I was a script reader in a past life. My job was to read all the screenplays an independent production house received, summarize them, estimate their budgets, and gave them grade. My “pass” or “consider” rating system determined if the producers gave more than a passing glance at the material that was sent to them.
When I got to work their were two piles: priority screenplays, solicited scripts with talent and directors already attached, and then there was the other pile, the pile I had to dig into when I ran out of the stuff my bosses wanted me to read. These were the mystery scripts with hieroglyphic fonts, foreign formatting, and dialogue blurbs that stretched on over several pages. These were the unvetted works from screenwriters who’d yet to find agency representation. This pile was a dangerous game of reading roulette.
I’ve dredged through script after script that read like doctored journal entries, where the heroes always made the right decisions, never faltered, and where conflict was hinted at but immediately snuffed out. Women spotted abusive men from a mile away and passed them by without incident. Men decided to get sober without so much as grazing the bottom. People were born again without having their faith tested.
I started to sense a pattern in the material. Many of these unsolicited scripts were a form of therapy for their authors. Novice screenwriters were going back and fixing their past, writing themselves as who they’d always wanted to be. These heroes rarely went through a change because they were already perfect. They suffered none of the humiliations that would make them sympathetic, and more often than I care to admit they shared their first names with their writers.
I’ve spent a lot of nights thinking about how I’d go back and fix my past knowing what I know now. I’d start earning college credits before I graduated high school. I’d swerve to avoid getting burned by toxic relationships. I’d devote all my creative energy to finishing a single project.
These fantasies remind me not to make the same mistakes. They remind me how far I’ve come. They’re cathartic, but I couldn’t imagine anyone finding these fantasies entertaining if I put them in writing. For these flashbacks fantasies to be compelling I’d have to take them into the opposite direction.
Break the Past Don’t Fix It
People spend so much creative energy imagining how to fix their pasts, dwelling on what could’ve been, what they should’ve said and should’ve done, but those best case scenarios don’t make for great fiction. Writers ought to imagine an alternate reality where things went worse, not better.
K.M. Weiland has a great post on how writers are always told to think of the worst possible thing that can happen to their characters and make it worse. This advice doesn’t mean fillet, cook, and serve your hero to his family, so much as it means break your heroes heart badly, so that it will be something worth repairing by the end.
Humiliated characters are more sympathetic than overachievers, humbling experiences are more relatable than victories, and flawed characters have to evolve more than their enlightened counterparts. Downtrodden dreamers are more likable than those who have everything. Characters who are eyes deep in the dumps have more to overcome. Their happy endings feel earned.
If you’re looking into your past for story ideas don’t polish the jagged edges off. Sharpen them. So many stories are born out of “What if?” statements. When mining your past for inspiration ask yourself: What if it was worse?
Remember that job interview you went to where the hiring manager threw you off your game by commenting on your posture? Remember how they mentioned the qualifications of your competition and how that made you stutter until the very end? You’d like to remember that as the moment you found a sudden boost of confidence, stood up, and gave a monologue on how your drive was more important than any scholastic accomplishment. What if this scenario didn’t end with the hiring manager giving you a firm handshake and a starting date, but rather a face palm, a monologue of his own, punctuated with a call to security? What if you stood up, tried to muster up some dignity, and found yourself sobbing uncontrollably?
Remember that time a bully threw you into mud, kicked, and spat on you? What if he broke both of your collar bones, got away with it, and later made fun of your neck brace?
Remember that time when you got dumped before Valentine’s Day, after you’d purchased those nonrefundable cruise tickets? What if you went alone and your ship got boarded by pirates?
Go ahead and list your worst defeats and imagine how much worse they could’ve been. Then imagine how in the hell you would’ve tried to recover from them.
The Right Way to Mine the Past for Material
I’ve written a lot about the dangers of trying to pass off life events as fiction. Your family and friends will know if your story hits too close to home. Some might judge you for oversharing. Some might take issue you with your portrayal of them.
This why you should mix several life events into a delegate life event that represents the purest form of the emotion you want to draw out of the reader. Make this event worse for your characters than you ever got it, conversely make your characters’ victories better than you’ve ever experienced. Extreme highs and lows make for good drama so long as they’re balanced.
Mix your life experience with those of family and friends, strangers you’ve observed, news events, and even fiction.
When casting characters based on past life events amalgamations should fill in for everyone. Represent people’s bad behaviors, not their appearances, innocuous relationships, or identifying character traits. If someone from your past sees themselves in your work you want to be able to maintain plausible deniability.
You want to be able to say, “That character is an upgraded archetype from old an Greek tragedy, but if you want to vindicate yourself by identifying with his nasty habits, by all means, be my guest.”
In David Lynch’s film The Lost Highway Fred Mason is asked why he doesn’t believe in owning a video camera. He explains, “Because I like to remember things the way I like to remember them, not the way they actually happened.”
Our eyes are not GoPro cameras. Our memories are filled with fallacies. We remember our life stories in three act structures with beginning middles and ends, when many of our plots are still ongoing. We perform mental gymnastics to make ourselves come out on top in ever situation. We let other witnesses influence our version of events.
Your writing need not depend on real life experiences to feel authentic. Your fleshed out, falsified, and fabricated version of events might feel just as true you. It’s the emotions you felt at them time that your writing should represent.
Think of an event a family member or friend said happened in a way that differs from your recollection. Why did you choose to remember the event differently? Did you add more tension for dramatic effect? Did you create a sense of urgency that may not have been there? Did you raise the stakes after the fact? Or did you warp the dialogue to make yourself sound like more of a badass?
Each of us have a Sliding Doors scenario going on in our imaginations. Each of us travel through our self centered multiverses. Each of us perform quantum self examinations.
Why not take some of our flashback fantasies and apply them to our stories?
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.
8 thoughts on “How Writers Can Remix the Past”
Yes, I can admit it. I am not cruel enough when I write. Something that is about to change, thanks to your timely advice. I knew something wasn’t quite right…
Excellent article, Drew. This really puts some of my recent work into perspective and has given me some ideas as to how I can fix some of the humdrum aspects of a few stories. I confess that I saw some of myself in your description (but then, I AM a novice writer so hooray, I’m typical). Great advice. Thanks for sharing your perspective.
As ever – some very astute insights together with pitfalls to avoid. Excellent post.
After a writer has learned to stop worrying and love putting their protagonists through the ringer, it becomes oddly addictive — not in a sadistic way, mind you, but you come to love the life-affirming charge you get by rewarding your hero with their hard-earned catharsis at the end. You, the author, were rooting for them, after all, to surmount the endless obstacles you kept throwing in their way so they might emerge a stronger, better person for having risen to the challenge.
You write very interesting stories!!
This is a thing. It’s called the Mary Sue effect. As a member of three crit groups, I see it a lot, esp in first-works. All the more reason I give the advice, “Take your first story, put it in a box….and burn it. Second one, too.” LOL
No doubt there is a lot of passion in creating that fictional-auto-biography – correcting sins and wish-fulfillment. (And let’s be honest, it’s easier to write a novel about yourself being thin and charming than to go on a diet and attend finishing school.) I think it’s important to maintain that passion, but let your characters be themselves. It was sobering when my characters began acting differently than I’d intended in the outline.
Thanks for another great post, Drew.