My friends at The Workprint were kind enough to let me do this series on here, as it’s an idea I’ve been playing around with for a very long time but had never had the platform to do so, until now.
This is a writing and storytelling blog I’ll be updating once a week. Usually on Sundays. I’ll be teaching how to write screenplays, as I discuss the wonders of storytelling – including sharing some magical experiences and strange lessons I’ve picked up along the way.
My goal is to get you as excited about stories as I am.
To do so, I’ll be utilizing different examples from movies, tv shows, and written scripts. All from material, you can access online that’s accessible to the public.
“Episode 1: Tell Us Your Story” will be about finding your voice as a writer. I will also feature some examples from Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film ROMA, an Oscar-contending movie initially released in November which is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Now, I can’t tell you that anything I am going to share with you is a guaranteed method of success. Mostly, because I don’t think anything in life is guaranteed. I myself, have yet to achieve a big break as a financially independent writer pursuing my passion as my career.
But what I can do is show you my process: what works for me from what I’ve learned between experience, classes, and people who work in the industry.
More than anything, of course, these blogs will serve as a discourse to discuss stories.
Monomyth: The Hero’s Journey (THJ)
The Monomyth is sort of the foundation for every starting screenwriter, which is why I named this ongoing blog series, Monomythic. Most screenwriting books utilize the Monomyth to discuss narrative structure; particularly, Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat – two books I highly suggest purchasing if you’re new to writing screenplays.
(There’s also Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers which does a step-by-step analysis of Monomythic structure, but for the intentions of starting, I’d say begin by reading the first two. Mostly, because that’s where I started.)
The monomyth is also more commonly known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’, a term popularized by renown mythologist Joseph Cambell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
THJ originated as a meta-analysis in comparative mythology, looking at recurring patterns in the most celebrated stories throughout history. Joseph Cambell’s approach to the monomyth, which has become the popular standard for the Monomyth, was influenced by the works of analytical psychology – particularly the archetypes described by Carl Gustav Jung.
Jung himself believed myths and dreams were a part of the collective unconscious. That there was a universality in stories that connected individuals in what it means to be human.
And while one can argue that the patterns in themselves could be confirmation bias, or better yet, just the foundations of storytelling originating in Aristotle’s Poetics – it’s still a handy outline in how to write a story.
Its premise is this:
“A hero goes on an adventure, overcomes a crisis, and then returns home, having grown and learned something along the journey.”
It’s simple, yet effective, and a somewhat general outline for almost every story you can imagine. Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of The Rings? All utilize this structure. So do many Blockbuster sized Hollywood movies.
Dan Harmon, the creator of TV hits Rick and Morty and Community, was such a huge proponent of it that he created his own version – one that he’d used for every single writing project he’d worked on up until recently.
But as is the nature of the beast, Hollywood had gotten very… formulaic. And like anything that takes a cookie cutter approach to art, audiences’ sort of caught wind and grew tired of the same old thing.
Now, THJ is sort of both liked and frowned upon depending on who you’re asking (Kind of like Star Wars: TLJ, which very much throws out THJ, but that’s for another episode!) But for the purposes of storytelling… knowing this force that ties all narrative stories together exists, is the first step into a larger world (to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Lesson 1: Tell Us Your Story.
Now, if you’ve read my works on this site before, you’ll know that I have a thing for Magnum Opuses: the grand project an artist aspires most to create. It is the piece the creator holds most dear to themselves: their most significant, and often most challenging achievement, amongst their body of work…
Now, I don’t see it as necessarily tied down to its accolades. It’s never really about the achievement. Mostly the reward is the work spent creating this impossible thing. Meant and made, not for its audience… but for the artist themselves.
And I emphasize that last point; as writing fiction is all about telling stories that we want to create. Because this is how the journey begins: by listening to your voice.
It can go by many names: Your ego. Yourself. That funny feeling inside your heart and soul? Maybe it’s the love for the craft dictating your actions? Or even just the thrill of the game?
Whatever it is that gets you impassioned to get those brain juices flowing to write words on the page?
That is your voice calling to you.
It’s the accumulation of experiences, interest, goals, and above-all-else: dreams of the individual.
