The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Madhuri Shekar
Madhuri Shekar is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She is an alum of the Juilliard Playwriting program, a fellow at New Dramatists, and the 2020 winner of the Lanford Wilson Playwriting award. Most recently, Madhuri was a staff writer for the HBO show The Nevers. Her audio play Evil Eye debuted on the Audible best-seller list in May 2019, and won the 2020 Audie Award for Best Original Work. Madhuri also wrote the feature film adaptation of Evil Eye, which was produced by Blumhouse, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Her numerous plays have been developed or showcased at Center Theatre Group, the Old Globe, the Kennedy Center, the Hedgebrook Playwrights Festival, South Coast Repertory, the Movement Theater Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ma-Yi Theatre, NY Stage & Film, and Juilliard. Madhuri has an MFA in Dramatic Writing from USC, and a dual Master’s degree in Global Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and USC.
You’ve written for the stage and the screen, and even more recently audio plays. What’s your favorite medium for storytelling?
Theater is where my heart is and has always been. I love that it’s just so intimate. There’s nothing like watching the actors right in your face. But I also like writing for TV because you stay with it for such a long time. The best TV shows allow you to watch the evolution of characters over time, which is very exciting, and theater and films can’t do that.
What are the different challenges and opportunities with storytelling in television versus theater?
Theater and film are liminally time bound. You enter at a specific point, and it’s done in the span of 2-3 hours. So the stakes can be really high. You can literally destroy the whole world. That’s actually what I do in my play House of Joy. At the end of the play, the whole world is destroyed. You can’t do that on TV.
If I were to pitch that story as a TV show, the pilot couldn’t end that way. Then I’d have nowhere to go. So I have to think about what the story would be if I had to live with these characters for 6 years. So then smaller moments are part of the story. TV is really made for smaller moments and can do it really well.
But this idea is nothing new. This is literally how oral storytelling in every single culture developed over centuries. All of the epics are kind of like TV. It would take these poets a really long time to tell a very, very long story and people would keep coming back to them. As the generations went on, people would add on their interpretations of those stories to that. Everything that we do right now from comic books to TV, that’s basically how storytelling has always worked. We just keep adding onto what our ancestors started.
The other thing about writing for TV is if I’m employed as a staff writer on a TV show, my entire job is to support the showrunner by creating the product that they want in their head. It’s a very specific skill of really listening to them, understanding their point of view and what excites them and then contributing in whatever way you can to help them realize that vision. Sometimes a showrunner makes a choice you wouldn’t make. So your job is to be understanding and empathize with what they want to do. Maybe it’s not a choice I would make creatively, but how can I help them execute their choice in the best way possible?
You also have to study the showrunner’s own writing sample, usually the pilot episode of the show, to get a sense of what their voice is like and try to emulate that. It’s really hard to write like somebody else, but I enjoy it a lot too. You get to work with other people, which for someone like me who hates to work in isolation, is really helpful. I need to talk constantly about what I’m writing so that I can figure out the story problems through conversation. A TV writer’s room is built for that. Your whole job is to just talk out story problems with each other, pitch ideas, and figure out what would be the best solution to a problem. I don’t really get that necessarily in playwriting and feature film writing.
How much do you think about your audience, versus just making something for yourself?
I always start from where the audience is sitting. Like where is the audience actually sitting? I try to visualize it as I’m writing. If it’s a play, where’s the stage in relation to the audience? What are the limitations and possibilities? You’re crafting that whole experience. If it’s for TV, it’s the same thing. Where is the audience? How am I meeting them? What do they need to know? What’s possible in this 2 dimensional frame? So you have to start from the audience’s point of view and then walk backwards to the producers and the artists who have to actually make the thing you’re writing. You have to think about what can physically, logistically, and financially be done. Finally it comes back to well, what do I want to do?
But that doesn’t mean you cater or pander to the audience. First you start by figuring out the story you desperately want to tell. Once you know that, it becomes your true north. Unlike a novel, when you’re writing a script you’re writing a blueprint. You then need to go and collaborate with creators to actually make the thing, which will then be served up to an audience who will experience it in a very specific way. So your script has to tell the story, but it also has to be defined by how the audience will experience it and how it’s possible to produce it.
When you’re beginning to tackle a story, what do you think about? What’s your process like?
Every story I write starts from a different place. It’s started from a challenge to myself to write in a genre that I haven’t written in before, or reading a random article on the internet that I find fascinating. But every single time, I cannot start writing until I know who the central character is in a very deep way.That can take a long time to figure out, but nothing will work until I know who the central character is and what they deeply want. Until I feel like I know them like a friend, I won’t be able to start writing.
Part of that is figuring out – how are they like me? I try to figure out what is it within each character that I deeply relate to. Right now I’m writing a huge ensemble piece for TV. For every single character I need to find something within them where I’m like, I get that. I’m writing very different characters from each other, but with each one I can understand their point of view. I know I can start writing a script when I write the antagonist and protagonist and I’m fully committed to both of their arguments. I can be on either of their sides at any moment. That means I need to find something inside them that I deeply relate to.
