How to Tell Stories on Instagram With Screenwriter Max Marlow

Max Marlow

Max Marlow studied screenwriting in Goldsmiths in London, graduating in 2017. He wrote several 30-page scripts only to face rejection from film and television agents who wouldn’t accept unsolicited materials. Then, Marlow started sharing his writings on Instagram.

In this interview, he explains:

  • Why every writer can use Instagram to connect with readers
  • How he uses Instagram photos as a means of conquering writer’s block
  • What it takes to tell stories on this social media network
  • How he ended up being mentored by Han Solo director Ron Howard

And lots more.

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Transcript Below

Bryan Collins:                     So maybe, Max, if you could start by giving me some background information about what you do and how you got interested in screenwriting in the first place.

Max Marlow:                     Oh, of course. I guess my fascination in screenwriting really came down to my fascination with filmmaking. I used to make a lot of short films with friends back as a kid. We’d film on some old phone that didn’t really have an editing software. So, what we’d do is we’d write as we go along. We’d write scenes per shot. So, what do we do now? What next? And it was kind of that building strategy of building a story that I fell in love with in the filmmaking process.

Max Marlow:                     And it came to the end of my school days where everyone was talking about what we’re going to do at university, what are you going to do moving onwards from school, and I knew I was going to film. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do in it, but I know that if I was going to do anything, I just needed to be in a creative space doing what I love and of course what I love is filmmaking. So, I went to university in London, Goldsmiths, and it was there that I studied [inaudible 00:01:17] English, and on the course that was one module that I loved called creative writing where we got to explore pros, screenwriting, writing for radio. Everything else I just wasn’t the biggest fan. It was just classic literature.

Max Marlow:                     I put all my effort in screenwriting, and it was when I graduated I kind of got hit in the face by reality when I put my stuff out there to the literary agents and agents for film and television, and they read some of my stuff. Some would turn it straight away back to me saying, “We can’t look at unsolicited materials,” which is a bit of a weird loop because if you don’t have an agent, how are you supposed to get one by sending your stuff through? Anyway, a lot of the feedback was, “This is nice, but have you got anything long form?” And I didn’t. The biggest thing I’d written at the time was around a 30-page script for a short. Besides from that, everything else was just on my laptop, to me it’s read only, and with no money to make any of them. There was nothing I could do with them.

Max Marlow:                     I was kind of stuck in terms of my writing, which is why I when to Instagram to self-publish a lot of my short stories. But instead of publishing what I’d already written, I thought I’d write for the content itself. So, publish [inaudible 00:02:43] stories for the size of the caption, and for people to digest on Instagram. And what was interesting was I also had a bit of experience after university in marketing and social media marketing that helped me kick off that Instagram page, and grew it to a size where I then reapproached literary agents and actually got some interest back. So, it was a funny loop how I followed the path I wanted to, got turned away from where I wanted to go, and then found a route through Instagram, which is funny because not anyone would really consider going to social media to write to find my feet again.

Bryan Collins:                     [crosstalk 00:03:27] That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic, yeah. I love your story. Could you give me an idea, Max, of timelines from when you graduated to when you set up the channel?

Max Marlow:                     That’s the thing. So, I graduated in June 2017, and I was very fortunate to have been given an internship at Paramount Pictures just at the time that I graduated, and I was in digital and content marketing which was basically just running their Instagram page. So, what I was doing was I was creating memes. It was around the Christmas time that I was making the ‘daddy’s home, too’ memes, which were doing pretty well, and well for the page because I was looking at what people were making for Christmas pages at the time. Memes that we’re targeting eCommerce sites for selling Christmas things, and figuring out how to sell through the app. Go buy tickets to go see this movie, the face you make when you leave school for the Christmas holidays, that kind of stuff. So, what I’d learned was kind of how to survive on social media, how to grow, and how to speak that language.

Max Marlow:                     So after that, I had four months off. When I say after that, I mean I went through June to December. So, I had four months after and only spent a full year since graduating. I’d only had that interned and worked, and I was for the first time unemployed. It was at that moment, I had a similar kind of question off to me like when I was at school, what are you going to do next? And I thought, well, if I have this free time, and I want to work in film but have no contacts, and no one’s getting back to me, I’m going to be as productive as possible, and do something for free that I can set up in the palm of my hand on my phone which was an Instagram page.

