August: Osage County (2014) + How to Get Away With Telling Your Life Story On-Screen

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Screenwriter: Tracey Letts, Director: John Wells

Bet you thought it was a cool idea, brave even, to share your life story on-screen?

Wrong. Well, maybe if you already know a few good magic tricks.

We often use our own lives as inspiration for the stories we tell but it is *how* we serve up a story that proves how good a storyteller we are. Sadly, a lot of writers mess this part up.

Truthfully, most of our first drafts convey a memoir tone. It can be problematic though, as we can come off narcissistic or victimizing. Still, we gleefully rush off to share our work with the world anyway, hushing the possibility that we’ve done it all wrong.

But eventually, without fail, whether among writing peers or somewhere casually pitching our story, some ignoble prick musters up the indecency to question our story’s heart. They’ll scrunch up their nose and ask ever so rudely, “Is this about you?,” then sink you with a “I don’t know, you sound a little… “attached.”

Ouch.

The first time this happens, it’s soul-crushing. Like a butterfly being slapped around by gushing rains on the worst day ever. But it is sobering, if nothing else. But if we just so happen to experience repeats of this writer embarrassment, it becomes incredibly harder to suppress a vicious wave of anger, resentment and confusion.

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These people, albeit ignorant and blasphemous, dish us an unexpected quandary. The chance that our story possibly doesn’t sound like one at all but more so, a diary.

This begs the question of how exactly scriptwriters should package their life chronicles.

Presentation, is the deal-breaker, as writing movies are about so much more than divulging raw, unfiltered anecdotes. It’s about audiences having a visceral, lightening experience.

So we must ask the right questions.

Do you tell the story from beginning to end? Do you include everything? Do you start in the middle, filling audiences in as you go along? Do you offer multiple perspectives with the use of ensemble casts or simply use a single POV?

The veracious family narrative that is August: Osage County might hold the answer.

It’s a stellar flick. One that doesn’t need another rave review. The dialogue, characters and plot are all on point. Yay.

What’s really fascinating about August: Osage County is its being a true account of the film’s screenwriter, Tracy Letts’ childhood Oklahoma experience.

After reading his New York Times profile piece, I thought, “Oh wow, he got away with it. He put his real life story on-screen.” Because in our business, it seems to be dirty business when a screenwriter offers up their life story to script.

We’ve all tried it as fledging amateurs, I’m sure. But what’s interesting in real life doesn’t always transfer well to screen. So to see this guy pulled it off, well, it’s kind of inspiring.

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It’s not that we can’t share our life chronicles on-screen. But in film, shopping around an unsolicited memoir is always the harder sell. Still, our desire (and compulsion) to share our testimony never quiets. So here’s how you could go about sharing your truth.

Three Sneaky Ways To Get Around Telling Your Life’s Story (without penalty)

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Character Mashup

August: Osage County is a female-driven film yet, Tracy Letts is a man.
I still can’t figure out what character was molded after him.

His story is experienced and presented through a different lens. He removed himself as the story’s subject.

And perhaps, too often, writers view their lives through just their eyes, ultimately limiting perspective. And maybe that’s why we fail.

Truth is, everyone is the reigning protagonist in their lives. But if writers could mash character identities (altering and mixing up age, gender, family roles and so on), stories could be written from a more refreshingly, objective standpoint. Maybe it’s what allows us to see the full scope of our story and in turn, keep audiences engaged. Because scriptwriting is never about replicating real people to screen, it’s about channeling and transferring their essence into the most compelling characters.

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A Theme Bigger Than Sympathy

What lens do you view your story through? Be honest. Who’s your true audience? Is it your past self or others like you who can learn from your experiences?

Theme is the one thing that separates a masterful story from a soapbox session.

It’s your exploration of a sub-topic within a general topic (like family, love, or death) but told from a specific lens.

We writers hold the sweet task of digging into life experiences and piecing it all together for deeper meaning. You don’t have to sell audiences on an idea, or solution. But you do have to offer new perspective. Something, anything that we can connect to.

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During story development, it’s important to nail down your story’s philosophy and symbolism. It inspires the plot, enriches story’s stakes and its subsequent conflict. Plot does not work without an identifiable theme.

What is it exactly that you’re trying to teach others and bring awareness to? In what ways is your story bigger than you? Your answers can help you discover the heart of your story.

August: Osage County is about family hypocrisy, generational pathology, and running out of second chances. It’s also about so much more than Tracy Letts’ unfortunate childhood losses. It’s about choosing to do what’s right for your life.

Theme is bigger than sympathy. Theme is empathy. It’s what yanks audience’s hearts and ceases to let go until rolling credits.

You may fail to hook audiences without it. Ask yourself what wisdom has come from your experiences.

Streamline the good stuff

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The movie didn’t need the extra screen time. It was presented succinctly enough. A lean script is a healthy script. I’m grateful its vital scenes were masterfully condensed into less than two-hours.

| Screenwriters tip

The lesson is to trim down stories to the moments that matter to the overall theme. Not all details are crucial. And that’s hard to accept, as most details of our tales feel equally important. But ask yourself not only what scenes you could do without but, which scenes can be trimmed and even merged into others. Practice stripping down your scenes to their bare essence. Arriving early and leaving late does wonders for your script.

Also, consider your character’s breaking points, moment of impacts and what’s influencing their emotional state.

It may be impossible to share every detail.

But instead, isolate crucial moments and show only the physical acts that lead up to them. We’ll think about the character’s motives later. Your objective is to show us the action of a character’s emotions. We’ll intuitively figure out why a character has done something if you, as the writer, know why and adequately show it through their behavior.

If you can balance that consistently throughout a story, audiences will enjoy the thrill of being dropped straight into conflict and jetted to the next moment.

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Many of us consider writing a memoir at some point. But maybe a book isn’t the way to go. August: Osage County sets a blueprint for how to successfully get away with sharing your testament without playing victim, alienating audiences or losing direction by focusing too much on your own feelings or the past.

How well you package and present your story greatly determines how marketable your script is. Do it right and you can be confident others won’t punish you for being honest about your experiences. It takes little more than removing yourself as the main subject and exploring your life story through a different lens.

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