Book Review: Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story

Disclaimer: I realize this review is actually less of a review and more a reflection of my own conflicted soul.

When I began reading Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story by Jen Grisanti (Michael Wiese Publications), I was anticipating a peek into the secret world of Hollywood. I was also expecting to learn writing tips specifically for the inner workings of that world. And I did get both of those, but what I didn't expect was to feel incredibly torn about the processes revealed.

Grisanti essentially explores two aspects of writing in her book: structure and accessing emotion from past experiences to strengthen writing, and how those two work together.

She begins with how to develop a strong log line, "A brief description of the plot of your story that often involves an emotional hook and a hint of irony." She goes on to explain that a log line should contain the setup of who, the dilemma, action and the goal of the character. Grisanti's point is that if you start with a strong log line, which is a brief outline of your entire story, you increase the success of finishing the story the way you initially envisioned, without going off track. The log line functions as a way to structure the overall story, but it is ALSO a marketing pitch for that story when you're ready to sell it. This is where I have my first real glimpse of (and cringe from) Hollywood.

The second focus of the book is about accessing your past experiences and the emotions they evoked to bring depth and truth to your fictionalized writing. This is an update of the old adage "write what you know" which was never really meant to encourage writing about what a writer physically knew, such as the intricacies of brushing teeth or how to perform one's day job (even though that can be part of it), but it was a prompt for writers to understand their emotional depth. If that toothbrush always brought with it the memory of heartbreak how do you channel that feeling into writing? How do you create real and sincere characters based on your own experience?

This book does not deal with the craft of wordsmithing. Rather it seems to assume that its audience already understands the elements of writing, but not that of reaching for the emotion of past experience and effectively translating it into fiction. So if you are a writer looking for tips on how to craft that perfect line or highlight an exquisite metaphor, this is not the book for you. If you are a writer who wants insight into the business and how to tighten up and build your story arc then you are in luck.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it is too long. I think Grisanti could easily have accomplished the same goals at a shorter length with less repetition. She broke up the chapters so that first one chapter would encourage the reader to look into their past experiences, such as examining personal dilemmas, and then the next chapter would show how this would relate to writing dilemma in your scripts. However, I think she could have effectively combined those chapters. Her examples of current scripts, especially, got a little lengthy and since she focused on only three movies and a couple of TV shows I don't think she needed to provide the level of detail that she did throughout the book. The explanations she provided for each script at the beginning of the book should have sufficed. There were also a lot of questions directed at the reader for self-reflection and I felt those ultimately slowed down the pace of the book.

My overall impression of... not the book exactly... but the world it reflects left me torn and a little concerned. My background, because it is relevant here, is that I have a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing and my career was/is in marketing. From the marketing side, I absolutely understand the pragmatics of marrying your marketing pitch to your structure and writing process. There is definitely value here for writers who are struggling with breaking into the business and achieving the level of writing to do so. However, from the artist's perspective... there is a fine line between form and formula. I think there are many consumers like myself, people who really love the art of story, who have concerns about the formulaic movies coming out of Hollywood; and the many remakes in recent years do not help this concern. (I think TV is doing a lot better right now than movies when it comes to originality.) Reading Story Line made me realize that there are very specific things that Hollywood is looking for in a script. Even more disconcerting is reading instructions for writers as exact as: illustrate your dilemma by page 30 of a script or make sure your all is lost moment occurs at the second-to-last act break for a TV show. A writer could follow the patterns, hit every one of the things Hollywood is looking for, get the attention of a studio and get their movie made and this is, as we all know, no guarantee for excellence.

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