LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”
Ah yes, the old axiom. The tried-and-true methodology. The very basis of everything everyone has ever written. Or it should have been, anyway. Write. What. You. Know. It is sacrosanct. It is invincible. It is LEGION.
Except not really.
But, except…yes, really. At least in my opinion.
Thing is, I’ve seen professional writers aplenty, of all stripes and experience levels and genres, begin to dismiss this notion. In fact, screenwriter Zack Stentz – whose work (with writing partner Ashley Miller) I very much admire and whose opinions I have the utmost respect for – wonders if it isn’t perhaps the worst advice ever:
Has there ever been a more awful piece of advice responsible for more bad movies & books than that old chestnut "write what you know?"
— Zack Stentz (@MuseZack) May 9, 2015
Yikes. Has Zack hit on something here? Is “Write What You Know” (heretoafterforth known as simply “WWYK”) really a dated, worthless mythology? Have we been deluding ourselves as writers this entire time? Are we committing a scribely sin?
THE ANSWER IS YES. AND ALSO, THE OTHER ANSWER IS NO, NOT AT ALL. What I’m saying is…we have coexisting answers here. And they’re both correct. But to understand that, we have to be willing to unpack it a bit. And by “a bit” I mean this is going to be another one of those posts where I ramble on aimlessly for what seams like years and you pray for sweet death from on high while learning nothing.
That inevitability in hand, let’s attempt to boil this down before blowing it all up: while I agree with Zack that WWYK has led to comically innumerable bad pieces of writing, I don’t think it’s the advice that’s at fault – it’s the writers. Because they’ve lost sight of WWYK actually means. Or never bothered to figure it out in the first place.
First of all, let’s talk about what WWYK isn’t. And, violating everything I stand for, I think I can distill it into one quick statement: Not Everything Is A Story. Most stories are bad to mediocre. Very few are good. Almost nothing is a story worth writing a script about. WWYK does not mean, “Every little detail of your life is fascinating.” Movies, in fact, are universally about seminal experiences – stories that define someone or something and change someone or something in an extraordinary or profound way; if they weren’t, what would be the point of telling them? So 99% of your life? Unremarkable. Flat. Meaningless to anyone else.
As soon as Zack Twittered the above, I thought immediately of a scene from one of my favorite movies. It perfectly encapsulates this idea and, angrily and unknowingly, hits dead-center in regards to WWYK. The movie is PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, written and directed by John Hughes and starring Steve Martin as Neal Page and John Candy as Del Griffith. Neal is a buttoned-up, straight-as-an-arrow, generally stuck-up yuppie WASP. Del is a salt of the Earth, loudmouthed traveling salesman who lacks basic self awareness. Both are, ostensibly, just trying to get from New York City home to their families in Chicago for Thanksgiving. However, due to some bad weather and insane circumstances, these two polar opposite personalities are sidetracked and forced into that journey together. And while Del tries to make the best of it, keeping it light by talking constantly about literally anythign, Neal just really, desperately wants him to shut the fuck up, stop being a slob and cease mooching off of him. Neal’s annoyance with Del builds and builds, until the two are forced to share a hotel room and Del’s entire state of being causes Neal to blow a gasket. It results in this all-time monologue:
“You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room. And someone who’ll listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t…didn’t you notice on the plane, when you started talking…eventually I started reading the VOMIT BAG? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like, ‘Hey maybe this guy is not ENJOYING it?’ You know, not everything is an anecdote. You have to discriminate! You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally! ‘Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecdotes for you! Oh and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out, you’ll thank me for it!’
I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days, I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. And they’d say, ‘How can you stand it?’ And I’d say, ”Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith, I can take anything.’ And you know what they’d say? They’d say, ‘I know what you mean. Shower curtain ring guy. WHOA.’ It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you to have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would! ‘ACK ACK ACK ACK!’
By the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: HAVE A POINT! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”
NOT EVERYTHING IS A STORY
Some things just aren’t going to be interesting because…well, they’re not interesting. That time you rode the bus and it went kind of fast and you were worried? *Maybe* a you could eke a fun one-liner out of it to explain why you’re on edge. Not a screenplay. You know what story about a similar experience IS interesting? SPEED. THAT’S a script.
“But Geoff,” you point out with annoying accuracy that I wish you’d instead choked on, “Haven’t you always encouraged writers not to write for trends, not to write for formula, not to write for what they think OTHERS want to see, but rather to tell exactly the stories they want to tell?” Well yes, I have, you unfortunately attentive mnemonist.