And whether you realize it or not, it is a big part of what makes you special. The element that makes you the unique little snowflake that you are – which is going to be your selling point as a writer.
Why am I obsessing over this?
Because anyone can write. Well, not literally anyone, but most of us can write. And there will always be better writers out there. Better people who can create characters, or better people who can plot a story along together or throw in a surprising twist.
But what they can’t do is tell your story. Not the way that you can, because only you can do that. But it can only happen once you’ve really figured out that voice of yours…
So tell Us Your Story.
Sound advice? Awesome, thanks, it’s actually Neil Gaiman’s… I totally just ripped-it off and put my own small spin on it – something 99.9% of Hollywood Writers do.
Seriously, don’t do that and if you do, never tell your audience (like I just did).
So just to recap…
Step 1: Listen to yourself.
Maybe it starts with a thought journal? Or maybe, you can look at old pieces of writing? In fact, it doesn’t even have to be literature related! Look at your old books you used to read, listen to old cds (Do people still CD?), read former blogs/notes/social media posts.
Seriously think about who you are. If you had to summarize it and narrate your own life’s story, how would you categorize it or even begin?
Then, once you’ve seen how you’ve organized your story…
Acknowledge, hey that’s my voice! That’s how I think and talk about the world.
Step 2: Know Your Voice.
Alright, so now you know that’s your inner voice, right? Good. Love it. Know that it’s there…
However, the art of storytelling isn’t just about you. It’s about constructing these fake little people and ideas – these tiny aspects of yourself and the things that you’ve experienced, learned, or otherwise know about – and telling their stories. Because while they will always be a part of you…
Your characters and worlds you build are not you.
This is something I know many writers struggle with, myself included. The art of telling a good story is in the delivery of the details… but what happens when you yourself are the details?
What happens when you recapitulate your life’s story on the page, only to have it be rejected by the general audience – ergo, becoming a rejection of yourself? How do you handle that?
I’ll tell you right now: for most people, it’s not well.
Which is why I’m very critical about knowing your voice. Because then, you can know the difference between how you think, versus how the people, places and things in your newly constructed world think.
Your voice is a valuable tool to help ground yourself so that when you’ve hit a wall and are stuck with writer’s block: you can at least remember the story that you’re trying to write.
However, and I can’t stress this enough, the story is separate from you as a person. Your voice may be the accumulation of how you think and view the world, but it is only partially represented on the page – it’ll never be the fully totality that is…. well, you. Ya, snowflake.
Knowing your Voice is important for Two Big Reasons:
- While it’s a beautiful voice because it’s yours, you must be careful that you’re not forcing it upon your characters. This will better be explained in the characterization episode, but for now, think, “Is this something my character would do or is it something I’m forcing out of my insecurity?”
Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
- So that when the rejection hits, and trust me it will, you can distance yourself from the guilt and feelings of failure. Remember, it’s just your creation that the audience looks at, not you. It’s just the representation of your voice that you’ve put on the page. That’s all writing is: symbols that mean things. Which is also something that can be edited, changed or even trashed – it’s up to you… it’s your story.
Step 3: Tell Us Your Story
Taking steps one and two into account… tell us your story. The one that only you can tell.
Now, I’m not saying it’s necessary to go on some weird introspective journey of self-discovery. I’m not telling you to go Eat, Pray, Love around the world and write a book about finding yourself. Because even if you did, that doesn’t guarantee success, or that you’ll be pooping out golden nuggets of fiction. Even though sometimes I wish it did.
What I am saying in the most pragmatic terms possible is this:
That if you can figure out the things you’re naturally inclined to write about, write about them, and enjoy that process? All while not getting super bummed over rejection or the rewriting process…
Well then maybe you’re on the right path.
So tell us your story. You can even write it here in the comments below, just find a way to get it down somewhere and get writing.
And once you figure out the story you want to put out into the world… Well, then you’re one step closer to finding your voice, making good art, and becoming a better writer.
It takes time. And work. But once you begin, you’ll start seeing the patterns in your creations.
To better understand voice in cinema, we look at the movie Roma, a personally intimate film written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. For those who don’t recognize him, Cuaron is responsible for such hits such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity, and Children of Men – the latter two, being renown BAFTA award-winning films.