The trickiest part of writing is that you have to write somebody who is believably human, but also fascinating. If you write somebody who is way too interesting, they don’t seem like they’re human beings any more. Even if you’re writing space aliens or anthropomorphic feelings inside a brain, they still have to be recognizably human. That’s just kind of how our storytelling works. So you’ve got to ask yourself, do these characters make sense? Are they acting in ways that are both human and interesting at the same time?
If you’re blocked or stuck, what do you do?
I truly believe that if you suddenly feel super stuck in the process of writing something, it’s because at some point your character has made a choice that they would not actually make if you were to actually think about them as a human being. So then the way to get out of writer’s block is to do the difficult work of dismantling the whole story, going to the beginning and thinking about, well, what would my character actually do? I swear that always fixes it. That’s the only way to get out of that problem.
Have you always been a storyteller? How did you go down this career path?
My parents encouraged storytelling since I was really young. I always loved writing and loved, loved, loved books. I thought they were the most mysterious, magical things. I’ve always been really fascinated with fiction. When I was in my teens, I started writing Harry Potter fanfiction. So the first time I learned how to write a story was through this online, super supportive fanfiction community. I think fanfiction is one of the best ways for people to get into writing, because all you’re doing is playing in a world that somebody else has created. You’re not doing all of the tremendous work of creating brand new characters, worlds and systems. You just enter a world and play with characters you already love, and you get to try things out and experiment in a very low stakes way. Harry Potter fanfiction was when I finally was like, oh my God, I wrote a story. I cracked the mysterious code of narrative.
The reason I started to really love writing plays is because when I was writing short stories and Harry Potter fan fiction, I only wanted to write the dialog and I didn’t want to write anything else. I found the prose part of prose really frustrating and not interesting to me. With plays, I just had to write the dialog and that made me so happy. That’s how I got into playwriting. Then transitioning from theater to film and TV is much easier than other types of writing.
What’s your favorite storytelling device?
If you want to make someone do something insane in your story – make them do it out of love. There’s a great line from Marti Noxon, who’s a veteran TV writer, that a good protagonist is someone who is fully committed to a terrible plan. I love that and I genuinely think it’s true. So how do you get a normal human being to that place? Nine times out of ten you can do that because of love. That’s the device I rely upon if something is missing from a story, and I need to get a character to do something. I make them do it out of love. It doesn’t have to be romantic love either. It could be obsession, familial love, or friendship.
It works because love is an incredible motivating force, and it’s not always logical. It’s my favorite hack to share with people. Why did Walter White do what he did in the pilot? It’s out of love. When you start a character on a roller coaster, they can find all sorts of other rationalizations to commit to their terrible plan. You’ve got to look at what your characters love more than anything in the world, and then figure out what they will do for that person or that thing.
How do you make a story better?
Feedback and rewriting, constantly. Making it better is baked into TV and film writing. All your contracts have drafts baked in. So you go into a project knowing that there will be rewrites. Even if you write a first draft and you think it’s absolutely brilliant, you know you’re going to write two more drafts anyway – because that’s what you’re getting paid for. Inevitably the drafts become better because it’s never going to be actually that brilliant the first time.
With a play, when you get feedback it is usually geared towards questions like: What are you trying to achieve? What is your intention? Let me give you feedback to let you know whether you’re succeeding in executing your intention. That is extremely helpful. The best thing you can do is share your draft with people you trust, and communicate your intention to them so they can tell you whether or not they are receiving the impact of that intention. The whole point of rewriting is to make your draft match up to what you have in your head and your heart. If you’re not clear about your intention, it’s going to be a miserable process. That’s true in theater and TV.
There’s this great article with advice for aspiring TV writers called The Eleven Laws of Showrunning by veteran TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. The number one rule is to know exactly what your show is, and tell everyone you work with constantly what your show is. That’s actually what most showrunners fail at doing because it’s really hard to know exactly what your intention is. That’s one of the hardest parts of writing. So you’ve got to know what your story is, and you’ve got to communicate it constantly. Especially if you’re in a collaborative medium. It’s true even if you’re writing a novel, or a graphic novel, or something else. You’ve got to know what your story is and communicate it with your editor, your readers, your reviewers, your spouse, your friends who are helping you out. It’s so essential.
I think on a bigger scale, we can improve the quality of storytelling in this country with universal health care, living wages, child care, and good public schools. I think that will increase the quality of storytelling. The barrier for a lot of quality storytellers being able to work is economic. The best way for us to be better as storytellers is whenever we have the chance to increase access to platforms for people who haven’t had their stories told. We need to recognize how limited our worldviews are, and increase access to artists who haven’t had any sort of entryway to incredibly lucrative and gate-kept industries like TV and film.
How do you measure the impact of a story?
If somebody feels moved by what I wrote or feels connected to it, that’s the impact right there. That’s all I need. We’ve all experienced it ourselves. We so many times have read a story or a book or an essay or a tweet, and then it helps us re-frame something in our own lives. It makes our lives better or easier or more interesting and nuanced. We know what that means to us, that piece of text. If I can do that for somebody else, that’s huge.