Max Marlow:                     The way that I got into that was because a friend of mine who models, he was growing at a crazy rate. I didn’t know how and I found it very interesting and intriguing, and I approached him and said, “Look, I’d been interning at paramount. I could create content for them which was good. I see that you have the face, I have the [inaudible 00:05:34] create the content. How about we [inaudible 00:05:36] together and I can kind of see from behind the scenes how you’re growing this page.” And it was through that collaboration where I learned tips and tricks, and how to really grow an Instagram page, and [inaudible 00:05:45] my writing on [inaudible 00:05:48].

Max Marlow:                     So, in [crosstalk 00:05:50]-

Bryan Collins:                     Do you have any tips, Max, or tricks that you think storytellers could use if they were getting started?

Max Marlow:                     Oh, for sure. For sure. 100%. One thing I like to tell people when they ask them the questions is when talking about social media, the whole concept of it can be broken down into the words itself, social and media. The media is what you’re posting. So, writers it’s the written word, whether it be the writing in the captions of your post which is where I prefer to put mine, written word inside the post itself, you’d get poetry pages who do that, and then also just having a blog, and putting yourself out there, and feeding an audience into the description where you have the website URL, and having them read your content in there.

Max Marlow:                     But what you can do is, besides that media is the social aspect. You want to be looking through the hashtags, really utilizing them. For example, #YAauthor if you’re a young adult fiction, and DMing people, and leaving comments, and likes, and growing no fan base as such, but more a community. It’s all a community, especially for the writers, and everyone’s backing each other, and that’s where you kind of get the best feedback, and opening yourself up to having people read your stuff.

Bryan Collins:                     It looks like your pictures have a distinct style as well. So, I’m just clicking at some of them here, and a lot of them are black and white. I presume these are images you’ve taken yourself. Then, I suppose for the benefit of people listening, there is a short story in the caption that goes alongside the images.

Max Marlow:                     Yeah. When I started the page, I made it a rule that I had to be the one to take the photos because my stories were coming straight from them. Every story that I’ve written on that page has been inspired directly from the photo I take, which is why I’ve written over around 90 individual original short stories. So, to get that far and to not step on my own toes, and go back to stories I’ve written before. The only way I could have done that was by taking original photos that are so different from the others. So, I’ve really explored different styles to it which is an awesome benefit to writing on social media.

Bryan Collins:                     And you’ve gravitated more towards the black and white style. Do you find that it’s getting more engagement on Instagram?

Max Marlow:                     Well, you know what, in terms of engagement it’s a little difficult because the engagement really comes with consistency. I grew the majority of my page from January 2017 through to, sorry 2018, through to middle of that year when I got my first job in film which was I was an assets on set of Star Wars. So, that was based in Pinewood Studios, and I was driving a long while to the job, long hours at the job, and obviously there wasn’t much time to write. So, my consistency dropped after that, and with that my following slowed down, too.

Max Marlow:                     So, when it comes to content, you can really post whatever you want as long as you like it. I think people kind of freak out about most, what’s going to get me the most engagement, when in reality look at pages, for example, Gary Vaynerchuk is someone I follow. He’s an entrepreneur, and he experiments a lot with his posts, and I think that’s what consistency helps with. Because if you post so much, you can explore and looking at new ways to get engaging posts out there whilst also not damaging your feed. I post too infrequently to test and explore because I feel like I’ll damage my feed if that that makes sense.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, it does.

Max Marlow:                     [inaudible 00:09:26] consistent. But yeah. No, consistency is something that I’ve been saying a lot, and I really do feel that I’ve seen your works about productivity, and I listened to your podcast a couple of weeks back on habits, and consistency is what habits are. What you do over and over. By posting on social media, it’s one of those areas where if you don’t post and you’re not consistent, you will fall and you will fail because the algorithm it likes the producer, and if you don’t post enough then you’ll get lost in the feed. People are always on social media looking for new content. So, yeah. You just got to keep posting. Make it

Bryan Collins:                     Do you have the actual stories written before you take the photograph, or do you go out and take the photograph and then write the story?