The movie is a tribute to his childhood growing up in the 1970s. Much of it, focused on his caretakers in Mexico City and growing up in a fragmenting middle-class family during a period of political turmoil.
The movie follows the journey of Cleo, a domestic worker (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio in her first movie) who serves as nanny and maid for Sra. Sofia (played by Marina de Tavira), a stand-in for what is essentially Cuaron’s own mother.
He wanted to tell us a story directly from his memory: the divorce of his parents, the woman who raised him, and the loss of her baby. He wants to come to terms with the elements that made him.
To do so, he shot entirely in black and white to enrapture a sense of nostalgia and memory – while simultaneously, filmed on digital to encompass a sense of the present. Because one can only experience back then through the period that is now.
Wanting to cast someone indigenous to the area, Cuaron chose to audition the role of Cleo, locally, as he wanted a more grounded approach to the movie. He yearned for something connected to this location, as it was the original location his memories of this time occurred. This place where Mexican his history was made.
He found this with actress Yalitza Aparicio, a preschool teacher who’d never acted before a day in her life. To Cuaron, Cleo’s journey was about her status and place in his family, the contradictory nature of how someone so beloved could still be held as a servant first, and a person later.
This works very well for the film. With praise given at his attempt of showcasing Cleo’s journey as a portrait of strength that both humanizes and empowers the everyday houseworker. Cleo was not family, yet she certainly earned a place to be considered an other mother…
To keep his story purely his memory, Cuaron received few notes and wrote the script mostly on his own. He wanted no second guessing in his process and did not ask for help from directors Alejandro Inarritu or Guillermo Del Toro, both of whom the director usually sought council from.
With all this in mind about the director’s vision… let’s look at how this speaks with his voice.
Roma’s Stylizing: Analyzing Cuaron’s Voice
First, watch this movie as there are spoilers. As you do, ponder about these questions along the way…
- Take a better look at the town’s environment. How the setting resonates with the message conveyed. Look particularly, at the ideologies of the men, the soldiers, and freedom fighters. Machismo alpha males enamored with war and revolution – very reminiscent of Les Miserables in my opinion. Whatever the take on it, there is symbolism of it littered throughout all the town.
With that in mind… how does this element of the setting conflict with our main narrative? How do these symbols contrast with the more family-oriented story, and why do you think that’s so?
- The director captures the beauty in the mundane. The story, taking place from the perspective of his housekeeper/nanny. Yet, if you notice most of the film is shot in absolute continuity – with several very long takes, especially in the house household Cleo works in with the family.
Why do you think this is?
- We have a father who is a breadwinner but is rarely ever present. Take notice of the Car he drives: A 2-Door black Galaxy 500. Luxurious, yet barely fitting inside the garage. In fact, even take notice of the dog shit. Notice the director’s attention to detail in these scenes. Finally, take notice towards the end, about what happens to the car in question.
It’s all symbolic. So, here’s my question to you: What does the complication of getting this oversized car into the garage represent? How does this change over time towards the end of the movie? Why is this significant?
Cinematography and Voice
Alright, now let’s look deeper at this movie. From the opening black and white images, we know we’re getting into an independent styled film – something less Hollywood, and more personal and intimate.
Watch the opening sequence. Water cascading over tiles – with the plane flying over deep in the distance. We get a sense that there’s a larger world out there, and yet, it’s from such a grounded perspective.
“They represent the constant presence of a modernity. A technological world that surrounds these characters and is in stark contrast to the shanty towns elsewhere. As humans, we have an amazing arc of technological development, but ethically we fluctuate.
This is a film that begins by looking at the ground. When the water comes in, you see the sky, but only as a reflection. And at the end, it finishes looking up at the sky. It’s that thing of the impossibility that there’s this metal object flying up there. It is the reflection of that impossibility that can happen when you try to come to terms with life.”
– Cuaron, in an interview with Deadline.
Cuaron’s voice resonates even from the establishing moments. It’s as if every scene conveys a message. And it never breaks it’s point-of-view, which is not from the perspective of Cleo; but rather, how the camera sees her. How Cuaron himself, sees his former caretaker.
