Monday, 2 May 2011

Writing what you know

Along with 'nobody knows anything,' 'write what you know' is one of the most overused (and often misused) expression in screenwriting.

I recently read Starting Over by Tony Parsons. At the end of the novel there was an interview with him and he made what I thought was a very accurate and interesting observation. He said that writers have three things to work with; life as you have lived it, life as others have lived it, life as you can imagine it.

It breaks down as experience, research and imagination. What you have gone through, what others have gone through and what you can make up.

It really does boil down to that. Writing what you know is writing about what you've done, what you can find out about and what you can dream up. New writers often fall into the trap of writing stories based on their own lives - and to be fair, most of us have done bugger all by our mid twenties. That's why the slush pile is full of a night in the life of a bunch of clubbing twenty somethings. Like all 'rules,' there are exceptions. It didn't do Human Traffic, Swingers or Go any harm. But most exceptions prove the rule.

And different scripts require different combinations of all three. Here's how it's worked for me in four of my screenplays.

A Lonely War - drama inspired by real life exploits of the 43 Group. Set in post war London, this took a massive amount of research; books, documentaries and best of all, speaking to a couple of former group members. Nevertheless the story I wrote was fiction - it came from my imagination. As far as my own experience - probably very little to be fair.

The Storyteller - drama about a disabled, aspiring novelist struggling with chronic pain. A dash of research, but most of this came from my own experience and imagination. The story was based on a what if? The protagonist isn't based on me, but an alternate version of me.

Can He Flick It - comedy about a guy trying to win the subbuteo world cup to save his family toy shop. Not much research or experience in this one. I did grow up playing subbuteo with mostly my brother every Saturday afternoon, and I did do some research into this weird subculture that surrounds the game now. But most of it I just made up, based on my love of films like Dodgeball and Happy Gilmore.

Dough - Again, not much in terms of experience, although the story is set in the Jewish community I am familiar with. However there was plenty of research into the character of Ayyash, the lives of Darfur refugees in this country, and I spent a day in my local kosher bakery watching everything and learning loads. But once again, the bulk of the story came from our imaginations.

So as far as writing what you know goes - the only time experience played the majority part was in The Storyteller - and even then it was mixed with a fair degree of making stuff up. For the most part, my screenplays come from research and imagination. This is true in the next two scripts I'm co-working on, one an animation feature about birds (so zero experience, a little research and plenty of imagination) and rom com about warring matchmakers (also pretty much zero experience, a bit more research and most of it made up.)

So the next time you hear someone talking about writing what you know, or even telling you to do exactly that, smile politely, nod your thanks, and think about what it really means.


Adaddinsane said...

I always considered the "write what you know" to be a statement of fact rather than a directive:

You *cannot* write something if you don't know it.

How you come to know something in order to write it, is just as you say. You can have lived it, researched it - or invented it.

Jez Freedman said...

I think you're right, but I think it's something young writers hear a lot - as a directive - usually from dodgy one day screenwriting courses, without further explanation or discussion. They then go away and naturally think okay what do I know? I know about my life, my mates, my job. We have a laugh so let's do a script about that. And it very, very rarely works