Stop writing "What You Know!" Barri Evins proves write "Where You Know" creates powerful and resonant stories that engage audiences and draw industry interest.
For eons, ”Write what you know” has been considered Conventional Wisdom, as if it were a Writing Commandment.
This is one of those times when I’m convinced that Conventional Wisdom is wrong.
“What you know” focuses you on stories based on your personal experience. That’s a relatively narrow scope. It’s limiting.
A simple change in thinking can make an enormous difference.
Write Where You Know
When I say, “Where You Know,” I don’t mean location. I mean where you have spent time emotionally. What you have learned through your experiences.
Where You Know can catapult your writing and your stories to the next level.
In terms of craft, mastering the ability to authentically convey the emotional experience on the page creates stories that will draw audiences, because we crave the visceral in our movies.
When your story springs from Where You Know, it gives you a unique perspective. A point of view. Something to say about life that really matters. This type of storytelling is focused on theme – the heart of the story. It is the key to capturing a broad audience by sharing a resonant message.
When you ground your stories in Where You Know, based on your emotional experiences, the possibilities are endless.
Where You Know Is Big
Think of it this way: The story about the time when you were a little kid and you got separated from your mother in a massive Walmart and you believed that you were lost forever might be a favorite anecdote in your family, told time and again. You were small, trapped in a forest of towering shelves and claustrophobic clothes racks, with no way out. But that story is only truly of endless interest to your mom. And she is an audience of one.
While the Walmart tale may be far too small to be a script or even a short, the emotions you experienced are huge.
Those firsthand feelings – fear, helplessness, isolation, trapped in a scary place, being small in a overwhelming environment, the yearning to go home – can translate to big movie ideas. Basing your stories upon your authentic emotional experience gives you a special perspective and a deep understanding of the feelings you want to expess. It empowers you convey them on the page. It connects with the reader. That’s how writing Where You Know can become the springboard for many stories that reach a wide audience.
That one childhood experience could translate to great ideas in just about any genre:
Survival Drama –Castaway
Family Comedy/Fantasy – Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
Horror – The Shining
Indie Teen Thriller – Blair Witch Project
Fantasy – The Wizard of Oz
These stories are steeped in the very feelings you experienced as a kid in the Big Box store. Starting from Where You Know is a launch pad for stories that thrill us, scare us, make us laugh. Your story can be in any time period, any place, any genre, when it is based on authentic emotion. Your understanding enables you to move an audience.
What You Know Vs. Where You Know
Often, the desire to tell a highly personal story is what draws people to screenwriting in the first place. The need to get that story out is powerful. But it can also be a trap.
Personal Passion Projects often strongly adhere to What You Know. I’m not diminishing these stories, but sticking too close to the events that actually happened often diminishes the power of the piece. Strong stories don’t replicate real life but reflect it.
Let’s look at that concept articulated by someone far wiser than me:
"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance."
When working with consulting clients, I find many writers stuck on the same script. They have gone through rewrite after rewrite – sometimes even churning out dozens of drafts of a highly personal story they feel compelled to tell.
When all your time and energy goes to one story, you might be pouring it into a black hole. You aren’t developing a range of material that will make you an attractive client to an agent or manager. You aren’t exercising screenwriting muscles by structuring new stories or exploring and developing strengths in different genres. You aren’t as open to what should be a writer’s never ending search for new ideas. At a certain point, the best you can hope for in the rewriting loop is making your script what I call “more better.” But it’s not going to get great, and that’s what you must aim for in your writing to succeed.
I’m all for the spark that inspires someone to take up screenwriting. But first scripts seldom make it to the screen. If there is a chance you can come to consider that first script as a learning experience, then it can be a step forward in your journey toward becoming a professional writer, not a stumbling block.
Telling the specifically personal story can become an obsession. It’s easy to understand why it is important to you. But your goal is to have the message of the story reach a large audience, to illustrate why it is important to them. Is your version the best vehicle for communicating the message? The theme that the movie is about at its heart – what you want to say about life based on what you have learned – should be your goal.