Pay attention at the ways the camera moves in this movie. The continuous shots taking place in the home setting. When I say the movie is grounded, I don’t mean that Cuaron simply wanted just an organic feel. No, he wants to recreate these memories exactly; but knows that he can only do so from a distance, from the lens of the present.
Notice his use of the long takes. The details in establishing a sense of home. How seamless everything is in establishing a sense of space and time.
The reason he likes doing this is that it plays with the element of staying. There’s something about sticking to the scene and the inability to reorient that attracts Cuaron.
He wants you in the moment, where you can focus on what you desire…
This is huge. Whereas most directors cut in very particular and focused ways, Cuaron gives you control in these long takes. It’s a part of his voice: the exploration of visuals without restriction.
You can pay attention to the backdrop, the signs of protest, the tiny bookshelves of his old home. Cuaron wants you to explore what you will. It’s all meant for you to choose what to focus on…
Though personally, it just makes me feel dizzy.
Anyway, when I’d asked you about the director’s choice about the long takes with the family, it was because he wanted to stay in that moment. This movie, representing a recollection of his memory.
Take a look at one of the 360-degree continuous shots set in the home. The camera floats more like a ghost that comes from the future; something witnessing events of the past.
Likewise, this is a link to the script of ROMA. I’d suggest reading some of these descriptors – as they’re incredibly well detailed, beyond what is expected of YOU, as a screenwriter, to write about.
But we’ll get more into that another time.
Now, in contrast, look at the tracking shots set in the streets. They’re long and all-encompassing yet they cut more naturally in the film in a way that the interior scenes of the home do not. With everything well-lit in its natural lighting. Incredibly well detailed yet also… tragic in a way.
Now, I asked you about the setting’s environment and mentioned the elements of revolution and war. I think it’s best to examine this through the character of Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), in particular, his nude scene.
Now we haven’t really seen Cuaron use sexuality as a plot device since Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Yet, in this movie, we see the raw nakedness of a man. Someone held together through his martial art. There’s this vulnerability to this unadulterated openness. His art and his fighting? The only thing that matters to him – when everything is stripped away.
We’re meant to understand he is a soldier at war. And we’re meant to feel bad about what’s inevitably going to happen…
This is one of the most powerful moments of the movie. With much of the movie’s plot, building up to it.
In this scene, Cleo looks to buy a crib for her baby but on the way, she notices a student demonstration on the streets –riot police littered about almost every direction. Keep in mind, revolution is something the movie has subtly alluded to in the background. The movie selections, the student demonstrations, the outcry and opinions of the people – rich and poor.
When she’s shopping for this crib, we notice there are several clocks in the store: all pointing to the same time. A moment in history for Cuaron, forever eternalized.
Moments later, we see get a glimpse outside: Thousands of people scattered across the street, as all hell breaks loose, and a paramilitary group recklessly murders and picks off demonstrators – reenacting the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971.
More terrifying, is that the paramilitary breaks into the store and murderers a couple seeking refuge. And who is one of the triggermen? None other than Fermin, the father of Cleo’s child and the tragically mind-wished villain of the story.
As mentioned, this director never wastes a shot. Every image tells us a story, all leading to the climax: a stillbirth and a relieved, Cleo. Who in turn rejects the notion of having a family, yet accepts being a part of one that’s not their own.
Which brings me to my last question: The car that doesn’t fit? Well, by the end of the movie it does… because it’s a different car. Things change, technology changes and people change.
So does this family, and by the end of this movie… we have a different matriarchy. A different sort of loving parent.
So what can we say about Alfonso Cuaron’s voice?
- Well, we likes continuous takes because they allow you to pick and choose, playing with elements of space and time – by forcing you to stick with the story.
- That Roma meant very much to him – primarily as a reenacted memory in its purest possible form. Cuaron, going out of his way in capturing the feelings of this detail.
- That he’s a fan of powerful imagery. How symbols and items and descriptions build upon a story. To further this point, I’d even go back and watch Harry Potter or Children of Men. But for this movie, it’s evident in almost every scene.
Try This: How to Find Your Voice
Try journaling a little. See how you summarize your own life’s story – look for some themes and patterns that are there and self-analyze why you like writing about these topics.
Next lesson, I’ll share how I found my voice. Then show you different ways you can use this to get started with your story.