Max Marlow:                     No, no, no. I take the photo and then I write the story, which again is why I also fell off the bandwagon a bit because I was at a time where I wasn’t really going out much to explore and take new photos. So, you might even see a lot of my stories in the midway part between story 40, story 50 would have been all about the tube and walking down the streets of London because that’s what I was doing everyday.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. Yeah, I could see that. That’s fantastic. It’s a really great way to get around problem like writer’s block. So, I’m just curious, before we started the podcast you mentioned that this approach has opened up new opportunities for you. Would you be able to talk about some of the opportunities it’s opened up?

Max Marlow:                     Yeah, for sure. Through having the page and having a following, companies … So, stepping aside from this literary agents and publishers, companies in general want to profit off of influences. I don’t know how much you know about influence in marketing, but it’s something that I’m fascinated by because how easy it is and how low the barriers to entry are. Well, not so much easy but easy to get started in. All you do need is a social media account and to post and, and who knows what can happen.

Max Marlow:                     In my instance, I grew my following, I spoke with a lot of people online who had been involved in press events for other companies because of their followings. I’m always invited along to … It was Disney was doing a press junket. So, the Hans Solo film that Star Wars had made [inaudible 00:11:56], and I was invited along to a round table to interview Ron Howard with a bunch of other aspiring filmmakers. Now, not only was meeting Ron Howard an awesome part of having grown a following, getting invited out to this event, but I was sitting round table with people who are like-minded, who had followings of their own, advice of their own to give, and potential collaborators. So, being involved in this space has allowed me to kind of grow my network, and also meet people who are massive story tellers themselves.

Bryan Collins:                     Do you mind if I ask what you did with the interview with Ron Howard? Did you publish it anywhere?

Max Marlow:                     Well, that’s the thing. So, on Instagram I’m quite limited to what I can share on my page because I post just my stories. But I have highlight reels. I created a highlight of the day. But the actual interview itself was more for us to kind of take advice from as opposed to share it online.

Bryan Collins:                     Oh, okay. Got you. So, it was more mentorship or coaching.

Max Marlow:                     Exactly. Yeah. But that’s invaluable to me.

Bryan Collins:                     Of course. Yeah. Yeah.

Max Marlow:                     [inaudible 00:13:05] something that I can share with other people. But for me, it was a crazy experience. Yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     So, what direction would you like to take the channel in?

Max Marlow:                     This is the thing. So, I started the page with the idea that I’d be writing one short story every single day for 365 days, and just see where it takes me. And I think it’s been a year and a half now, and I fell off the bandwagon a couple of times when life gets in the way. I’m approaching a hundred stories now, and I think that’ll be a nice way to to round things up now that I’ve been introduced to the possibilities of what can come next.

Max Marlow:                     One of which is when you have a following to be able to give them something. Writing short script, it’s awesome and I get feedback, and it’s a great way to kind of build your style and find your [inaudible 00:13:55] in writing. But now that there is a following on the page, it will be an awesome time to kind of show my face, put myself out there as a writer, and document my journey on writing something long form, essentially a novel, and what I can do with that. Speaking very long term here is published novel, a self publishing novel to my following which is something that’ll be really exciting.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. It’d be a fascinating way to write a novel or a story. [inaudible 00:14:29] photographs as prompts. I’m fascinated [inaudible 00:14:32] it works.

Bryan Collins:                     So, I’m just curious, you talked there about the importance of consistency and what happened when you weren’t consistent for a little while. So, do you have an ideal early morning routine or even an ideal routine to ensure that your consistent these days?

Max Marlow:                     What’s funny is that I’m the complete opposite of a morning person, so in terms of the time where I’m most productive is usually before bed. And that’s probably when I end up just thinking the most. I have a complete catalog of photos I’ve taken on my phone. I sift through them, I think, right, if this was a frame from a film, what would the film be about? What’s the story here? And the beauty of writing screenplays in particular is that you’re not writing so much description as you are writing who, what, where. It’s just action and dialogue which is why I can fit a full story in a caption. Sounds crazy, but that’s just how I found it to work. But in terms of remaining consistent and finding the motivation to keep going, that just all comes in the comments and the feedback I get. It’s awesome to have strangers tell you that they really liked a particular story, resonates with them, they want to turn it into a film at their film school. It’s awesome.

Bryan Collins:                     And how do you balance creating the stories and the photos on Instagram versus I suppose marketing your work on Instagram or connecting with other people, or are commenting and on other profiles?

