In film school I knew a Legendary Story Structure Professor who’s the Obi-Wan Kenobi of screenwriting, beloved not only by current students, but also by the many Million Dollar Screenwriters he’s taught over the last forty years. He has a theory that you can structure the story of your own life into three logical acts, just as you would a script. To find your way out of a rough patch, just figure out what act you’re in.
Unfortunately, my personal story arc is so convoluted I’m no longer even sure whether I’m still the protagonist. For all I know, I could be the antagonist, living under some ancient family curse ever since one of my Irish ancestors dug up the wrong potato patch, ousting some bitchy leprechaun from the comfort of his rock. For generations thereafter, all aspiring Big Hollywood Screenwriters in the family would be doomed not only to fail spectacularly, but also to come within a hair’s breath of success, time and again.
Since "Julie Goes To Umatilla" doesn’t sound like a very exciting storyline, I’m left with no choice but to go back and try to fix the one I started here in Hollywood, beat by beat. Then and only then will I be released of my bleak fate and ready to accept stardom, glamour and happiness as my one true destiny by the time my credits roll.
ACT I: Suffering a lifelong case of middle child syndrome, Little Julie first seeks the spotlight as a raindrop in the school play, where she remembers a good many of the lines to B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” while costumed in pink tights and Reynolds Wrap. Her reliance on verbal skills surfaces by the time she completes high school having avoided any classes in math, science or gym. She goes to college, dabbles in acting and improv comedy, and ultimately pursues a globetrotting glamour career as a successful travel writer.
INCITING INCIDENT: She meets and marries a Croatian Cruise Ship Maitre D’ who ultimately fails to support her secret desire to run away to Hollywood, since doing so would surely decrease his ability to shop at the Gap, drink vodka in the morning and remain unemployed the rest of the day. Cutting him loose like a big Slavic albatross, our heroine heads west with a two hundred-pound Neopolitan Mastiff named Bunny, where she’s received by many old friends and relatives.
ACT II: The friends and relatives either move away or die, as does the chronically ill dog. Julie soon learns that, though she was one of ten finalists whittled down from thousands of applicants to a major screenwriting competition, she didn’t win. What remains of her travel writing career goes irreparably south when she lands a spot in a demanding studio television apprentice program, where an inadvertent insult perceived by one of the sluttier executives ensures that our heroine is passed over for a staff writing job.
MIDPOINT: Julie once again seizes control of her destiny, gaining admittance to the M.F.A. Screenwriting Program of one very Big Deal Film School.
Reveling in campus life, our heroine grows her craft within the warm embrace of all but a few No Talent Bitches among the otherwise warm and wonderful student body. Nurtured by Doting Faculty and Famous Industry Mentors, she writes the Hilarious Funeral Comedy that ultimately attracts both her Very Supportive Manager and her High-Powered Entertainment Lawyer. She then embarks on a year-long Evian Tour of every lot in town, drinking pricey bottled water while entertaining many colorful reasons why her movie will not ever be made, not no way, not know how.
LOW POINT: When her part-time teaching position is eliminated, she’s cast out into the dreaded world of office temping. On assignment at a Legendary Hollywood Trade Magazine, she’s sent directly to the basement, where Some Wormy Janitor Guy offers instruction in the operation of an industrial shredder. Sixteen boxes of water-damaged documents are to be fed into the jaws of the machine one page at a time—yielding multiple blocks of allergen-rich waste paper, each roughly the size of a bail of hay. All goes well until a flying sliver lodges beneath her lower lid, and Julie is sent home to ponder the tattered shreds of her own life.
Which brings us to Act III, when our heroine...Okay, this is where I keep getting stuck. Any idiot who’s ever seen a movie, let alone written one, knows I’m supposed to reach deep down inside myself and somehow manage to pull off the impossible. Luke Skywalker would line up the damn little radar button right along now, destroying the Death Star for good. I’m pretty sure my mission is to write another brilliant screenplay in my free time, but the truth is I’m not sure I’ve got a new one in me right now.
I tried to consult my Obi-Wan for advice, only to discover he’d had a heart attack followed by emergency surgery. My first reaction, since everything is about me, was this must be part of my Irish curse. Then I remembered that Luke also lost his mentor, but heard his voice loud and clear at the all-important dramatic climax. I feel confident that should I ever get that far, my teacher will be right there whispering just the right words in my ear. The trouble is, while you learn all kinds of things in film school about cinematically resolving your own life story, one thing they can’t give you is the details.