emotion we have not lived? I wrote an optioned script that involves a father/daughter relationship. The events and circumstances in their lives are totally fictionalized and different from anything that ever happened between me and my father, but the emotional connection between those two characters is emotionally autobiographical. You are right that we don’t have to write the events of our lives (and most of us probably shouldn’t), but unless we are writing from an emotional core of real-life experience, our stories will feel flat, expressing our invented notions of emotional reality rather than how reality actually works.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh August 5, 2017 (8:59 pm)

      Thank you for this, Jessi. Very enlightening.

  • comment-avatar
    Catherine July 29, 2017 (6:46 am)

    Thanks for this Lisa. I’ve struggled with trying to decide about making the world review its faults, sort of say, by emphasizing its pains and ills via my own traumas. Just in the last year or so though I’ve felt the need to make us all laugh. It’s the one way I’ve found that feels better than all the pain I’ve wished to express, and don’t we all have enough of it now. I’ve done the counseling, the deep inner stuff, and suffice it to say, I have to laugh now or I’ll just keep being attracted to pain. I’m not un-empathatic or sympathetic to what’s going on around me in the world today. Quite the opposite, and so I need to focus on surviving and thriving via laughter. It really does break up the world view I’ve taken about life and puts a new spin on it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we’re doomed… : )

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh August 5, 2017 (8:58 pm)

      Sorry for the late response, Catherine. I deeply appreciate your input here. I’m with you. I’m going to choose laughter and dark comedy over every going back to that particular place. Very well said. Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Henri July 31, 2017 (9:56 am)

    I have found that most of my scripts have had a strong autobiographical element to them, yet still the more I work on the story, the further the storyline develops away from actual events. I believe this to be a good thing. Take into account, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is loosely based on real-life WWI experiences in the trenches, yet the end product is far removed from the actual and painful event.

  • comment-avatar
    Cheri August 9, 2017 (2:33 pm)

    Thank you, and thanks to the other respondents. It’s like a group hug saying, “It’s ok!”

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh August 9, 2017 (6:32 pm)

      Ahahaha! Pretty much. Thanks, Cheri.

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