Max Marlow:                     Well, that’s the thing, the time spent on Instagram is usually connecting with people because that’s the way that you get your stuff seen. But the actual rising of things, I guess it kind of answers itself that that the more time is spent connecting as opposed to writing and being creative. Because as much as you want to create, you also need to sell yourself and build yourself as a writer. So, I guess this is why I’ve never reached the 365 stories I was originally after because it just didn’t seem possible. So, I think I’m happy to round up at the [inaudible 00:16:41], and then focus on the one long form project whilst also building, and connecting, and growing with a community of writers.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. That makes sense. That makes sense. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this, but just clicking through some of your stories, and compared to other Instagram posts, there’s not a huge amount of hashtags. [crosstalk 00:17:03]-

Max Marlow:                     So, after around 48 hours, what I learned anyway with my model friend who I took photos of and created content for, we’ve discovered that after around 48 hours, and I may be wrong on this, this is just speculation, no one fully knows the algorithm, hashtags become redundant. So, on the older posts, I would delete the hashtags just to clean up some space on my feet. But the newer posts the other week or a couple of days ago, I’ll keep them there so people can find them and connect with me.

Bryan Collins:                     Oh, that’s interesting. I like that. What about the actual craft of storytelling, Max, has forcing yourself to work within a constraint like Instagram [crosstalk 00:17:46]-

Max Marlow:                     Oh, it’s brilliant. Yeah, that’s something I was [inaudible 00:17:48]. Yeah, totally. So, writing on Instagram, you get 2200 characters in your caption. So, I have an app on my phone which I can copy and paste from my notes to see if I’m in line with it. The brilliant thing about it is that I could be writing a story for a good half hour, really struggling to find the beats, and where it will hits, and how I can tell a well-rounded story in that space, and I’m forced to cut. I spend another half hour just cutting and making sure I have the best story that’s sweet and short that is able to be published on Instagram. Having done that 90 or so times now, I feel like as a writer I’m better at getting to the point and finding the story I want to tell quicker.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. I think you’ve taught yourself how to self edit as well because anybody can write a thousand words, but it’s a lot harder to cut that down to 300 or 200 words.

Max Marlow:                     Yeah, and also with prose it’s just an opinion now. But with prose, I feel like you can get away with writing a moment, but with screenplay, you’re selling a vision. You need to finish on a frame, a cliffhanger, a moment itself. It can’t just be a moment. So, I’ve found through writing my style that I prefer to write in is I like to write thrillers, something to finish on that the audience will want to message me off saying, “How did it end? What happens next?” I love all that.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, there’s definitely a big market for thrillers. If you do decide to provider a longer book that’s a thriller. I’m also just curious about the other social media channels. One problem many creative people have is they have lots of different ideas, but then they have to find time to execute on them all or to … Then, you can get feel overwhelmed because you should be on Instagram, you need to be on Pinterest, then you have to be blogging on medium. And before you know it you’re just completely frustrated and burnt out. So, are you just focused on Instagram at the moment, and if so, how do you go about avoiding it and getting distracted?

Max Marlow:                     Oh, that’s a sick question only because I recently started a Facebook page. I haven’t been posting on it. I opened it just so I could have a greater field of reach for people to find me. But one thing I’ve realized is, especially with YouTuber, I watch a lot of YouTubers, and they’re quite closed with the channels they choose to post on. A lot of YouTubers have YouTube, and Instagram, and Twitter, but some would stay away from Facebook because the demographic you get on there may not be the demographic you want to sell to. Yeah, so I find a lot of younger people, if you’re doing young adult literature anyway, they’d spend more time on social media on applications like Snapchats and Instagram as opposed to Facebook and Twitter because I feel like those are platforms that older generations came onto. That may be very naive to say, but I find that focusing on the ones where your audience will be is the best place to start.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. That makes sense. That makes sense. Have you started an email list yet?

Max Marlow:                     No. I haven’t even dived into email marketing or looking in that, but that’s something that I’d be really interested in looking into.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. No, just the reason I ask is years ago when people started on Facebook and it had great reach with their posts, and then Facebook turned more into an advertising platform. So, you wanted to continue your relationship with the readers that you built up, it might be a useful strategy to consider.

