Decoding the (Screenwriting) Directive: Write What You Know
Any writer who’s been around for any length of time, taken writing classes, or listened to industry advice has heard it said: Write what you know.
But what does that mean? Is it a request for the literal as in, “write the life you’ve lived, on which you are an authority,” or does it as for something different, something broader and more amorphous? In this blog post, I will do my best to break it down for you.
Today, the industry consistently seeks to connect the story to the storyteller, so “Write what you know” has never been more relevant. Agents, managers and producers are looking not only for a great concept, but also for the writer who is uniquely and best positioned to write it, regardless of industry credits or accolades. Whether it’s an agent or manager meeting with the writer for potential representation, or a pitch or project going out into the professional space, the emphasis on the writers’ personal way into the story or the material seems to, today, be more important than ever.
However, writing what you know doesn’t – and often shouldn’t – mean adopting a more cinematic retelling of your life story or experiences. It doesn’t mean that your breadth of story is going to be limited to the experiences that you yourself have lived or witness, as the reality is that most life stories are not suitable for the big or small screens. In fact, one of the pushbacks I hear more often on the “write what you know” directive is that most writers’ lives (as most people’s lives) are not that cinematic in the first place so…. what are they supposed to write about?
In my experience, what the “write what you know” directive means is to write the characters, worlds, experiences or themes that you can directly connect with. Some writers live perfectly ordinary life but draw from a deep well of emotion, allowing them to meaningfully connect with their characters; others bring their life experiences into the themes and organizing principles that inform their screenplay or pilot scripts. Sure, there are writers who are able to put on paper unusual worlds that they may have exposure to, on which they can then be an authority, such as the world of ambulance chasers, or paparazzi, or kink.
Few people, not to mention writers, have lived the sort of life that would make them, literally, the ideal writer for shows like, say Killing Eve, The Queens Gambit, Flight Attendant or anything taking place in the Marvel Universe. Much of the same can be said about movies like anything from Mortal Kombat or Voyagers to Dune. And the same applies to such celebrated industry scripts such as Headhunter, about a high-functioning cannibal, or Bring me Back, an interstellar love story that takes place entirely inside a simulation. But time and time again, writers have found their way into those stories “writing what they know,” which speaks more to their take on events, themes and people in their own lives than it does their own experiences. In other words, world, characters and journeys can be as big and fantastical as a writer can imagine them, as long as what brings the writer into them, their unique access point to character, world or theme, lives in a personal connection, one that is albeit significantly less exciting but equally meaningful and accessible to the writer.
Now, while we do want the writer to write what they know, we don’t want the writer to literally write a story from their largely un-cinematic life because that life is the only thing they know. And don’t get me wrong: I’ve definitely had writers go through life experiences that did lend themselves, usually with some augmentation, to a cinematic story, in which case those screenplays based on life events did travel some distance and make some headway for the author, but while there is no question that what is meaningful for the writer may be meaningful to a broader audience, there is a question about what is “worthy” of a cinematic or episodic treatment, and whether a particular experience would indeed make a powerful TV show or movie.
To further illuminate my point, here are a few real-life examples to consider: A few years ago, I was working with a writer who was searching high and low for her first screenplay concept. We ran through a slew of ideas, and eventually she had called to let me know that she thought she settled on something. Having recently moved to Boston from Portugal, she decided she wanted to write a movie about a young woman moving from Europe to an American city, finding her footing, falling in love. There wasn’t a particular story she wanted to tell, or a certain character arc she had in mind. But because she had lived this experience, and was encouraged by her writing experience to “write what you know” thought that this concept should work just fine. I hope you don’t hate me if I spoil the ending, but because there wasn’t an actual story driving the material, that project, after a few months of exploration, did little more for the writer than fizzle out.
It’s important to note that while life experience is incredibly important for any writer, as is candor, personal exploration, vulnerability and an emotional rawness brought to paper, rarely do any of these, on their own, a movie or TV show make. While it’s important to bring those experiences to the work, weave them into characters and themes and subtext, it’s critical to also avoid mistaking them for everything a movie or a TV show should be about. This is not to say that your screenplay or TV pilot should not be informed by the personal. On the contrary; every experience you’ve had, every theme you care about or person you’ve met and been fascinated by should be mined for story and substance. But it’s that real-life-to-movie, one-to-one-conversion we want to try and steer clear of.
Therefore, “Write what you know” is not a literal directive; instead, it’s a guideline to take those things that are deeply meaningful to you, whose fabric is intertwined with your fabric and thread it into your screenplays and TV pilots using the most effective cinematic treatment in order to give your stories that palpable, irrefutable substance. In other words, take what you know, and write it into feature or TV-worthy concepts that will give the work that unmistakable authenticity and cause agents, managers, producers and executives to sit up and listen, instantly paying attention to its writer.