The following is an excerpt from her book, Just Effing Entertain Me, coming out in late 2010.
In the world of comic books, origin stories are the back stories for the superhero. How, why and when our superhero began his or her trajectory of internal pain and superhero-ness. You know - Batman and his murdered parents, Spiderman, the radioactive spider and his uncle's death for which he blames himself, Superman and his destroyed planet. Luke Skywalker and the loss of his aunt, uncle and very home. Wait - he's not a superhero. But this is still his origin story, isn't it? The beginnings of a lifelong adventure. A pivotal point in his life that changed him forever.
What is your main character's origin story? Regardless of genre, your main character is on an arc of change, right? What was that moment that defined the hole your main character has been trying to fill ever since? What defined them long before your story began? If there was a moment of origin for your main character, your script is then going to be the second most defining moment of their lives, right? Because your script is in some ways the continuation of a story that already began long ago.
Your main character's origin story doesn't have to be tragic - you might be writing a comedy - but the point is that something in your main character's life set them upon a path, positive or negative and now, because screenwriters get to play god, you are going to set a story in motion that will irrevocably change your main character once more. Change the direction of their orbit forever. And it's deeply satisfying, as a writer, because in real life while many do have defining moments, often it's more of a cumulative effect, right? Experiences pile up, one atop the other and slowly shape us, like a rock being battered by the sea. As we get older, we begin to soften and change.
But movies are life writ large - there are defining moments, pivotal conversations, forced decisions and cathartic, satisfying changes. That that's why we like to go to the movies - to look for patterns, closure and exciting outcomes when in real life, things can seem to move at a glacial pace. Even so - look at your own life - do you have a moment that defined you? Or a period of time? Something about where you grew up, something that happened in your family? A bully at school? A teacher who believed in you? That jerk who fired you and led you to your career today? Were you lucky enough to find the love of your life and that person lifted you up to a whole new level because they love you so? Or did you lose someone and that profound loss lent you a whole new point of view?
We writers have more in common with our main characters than we like to admit. Our main characters live out our fantasies - they get revenge when we were unable to. They speak the truth when we weren't heard. They overcome their fears. They have the perfect come back, romantic gesture or courageous response. They turn heartbreak into triumph, they take chances and they discover the truth about themselves. They overcome grief and find grace. They are us the way we wish we were.
Julie Gray is the founder of The Script Department, Hollywood’s premier script coverage service. She also directs the Silver Screenwriting Competition and authors the popular screenwriting blog, Just Effing Entertain Me. Julie consults privately with a wide variety of writers and teaches classes at Warner Bros., The Great American PitchFest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador. Julie lives in Los Angeles, California; her book Just Effing Entertain Me is slated for release in late 2010.