Max Marlow:                     Well, the awesome thing with Instagram in particular is that it’s a very personal app. You tend to follow your friends and family, and when you do follow celebrities like The Rock for example, Dwayne Johnson, he’s very personable and he’ll talk to the audience as if they’re his friends because they’re on Instagram. It’s very casual. So, I find that when connecting with an audience and creating that relationship, being on a platform like Instagram is a lot more casual than say a mailing list where it almost feels like you’re being sold something as opposed to recommended.

Bryan Collins:                     True. True, yeah. No. That’s a fair point. Definitely Instagram is more intimate than other social media networks.

Max Marlow:                     In terms of relationship. But at the same time, if you were to meet somebody at a networking event, it’s likely now that you would ask for their Instagram as opposed to their phone number because a phone number seems very formal, such like an email, but an Instagram is … here’s my Instagram.

Bryan Collins:                     True. Yeah. It feels like it does. I don’t think I can remember any phone numbers anymore. I’m also curious about the photos themselves. So, I think something that puts off a lot of people who want to post on Instagram is getting that photo right. So, are you using the default Instagram app, or are you editing your photos, or what’s your process like?

Max Marlow:                     This is the thing, my photos are awful, but my writing is where I put the most work in. So, the photo inspires the image. Sorry, the photo inspires the writing, but the photo itself, it’s a black and white blog, and it doesn’t really share much. It’s not someone on a beach with a six pack. It’s not going to get crazy engagement on Instagram. But it just allows my writing to sit there. So, for people who come for the writing, sure it’s there, but they’re not going to be looking for the image. So for me, the image doesn’t matter so much as opposed to just putting out lots of images. Again, consistency.

Max Marlow:                     But no, for my styles, so I see it as a calling card. My page is my card. I want to have a formal style of black and white images put into 16 by nine ratio to look like film strips. And what I do is I upload my content. One thing I didn’t cover in this [inaudible 00:23:50] is I upload my content as videos. I don’t know if you noticed, but the videos count your views, and a lot of people they will sit through a post and they’ll go through a caption, but they won’t engaged with it. They wouldn’t comment and like. I know, for one, I just save my likes for friends and funny memes, but it doesn’t count. I want to see how many people are reading my stuff. So, having that count and having the videos uploaded allows for an author to see how many eyes are touching that post.

Bryan Collins:                     That’s an interesting strategy. So, for somebody listening to this, if they’ve written let’s say an article, or a blog post, or … how would they go about creating an Instagram post? Could you just walk me through the steps?

Max Marlow:                     So, if they’ve created an article or a blog post. Okay. So, if you are a blogger and you are on Instagram on the side if that’s not your main blog, you post photos of yourself. You are you. You’re representing yourself. People want to follow people as opposed to something as formal as the written word. You will find that a lot of the time with companies, big companies, they have pages for themselves, and they’ll be advertising their services on them, but the engagement will be so low because no one wants to connect with an airline, no one wants to connect with a shopping store, but they want to connect with a person. So, I’d recommend bloggers put themselves out there as a personality and share their stuff on a personal level that’s more casual and a recommendation as opposed to sell it.

Bryan Collins:                     And do you recommend they upload video rather than photo?

Max Marlow:                     So again, when it comes to consistency and putting things out there, one thing Instagram does like to experience is just kind of almost doing it all. There is IG TV now where you can upload videos longer than one minute, which used to be the limit, to the platform. You should be trying out those. Also utilizing highlights, the circles at the top of your page that you can tap on, and see stories that you’ve saved and archived. You should be utilizing stories because every day people see new ones uploading their page, and if you’re there constantly then you’ll be in their face. It’s free advertising. You should be doing live streams on Instagram. That’s something big that people are popping onto now. And the cool thing about a live stream is that you can actually share the screen with someone. So, you can actually collaborate, get their audience into a page, put yourself on that page. Videos, photos. Yeah, try it all.

Bryan Collins:                     I like that. I like that. So, Max, where can people find you or your channel online today?

Max Marlow:                     Well, I just have the one space which I focus everything on which is my Instagram profile. It’s my name, Max Marlow, M-A-X M-A-R-L-O-W. Check it out. Yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     Great. Yeah. It was lovely to talk to you today, Max.

Max Marlow:                     Yeah, you too. Thank you for having me.

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