WHERE DO I START
One of the biggest challenges a writer will face at some point in his career is writing a story based on real life. Whether you're writing a biography or a completely fictional story, we writers imbue our stories with elements from our own lives all the time, and it can be difficult to develop* the discipline of separating oneself from our experiences in order to objectively ascertain whether or not real life actually makes good story.
You should see the looks I get from my students when I tell them their autobiographical stories aren't any good. "But it actually happened!" is their usual response. And I understand their heartfelt frustration. They had a life-changing experience, and they want to share it with people... and I just told them that their story was muddled and confusing.
The problem with telling real-life stories is multi-faceted, but usually the most frustrating part for the writer is knowing where their story should begin. Stories need context to make sense; that's why I take my students through a very deliberate process of constructing their protagonist's backstory. When you're creating a protagonist from scratch, you're tasked with building a character, but when you're borrowing a protagonist from real life, you're tasked with refining a character.
Different types of stories follow different types of archetypal structures. When we think of archetypes, we usually think of characters. But comedies, dramas, horror stories, etc., follow very specific patterns, and if you're trying to fit your real-life story into a specific genre, you're more than likely going to have to make some adjustments.
Stories also work best when they are centralized around specific themes and goals. When a story has too many problems to solve, the narrative gets diluted and the writer has no idea what to do with the character throughout the majority of the second act. Second Acts are all about testing your main character in really specific ways as they fight to solve a central story problem.
The central story problem should be a single problem that is uniquely designed to test your main character in a single way, resulting in a single lesson that your character learns about herself. Of course there are countless examples of amazing films in which multiple problems are solved (secondary and tertiary storylines), and a film can have more than one theme (they often do).
But as an exercise, it's good for novice writers to begin by focusing on the singulars, or the "1's" of their story. When we writers tell stories from our lives, we tend to include more information than the audience really needs. We want to tell a story about the 3 lessons we learned as we tried to solve 5 different problems, as we contended with 4 different antagonists, while living our lives with 8 redundant characters most of whom serve no narrative purpose whatsoever. Yes, I just called your baby sister redundant.
Of course lil' Suzie is an important part of your life, but once you narrow your story down to one central story problem, you might realize that lil' Suzie actually didn't affect that particular part of your journey that much, and so, in the big screen adaptation of your life, you might have to let lil' Suzie go... or at least save her character for the sequel.
So what are the 1's of good storytelling? Here is a list of ten questions to ask yourself as you begin putting a story together. These questions can help you build a fictional story or refine a real-life story. They can also be very helpful when creating documentaries; use these basic questions as a template for writing questions you'd ask a documentary subject. Because even in documentaries, you're not looking to just show someone's life, you're looking for their story.
1. Who is the 1 main character?
2. What is the 1 problem your main character had to face in their story?
3. What is the 1 thing that kept your main character from dealing with their problem?
4. What is the 1 thing that forced your main character to finally deal with their problem?
5. What is the 1 thing your main character had to do in order to solve their problem?
6. What is the 1 thing that stood in your main character’s way?
7. What is the 1 thing or person that kept your main character from giving up?
8. What is the 1 lie your main character believed about him/herself at the beginning of their story?
9. What is the 1 truth the main character learned by the end of their story?
10. What is 1 example of how the world was made better because the main character solved the problem?
Once again, keep in mind that many great stories have more than 1 of everything, but by coming up with singular answers to the above questions, you're on a solid road to discovering your story's foundational structure. Once you have that backbone in place, you can experiment with adding some thematic elements back into your storyline.
Real life doesn't always play well on the big screen. If it did, why would we ever go to the movies? Most of our stories are very internal; films are all about the external, the cinematic, the photographable. The greatest writers who are able to write stories based on real life are the writers who are able to slightly remove themselves from the process, be objective...
...and always put story first!