6 Screenwriting Lessons to Learn From Dan Fogelman’s LIFE ITSELF

Dan Fogelman breaks hearts and makes everyone reach for the tissues every week on This Is Us, but few realize that he actually has an equally lucrative screenwriting career for the big screen. The man who penned Crazy Stupid Love, Tangled, and Last Vegas, came back last month with his most personal film ever. 

Life Itself follows a group of individuals in New York and Spain, whose lives connect in unexpected ways. It’s funny, heartfelt, sad, and all around wonderful. The screenplay, and the movie itself, contain plenty of lessons that can be applied to screenwriting for all genres. 

Here are six of those lessons. (And thankfully, no tissues will be needed while reading this article.) 

1. SPECIFICITY IS GOOD

Dan Fogelman has admitted that he wrote Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind into Life Itself because the album provided the soundtrack to his writing. This detail is embellished throughout and embedded into the character’s personalities and the story. And the best part? You don’t need to be a Bob Dylan fan to feel the impact of his choice. 

If you write the specifics well enough, your audience members will be drawn into the story because of the passion that comes through in your writing. 

2. SUBTLE DETAILS ARE EVEN BETTER

Audiences love subtle details. You know, the things they might not notice the first time around, but will be incredibly apparent upon second or third viewing. These details enrich the viewing experience, make your movie more like real life, and let your audience in on the story in a deeper way. 

There are plenty of subtle details in Life Itself — the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Pulp Fiction references, the music box tune. Some are in the screenplay, some aren’t — but all make the characters and the story feel even more real. 

3. VOICEOVER NARRATION IS TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE

Many screenwriters don’t think so, but there’s nothing wrong with a little V.O. While voiceover narration isn’t right for all stories, there are plenty of cases in which it can actually make a screenplay better. Life Itself is just one of those screenplays. 

Without the narration, Life Itself wouldn’t work. The narration provides the backbone for the entire movie, with the narrator popping in and out to move the story along through the various chapters.

On another level, the narrator serves a second function in Life Itself, given Abby’s obsession with the idea of life as an unreliable narrator. Her obsession, and the trick of the double narrator in the beginning of the film, causes the audience to question whether or not the narrator herself is reliable. That is, until her identity is revealed at the end of the movie. 

4. STRUCTURE CAN, AND SHOULD, BE DIFFERENT

One of the most surefire ways to lose touch with your audience members is to recycle an old plot structure. Viewers are smart. If they’ve seen something before, they’ll be able to tell… and they won’t leave your movie feeling satisfied. 

Life Itself doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to structure — Dan Fogelman uses the “chapter” technique to divide his story into five different parts — but that’s okay. Fogelman relied on a structure that would allow his movie to impact viewers, and he then used that structure to his advantage in terms of pacing, plot, and character arc. 

5. VILLAINS AREN’T NECESSARY

Though Olivia Wilde’s Abby may make audiences wonder whether certain characters are heroes or villains, Life Itself proves one thing in particular — screenplays don’t always need traditional villains. 

No bad guys show up in Life Itself, that is, unless you count life itself. This type of storytelling has become more and more prevalent in the past decade or so, and for good reason. 

Stories without traditional villains are easier to relate to than, say, a superhero movie with an antagonist looking to destroy the universe. We’re able to jump right in and relate to a situation in which life is the bad guy, because we’ve all been through that many times before. Super-villains are a bit more difficult to understand, unless, of course, you’re somehow related to Thanos… 

6. THE MORE EMOTION, THE BETTER

Now, unlike Dan Fogelman, this doesn’t mean you need to make your audience members cry with everything you write. But the thing about Dan’s writing is that it emulates life again — his movies have so much depth and so many layers, because that’s how life is. You can go from being happy one minute, to be deeply sad the next. And in some minutes, you’ll be both happy and sad.

Movies that don’t dig into the emotional side of storytelling are missing out on something important, for it’s the emotion that will stay with viewers. If they leave the theater feeling something, your story will remain with them for much longer than a movie with just a satisfying car chase or explosion for cathartic release. 

Emulate real life in your screenplay and you too can have audiences laughing and crying in the same sitting, just like Dan Fogelman. 


Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.


Photo credit: Life Itself


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