“Write what you know” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers and it’s one I agree with – up to a point.
When most new writers hear, “Write what you know,” they usually take it to mean they should write a story based on their own personal experiences, which they then proceed to do. This can certainly be a good thing – some of the best writing that has been done in every form has been autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. However, it can also be a bad thing, or at least a problematic thing, for several reasons:
· To begin with, real life usually isn’t dramatic. It may contain many inciting incidents and end-of-Act I plot turns, but it rarely contains an experience that contains a clear narrative through-line, an end-of-Act II reversal, a beginning-of-Act III rally, a climactic confrontation, and a tidy resolution at the end. However, a strong dramatic narrative requires all of these things and so if a writer’s real-life experience does not contain these elements, they need to be added so that the story will work as a show. However, this is a step many new writers are hesitant to take, out of fear that adding drama will make the piece less true to what actually happened and therefore less authentic. It’s an understandable concern, but when addressing it, it’s important to keep in mind that if the piece doesn’t work as drama, then it will not be compelling to audiences and then it won’t matter how authentic the piece is because nobody will want to make it or come to see it. The way to deal with the issue of adding drama to a real-life tale is not to not do it, but to do it in a way that enhances and reflects the core truth of the original experience. This way, even if all the details of the event aren’t 100% true, the meaning of it – which is, presumably, the reason you wanted to write about the event in the first place – will be.
· That meaning is the second concern. Writers choose to write about a personal experience because that experience has some important significance for them. For the script based on personal experience to work, it is vital that the author find a way to dramatize this significance in a way that effectively communicates it to the audience. Unfortunately, many writers – especially new ones – fail to do this. Sometimes this is because the author lacks skill and/or ability, but often it is because the writer doesn’t realize it is necessary – he/she/they assume that if they simply relay the events of the real-life experience as they really happened, then readers and viewers will have the same emotional response and draw the same intellectual and philosophical conclusions from those events as the author did. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case. If you want the audience to experience the event the way you did, you need to emphasize the elements that communicate that meaning, de-emphasize or eliminate the elements that don’t, and then stress that meaning in every way possible through the characterizations, the action, the dialogue, and the imagery. In other words, you have to gin it up, but you have to do so in a way that is not too obvious or on the nose, lest the results be clumsy. To make personal experience accessible to a wide audience is one of the hardest tasks a screenwriter faces, but that is, after all, why they pay us (or we hope they will pay us) the big bucks.
· Just as real life isn’t necessarily dramatic, it isn’t necessarily entertaining either. Real life usually unfolds at a slower pace than screen life does and it isn’t usually punctuated with bits of comedy and action at regular intervals. Also, our everyday speech isn’t usually as clever or pointed as screen dialogue is, nor do we have all that many big “moments” of bravery, victory, revelation, or romantic triumph as the characters in movies do. However, while real life isn’t a movie, if you make a movie out of real life, you have to find a way to incorporate these things, because an audience still wants to be entertained, no matter how “true” the story they are watching may be. The best way to make a real-life story entertaining is to heighten the comedy, action, or dramatic elements of the actual events as much as possible so they feel organic. But if that doesn’t work, then feel free to embroider, exaggerate, or just plain make stuff up.
Sometimes, though, real-life experiences, no matter how meaningful to the participants, simply don’t lend themselves to dramatization – there just isn’t enough to them that can be heightened, enhanced, or augmented into a sufficiently dramatic, accessible, and entertaining narrative. If your real-life story isn’t sufficiently dramatic in and of itself, it might be a good idea to take the important bits and pieces of the true experiences and mix them into an original story that allows you to incorporate all of the necessary elements of drama while still communicating the emotion and meaning of the real events.
As an example, the late playwright and novelist Steve Tesich took his experiences as a college student in Bloomington, Indiana – a town in which there was terrific tension between the middle- and upper-class students from the University of Indiana and the local working-class kids – and his experiences as a competitive bicycle racer and mixed them together into a fictional narrative that eventually became 1979’s rousing, crowd-pleasing and supremely entertaining classic Breaking Away.
In another classic example, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan took his observations and concerns about what he saw as a moral and ethical drift among his fellow baby boomers and wove them into the fabric of his brilliant neo-noir Body Heat. A straightforward examination of the loss of idealism and principle in the post-war generation would more likely than not have resulted in a film that was more essay than drama, but Kasdan’s decision to explore his unease in the body of a sexually-charged thriller allowed him to get is point across in extremely entertaining fashion.
Ultimately, if what you know isn’t dramatic enough, the best thing to do is to follow the advice of a writer pal of mine who has added a coda to that advice: “Write what you know. Except if what you know isn’t interesting and then make something up.”
Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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