Halfway through my run here at Applied Sentience, I figured it was about time that instead of talking about other people’s art, I opened up a little about my own. If you read author bios you might know that I’m a screenwriting MFA student at DePaul University. While my great ambition remains writing for a high-budget feminist superhero action hour, that’s, uh, not really within the current scope of my powers and resources. (Except for the feminist part, one hopes.)
So when I recently had to film something for one of my classes, I stuck with what I do best: an awkward, meandering, whisky-lubricated conversation in a confined space.
What’s that? Yes, I’m still talking about writing. I swear. SHUT UP.
Write for Your Niche
This fall, I took a class on writing web series. One of the most important things we learned was that a successful web series often needs to tap into a very specific niche audience. This doesn’t mean it will only be interesting to that niche. If that were the case, Felicia Day probably wouldn’t have built an empire out of The Guild. But a niche is what enables a web series to get a foothold, rather than disappearing into the ever-growing jungle of the internet. That core audience—in Day’s case, MMORPG devotees and perhaps gamer-adjacent fantasy fans—can then evangelize to a wider viewing public.
“Write for a niche!” is kind of the opposite of advice we get in some other screenwriting classes. Hollywood likes archetypes, Hollywood likes the lowest common denominator, Hollywood likes broad strokes. (For good reason!) But the way to the universal is often through the specific. Broad strokes usually aren’t enough to engender love for fictional characters. This is because no one’s life is written in broad strokes. What makes your life your life are its details. The proverbial “little things.”
People don’t love Rory Gilmore just because she’s someone’s daughter. They love Rory Gilmore because the ways in which she’s her mother’s daughter include her taste in music and her propensity for eating her feelings. Eating my feelings is not my go-to coping mechanism, but I do get it, and I definitely see people I know in Rory. She is recognizably human and vivid and individual—not just a network executive’s vague idea of a young woman.
But to be clear, for a web series, you’re not aiming for a CW-sized audience. So you can get even more specific, even more personal, even more weird. You can afford to alienate a lot of people, if you’re pretty sure you’re going to pull certain other people in.
So what niche did I try to write for? According to my original pitch, I was aiming for “atheists/agnostics/nones who don’t identify with Richard Dawkins.” Also “obsessive Heather Havrilesky readers,” but we can stick with the first thing. I called it Soul Searching.
SCRIPT TO SCREEN
More from my original pitch:
Something is missing from CJ’s life, but she’s not sure what. Good job, nice apartment, loyal friends, just finished paying off her student debt. She doesn’t have a religious bone in her body, but after losing a bet and having to attend a mass with a Catholic friend, she’s moved to entirely unwilling tears by the homily. The next week, a free yoga class gives her a moment of something suspiciously resembling transcendence (#eyeroll) and inner peace (#gag). So CJ takes her hippy sister’s advice to take a little tour of religious and spiritual traditions in the city (#problematic), to see if anything speaks to her. Assuming her eyes don’t roll right on out of her head first.
For better and/or worse, this is definitely not what I ended up writing. I’m sure someone out there could pull off the “religion tour” thing without making it really tacky, but I don’t think that someone is me. Plus the inciting incident is very silly.
A few weeks after that pitch, I wrote this additional mission statement:
Soul Searching is about the need that even some thoroughly godless people, up to and including those who would not describe themselves even as “spiritual but not religious,” have for something like a spiritual practice. It’s about a need to feel connected to something bigger than the self, and about the way that we assign and perceive meaning. When Nietzsche said God was dead, he wasn’t celebrating; he was worried that a Europe shaped for nearly two thousand years by Christianity had forgotten how things could be meaningful even without a transcendental authority from above saying they were meaningful.
This idea—if not what actually followed—was heavily influenced by the recent, must-read series on grieving as an atheist by my AS colleague Meghan Guidry. I’m Catholic by upbringing but agnostic at heart and a series of question marks by temperament, and have with limited success practiced yoga and meditation in hopes of attaining some kind of inner order, so Meghan’s series sunk some claws into me that I haven’t managed to pry out. I’d thought Soul Searching would help, but the five episodes I eventually wrote were… not great.
Still, the pilot I shot turned out pretty well. If you’ve got six minutes you can watch it here:
In addition to any number of inaccuracies about how missionaries work, you may have noted that virtually nothing I mentioned above is explicit in that pilot.
I wanted to write a story about an atheist who goes on a journey sort of parallel to “finding religion,” without actually having a conversion experience. This is clearer in an earlier version of the script, if annoyingly on-the-nose. Dialogue tells us CJ never had a spiritual practice, and now she’s looking for something like it. The biggest problem of the first series draft was that there was no really good reason for CJ to go on such a quest.
I ultimately decided that this inciting event, preceding the pilot, would be a disagreement over whether to have a church wedding. That specific conflict helped me sketch out an arc for the series rewrite, but with the side effect that Soul Searching became about CJ’s attempt to address this relationship issue—not about an atheist engaging with religion and ritual, or even about a hot mess trying to bring order to her life. In the name of being more accessible to a broader audience, this might not have been a bad thing.
But what I gained in drama and straightforwardness I lost in focus and vividness. Remember: I was supposed to be writing for a niche. “Her fiancé wants a church wedding and she doesn’t! Awkwardness ensues!” is maybe a half-decent logline, but I had lost sight of the little things. (Except for CJ’s love of donuts. That definitely came back.) This was pretty disappointing.
I intend to impart no particular lesson here, besides maybe, as my thesis advisor might say, “Yeah. Writing is hard.” A question that remains unanswered is whether my failure was in letting the series stray too far from the pitch, or in trying to tackle that “atheists/agnostics/nones” niche in the first place. I doubt most of my class would have guessed the intended audience, but they liked it anyway, I think because of the performances. Working with actors has so far been my favorite part of film school.
But my class wasn’t the target niche. Indeed, at least some subsection of the Applied Sentience readership is. So I hope you liked it too.