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Why the Advice to Just "Write What You Know" Is Misleading

And How to Do It the Right Way

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenwriting Tips
September 26, 2014 6 comments
write what you know

Have You Been Told to Just “Write What You Know”? 

You have probably heard the old adage to “write what you know.” It’s a cliche, but a very popular one.

Many screenwriters and writers, in general, think they’re better off writing about personal things. In other words, rather than “making things up from scratch.”

In this post, we’re going to show you how to write what you know, but also write a great spec screenplay at the same time. One that bores no one.

What Does the Advice to “Write What You Know” Really Mean? 

Film is a glorious medium. It can give us stories that take us into never before seen or imagined worlds. At the same time, it can take us into the worlds of the creative writers’ lives and experiences they’ve lived.

The Two Kinds of Writing What You Know

In this way, the advice to “write what you know” can be divided into two areas:

♦  Personal. Writing what you know personally (i.e. what you have experience of)

♦  Fear. Writing what you fear (i.e. what you know about yourself)

Let’s take the example of a screenwriter who’s written a script about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s.

He may write this story because it’s something that’s personally affected him. Or he may write about it because it’s something he deeply fears. Creating the story can be a way to work through it, by writing about it.

The Problem With the Advice to “Write What You Know”

When writers go by the “write what you know” maxim, it’s usually of the first variety out of the two examples above: what they know personally and have a direct life experience of.

The problem is, real life is rarely interesting enough to be made into a movie. A story may be deeply personal and heartfelt, but that doesn’t mean it’d make an entertaining screenplay.

Aspiring screenwriters who rely solely on writing what they know, often produce uninspiring screenplays because they literally transpose everything from their real life onto the page.

Writing What You Don’t Know

The opposite advice to “write what you know,” therefore, is to write something that simply resonates with you or you’re just curious about. In this case, the writer may have no personal connection to Alzheimer’s at all but wants to explore it for purely creative reasons.

And let’s face it: as writers, we can create anything we can think of. That’s all part of the fun of the job description.

Let’s say a writer specializes in horror and thriller screenplays. Chances are she’s probably never been possessed or hunted in the mountains by a maniac. In this case, her scripts are not based on the advice to “write what you know” and yet she can still write about these subjects.

This is not to say that more exciting stories than those based on the “write what you know” maxim can’t also be boring. They can.

All screenplays, whether they’re based on “write what you know” or not face the same problem: keeping the reader engaged and having them buy into the world and story.

write what you know

What You Should Focus on Instead of Writing What You Do or Don’t Know 

In a sense, it doesn’t matter if your screenplay is based on your real-life experiences or not. The reader will have no idea (unless you inform them via some superimposed text at the beginning.)

The problem with a large percentage of spec screenplays is not whether they happen to be written from the writer’s personal experience or completely made-up.

The problem in both instances is that the story and characters aren’t entertaining or compelling enough.

The Power of Research

The way to combat this problem is through research.

Let’s say Writer A wants to write a script based on the time she was involved in a toxic love-triangle at college. It’s something deeply personal to her and she still gets upset about it even though it happened fifteen years ago.

And let’s say Writer B wants to write a story concerning the dark and mysterious underbelly of Venice, Italy, and about a set of creatures living under the buildings that eat unsuspecting tourists. But he’s never been to Venice.

Writer B will obviously have a great deal of research to do as he strives to create a multi-faceted and believable depiction of Venice. As well as embellish this world to create a layered and believable set of characters and creatures.

Writer A may be basing her script on the old adage to “write what you know,” but she should also be engaged in similar levels of research to Writer B.

She should still be researching what college campuses are like now compared to when she was last on one. She should still be reading up on the backgrounds and professions, likes and dislikes of each of her characters, etc.

Research Even What You Think You Know

The great thing about movies is that we can create anything we want. But with great power, of course, comes great responsibility

A large percentage of aspiring writers simply don’t do enough research on their story worlds and characters—whether they’re writing what they know or not. Don’t be one of them. 

The vast reach of knowledge and ease of access makes readers smarter too. Maybe back in the 80s, you could get away with sticking something in a screenplay and winging it without really doing the research.

But not anymore. Now you have readers ready to discredit every single move your story makes.

If you put something in your screenplay that you think would be great, but in reality, it’s not something that would possibly work in anything but an over-the-top sci-fi, then you’ll be hard pressed to make the reader buy into it.

And this is the key to it all…

Rather Than “Write What You Know” Make the Reader Buy Into Your Story

Your script will fall flat unless you can make your reader, and reader, buy into the choices and actions of your protagonist and the results in the story.

If an audience or reader can’t buy into a choice, if they don’t believe what you are trying to make us believe, then they will check out and it’s almost impossible at this point to get them back.

If you’re writing a screenplay set in a coal mine, but know nothing about coal mining and have never been in a coal mine, the reader will pick up on this immediately, unless you:

♦  Speak to about a dozen people with intimate knowledge of coal mining, both inside the caves and up above

♦  Read articles, books and research manuals

♦  Watch movies and documentaries about coal mining

When a reader comments after reading your script that they’d be very surprised if the writer hadn’t worked in a coal mine himself, you know you’ve done your job.

If you do it right—if you live it and “know” it—then the payoff can be huge.

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Do you think it’s always best to write what you know or write what you don’t? Or do you agree that it doesn’t matter, as long as you let the audience buy into the story? Leave a comment in the box below.

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6 Comments
  1. Jorge J Prieto says:

    For me as a screenwriter, was most importantly is what you cited, I must connect in a personal level with my characters struggles, goals, conflicts, feelings. These are human factors we can all identify and in many ways relate with. If I relate and care for my characters struggles, then my audience have a chance of caring as well. Now I have written horror stories, paranormal stories, crime-drama and like you said, have never seen a ghost or killed anyone, but through research have come to make educated choices and incorporated them into my characters worlds. Thank you Scriptreaderpro.com great article. Always a fan.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Jorge!

  2. Winston Maculan says:

    Would you recommend starting with a free form brainstorming, new ideas fresh perspectives or write what you know?

  3. Norman D says:

    This is a good post . Ive always been uneasy with the write what you know mantra.

  4. Fleurette M Van Gulden says:

    Ths idea of my story came out of the lingering question I held for more years than I’m willing to tell and I thought my locations were a piece of cake. I put in hours of research to give plausibility. Old Victorian culture, language and conventions are not lost over the centuries.
    My knowledge of history lends much to the plot as ‘what I know.’

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sounds good – a writer can come to his or her idea any number of ways. Good luck with the script!

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