If you are driven to tell your personal story because you want people to hear it – you need to learn when to let go.
By stepping outside yourself to see the story you know in the macro – what it says about the human condition – it can become meaningful to many people.
Stuck On What You Know? Flip It!
When a Personal Passion Project isn’t working, and you aren’t ready to walk way, there are two choices: Change the story or change your perspective. Either can lead to a big transformation.
One of the biggest challenges built into the personal story is the struggle, or “push-pull,” between being true to what happened and constructing a story from the most dramatic elements possible, as we do with purely fictional pieces.
“That’s not the way it really happened!”
When I’m doing a story consultation with a writer and I hear this, my first concern is that they are more married to the real events than the true needs of the story. That’s a recipe for getting stuck.
I have a lot of respect and empathy for the challenges of telling a true story. As a producer, I’m drawn to this genre and have had many projects in development about famous or incredible individuals. But I don’t think about them as biopics. That may be a small paradigm shift, but I think there is a valuable lesson in that perspective.
I’ve learned from experience that people fail to live their lives in tidy, three-act structure. And you can’t tell an entire life in a screenplay. But you can shine a light on what is significant. The challenge to the true story is to find the moment that illuminates the defining aspect of the protagonist and then externalize their transformation for the screen. If you’re struggling to find that, think about: “What changes everything?”
Imagine the truth as the grain of sand that a pearl forms around. The sand sparks the growth and development of the pearl, it is there at its heart, but in the end, all we see is the beautiful, new object that has been created. The sand that started it all is invisible.
The reason I love developing ideas with writers is that intervening at an early stage, such as a logline consultation, makes it is easier for writers to be open to exploring possibilities. They can step back from the story, and together we can “Rubik’s Cube® it.” Flip it around. Spin it to gain a new direction, a fresh point of view, and renewed inspiration.
Try this with your Passion Project. Can you envision the story in a different genre? Changing the main character to another character? What about in a different medium? Would it find its audience as a TV series, a limited series, a play, a novel, a nonfiction book?
Don’t get stuck – shake it up. This might feel harder than getting every side of the cube to be one solid color, but just like with that puzzle, the more you try, the easier it gets. And practicing this technique also develops a useful tool in your writing arsenal.
Where You Know Is Powerful
When you focus on Where You Know, you are on the precipice of understanding what you want to say with your work. You’re clarifying what you believe is significant, taking an important step forward to becoming a stronger writer and a more compelling storyteller.
The message underlying the What You Know story may be: “Don’t lose sight of your mom or you’ll get lost.”
The message from the story from the perspective of Where You Know has a broader scope and reaches a bigger audience. It might be about belief in one’s self, how to overcome fears, the power of persistence, or discovering inner strength.
The difference comes from connecting with the universal emotion over the personal experience.
When you understand your takeaway from your Where You Know experience, you are gaining powerful self-knowledge. I call this “Personal Thematic.”
Defining your perspective on our lives and our world hones your vision as an artist. It enables you to choose stories that delve into these concepts and make a statement about them. You are digging into the themes that can both drive your work and advance your career.
Sitting down at the keyboard and facing the blank page will be easier. You will feel driven from the inside. The message of the story will be meaningful to you, making time spent writing feel more fulfilling than frustrating. You’re less likely to get stalled by Writer’s Block, because you have a clear vision of where you are headed.
Understanding your Personal Thematic is a crucial step in progressing from practicing the craft of screenwriting to mastering the art of storytelling. What you write becomes both unique to you and speaks to audiences. It makes you and your work stand out. It attracts agents, managers, and executives – because everyone in the industry is searching for a writer with a voice.
Still struggling to find the theme that springs from Where You Know? Check out my Personal Thematic Exercise to gaining insight and elevate your writing.
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