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Should You Write What You Know?

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by Scott Parisien in Screenwriting Tips/Hacks
September 26, 2014 2 comments
spec screenplay

You have probably heard the old adage to write what you know. It’s a cliche, but a very popular one as many screenwriters think they’re better off writing about personal things, stories and people they know rather than “making things up from scratch”.

The problem is, this often results in the most boring stories ever told. So, in this post I’m going to show you how to “write what you know”, but also write a great spec screenplay that bores no one.

Film is a glorious medium as it can give us stories that take us into never before seen or imagined worlds. While at the same time it can take us into the worlds’ of the creative writers and what they have lived. Either way, they can be exciting, heart-wrenching, funny, horrible and just plain crazy.

Whether you are writing a story about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s attacking the matriarch because this is something that has happened to you, or it is something you deeply fear so you have created a way to work through it by writing about it, it can still be a deeply affecting story.

It may be something you really know on a deep level, or it may just be something you are simply curious about. Let’s face it, as writers we get to create anything we can think of. That is all part of the fun.

I Write Horrors But Have Never Seen A Ghost

Myself, I write horror and thriller. I have never seen a ghost, had a spirit haunt me, or been trapped in a haunted house with all of my college friends. So I don’t go by write what you know, but I still write about those things.

In this day and age, with the internet as vast and filled with everything you can possibly imagine, it is easy to become an expert almost overnight, if you look in all of the right places…

If You Don’t Write What You Know, Write What You Research

If, as example, I want to write a story about the dark and mysterious underbelly of Venice, Italy, with creatures living under the buildings and eating unsuspecting tourists, well, I don’t really know about it and have never been.

But I can immerse myself in everything I can possibly know or learn about Venice and go from there. I can then create a deeply faceted and layered world, as well as embellish what I learn about it to then create a dynamic world filled with endless possibilities.

That is the great thing about movies, we can create anything we want. But with great power comes great responsibility, right?

The vast reach of knowledge and ease of access makes our audiences smarter and smarter each and every day. Something that could be put in a screenplay by just winging it without really doing the research could be something you could get away with in the eighties.

You Need To Know Your World

But now, there is no chance. You have audience members ready to discredit every single move the story makes in your movie.

So if you are going to put something in your dramatic screenplay that you think would be really cool, but in all reality it is nothing that could possibly work in anything but an over the top science fiction script, then you will be hard pressed to make us buy into it.

And that is the key to it all:

Make Your Audience BUY INTO Your Screenplay

Your script will fall flat unless you can make your reader, and audience, buy into the choices, actions and results of your protagonist and 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 check out and it is almost impossible to get them to fall back into that world.

  • So, if you are going to write about what you know, it will add that emotional connection that if done right, will be passed on to the reader or audience.
  • And if you are going to write about something you don’t know, then make sure you learn and know enough about it to make it seem real.

I Recently Wrote A Script About A Coal Mine…

I have never been a coal miner.

I have never even been in a coal mine.

But I spoke to about a dozen people who had, both deep inside and up above.

I read articles and research and manuals.

I became an expert on coal mines.

And when a reader made the comment that he would be very surprised if the writer of said script hadn’t worked in a coal mine himself, I knew I had done my job.

So if you do it right – if you live it, if you “know” it, then the payoff can be huge.

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

Scott Parisien was a senior analyst at ScriptPipeline for five years before switching to ScriptReaderPro. He has optioned five scripts in recent years, one of which “Incision,” (2013 PAGE awards winner) js currently in pre-production with Loesch Productions. 

2 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!

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