Should Screenwriters Always Write What They Know?
At some point, while staring at a blank screen, every screenwriter wonders what story to write next. Furthermore, they are always told to write what they know. Is this good advice? Is this the best question to be asking? Does writing material that you are very familiar with automatically lead to a better screenplay?
What does writing what you know actually mean?
Does it relate to a world, a profession, an event, a plot, a place, or a character? If you’re an ER nurse should you only write hospital dramas or if you’re a lawyer should you only write legal dramas? The short answer is no… more a soft no than a hard no. Having extensive life experience in a field has definite benefits in screenwriting. It means you know your defibrillator from your debrief or your defendant from your plaster. You understand the mechanics of these processes so you can write them realistically without doing much additional research. A coroner would never determine the cause of death without an autopsy nor would a suspect be sent to prison without a trial. There is value in having a writing lane. It isn’t a prison, but more of a focus.
Not every screenwriter writes scripts based on their profession.
How does this change with regard to writing a story world? It means you can bend, bypass, or break established rules.
If you’ve created a supernatural, fantasy, or superhero world, you are the story god. You have the most knowledge of their rules, their characters, and how they interact with the world and with each other. While this means that a writer has written the story bible, with character descriptions and arcs, they aren’t necessarily bound to writing these stories and their spinoffs. However, acting in a consulting capacity allows for the veracity and continuity of the story even when other screenwriters come on board.
If you’re writing about royalty or celebrity lifestyles, the chances are you wouldn’t have staffed with the Windsors or spent a breezy summer with the Kardashians. Maybe you have? Good for you. But if you haven’t, this shouldn’t preclude you from writing these stories if they genuinely interest you.
Write what you know. Write what you learn. Write what you feel. Write what you’re obsessed with.
Unlike strict process-based screenplays, you have some poetic license to embellish or fabricate your stories in a way that you couldn’t otherwise. There is an abundance of resources on how the Royals and celebrities live so you draw upon them to construct a realistic and dramatic approximation of their lives.
Even fewer of us have been to outer space, yet there are countless stories set there. Spending weeks with NASA astronauts as they prepare for their mission will give you technological insights aplenty. You probably won’t become an expert in the field, but you’ve learned a bit about the NASA world.
The larger issue than writing what you know is writing what you feel. Write from a place of thematic and emotional storytelling. Focus on these elements more than actual events. Writing what you know should not be a biography based on your personal diary.
If you’re writing your astronaut story, it’s moot whether you’re a famous astronaut or done some research on a space mission. Sure audiences will respond to the visual expanse of outer space, but it will not ultimately satisfy them. Think about what you’re saying about the people on the mission on a humanistic level. Are they on a goodwill mission to establish contact with extra-terrestrial beings or are they colonials looking to exploit the resources of another planet? A similar writer’s experience on earth will allow them to create an equally powerful story set in space regardless of whether they’ve been there.
Imagine two sparring families in a similar situation. One family member reaches out to the other to mend the rift, but the other family is suspicious of them. Alternatively, two corporations want to merge in the name of improved combined synergies and efficiencies, but the larger one secretly wants to take over the board and crush them.
A good screenwriter can transfer the emotional beats of their own life experiences into other story worlds to write impactful stories. Stories by definition are a combination of real-life experiences and fantasy. Your job is to identify the closest emotions that you’ve experienced and apply them to those that are required.
Think about how a character might express these emotions on the page. Get into their heads and illustrate these emotions through actions and dialogue. If you’re writing about a prisoner on death row, read a first-person account of that topic to get a feel for how they survived their final days.
Consider the scenes you’re writing in a scene with a delicate operation. The surgeon makes an incision and accidentally nicks a blood vessel. He thinks it’s minor and it takes longer to get it under control. He panics, his adrenaline levels rise, and then feels relief when the danger has subsided. Then he feels angry and embarrassed because it was a routine surgery he’s performed many times and his colleagues tell him.
Writing what you know can also refer to a platform or a genre. If writing broad comedy sitcoms or podcasts is your thing, stick with it for a while because you’ll build your innate sense of story structure, rhythm, pacing, and tone.
This exploration allows screenwriters to find and refine their writing voice. A better question than writing what you know might be writing what you want to be known for.
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