But you can’t trip me up! When I say that, there’s a directive implied. It’s not mine, and it’s not Hollywood’s. It’s nature’s: you have to pick a story that’s worth telling. If you don’t, no one will listen. It’s not philosophy. It’s biology.
So what to do? You have a concept or a moment or an idea you don’t want to give up on, but it’s not a narrative yet. Well…
MAKE SOME SHIT THE FUCK UP, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE
This is kind of, you know, your whole job as a screenwriter. And yet most writers never figure out how to it in a compelling way.
Tolkien never tromped through Middle Earth or had a ring that made him invisible and drove him crazy; those things don’t exist. Gillian Flynn never faked her own kidnapping and killed a guy to get revenge on her husband (so far as I know; she’s pretty dark); that lunacy had to be fabricated. James Cameron never went to Pandora or sat in machine that made him into a blue cat; these hallucinations are fucking insane. But what did they do? They IMAGINED these things. They asked, “What if?”
You can’t fight on Orc outside of a video game and you’re not going to sex-stab Neil Patrick Harris and Blue Cat Technology is at least six years off. You can’t “know” these things. But you can take what you DO know and expand upon it in fantastical ways, often just by asking yourself playful questions. Those answers beget more questions which snowball into more answers and more questions, and VOILA!, you’ve built a world. All based on what you know – or can conceive of.
But conception is a tricky point, no? Because, while you can engineer, narratively, pretty much anything your mind can wrap itself around, that doesn’t mean it’s all going to make sense. If you’re building a world, it has to have limits. It has to have rules. If it doesn’t, your story doesn’t exist because there’s nothing to ground or establish it; it just something that IS, and that’s meaningless. It’s nothing. But if you establish boundaries that make sense at the scale you’re writing, and then come up with clever ways to push, go around or break through them…hey, that’s *something*. So…where does our sense of “boundary” come from? Our checks and balances, our lines that we must decide whether or not to cross?
Oh yeah, Life. Duh.
But, OK, you don’t want to write about all-seeing sky-eyes and lawyers that look like Tyler Perry and tail-fucking dragons? That’s fine. And the good news is: all the same rules apply.
When I was writing GOING THE DISTANCE, I’d never been in a long-distance relationship (I am now, however, because the Universe has decided that my life is a cosmic irony). I had no idea what it was like. However, I had two things going for me: the Executive Producer HAD been, and I knew from personal experience what it was like to miss someone you loved.
Between those two things, I found my way there. Just because I’d never been in the situation doesn’t mean I couldn’t put myself in the EP’s shoes and determine how I’d react and how that would influence my significant other – and vice-versa. Then, I added in general stories from my own dating wins and losses (way more in the latter column, if you can believe it!) plus some funny personal experiences and ended up with something that I thought was as authentic as possible. I built a world, I assigned it rules that I understood, and I made it work.
I’m currently writing a spec about a Summer of my life that was very significant to me and, I think, one that others will either understand or commiserate with. That said, what happened in those three months in and of themselves isn’t enough to make a story – it’s something that began and ended, and there was some crazy stuff in between, that craziness alone doesn’t make for a good enough yarn. So I’m embellishing. I’ve stretched the timeline out to a year. I added some extra drama with some of the characters that never happened. I added a narrative engine that COULD have existed in a worst-case scenario, but never did. I’ve pulled in experiences from years before or years after, events that didn’t happen in the same timeline but fit this story thematically. And you know what? It’s not only OK to do that, IT’S WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO. YOU’RE A WRITER, NOT A STATISTICIAN OR ARCHIVIST.
Know what else you’re supposed to do?
STOP BEING SELF-RIGHTEOUS AND PUT YOURSELF IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES
This sounds simple, but it’s not, because you have to practice at a certain level of emotional and intellectual honesty to do so, and most aren’t willing to take that leap – not with characters, and not with settings, not with daily unscripted life. They write for what they wish to be and too often forget to understand what IS.
To be a writer, you have to be an observer, a cataloguer and a student of the human condition. You have to be willing to dissect it, reverse-engineer it, appreciate it, and get totally Frankenstein with it. Sometimes sexually.
You know yourself. Write yourself into your characters. Maybe not ALL of yourself ALL the time, because you’ll just keep writing the same movie. But parts of yourself in spurts and fits that matter. It keeps your story honest and it makes your characters relatable and accessible. Maybe that pang of jealousy you felt when someone got the promotion you were promised or the shame you felt when you slipped on the ice or the joy you felt when your first kid was born aren’t by themselves the beginnigs of an Oscar-winning script, but they can provide beautiful moments of clarity and authenticity for your audience through your characters.
You also know other people. And while you might never literally experience the pain of childbirth or the thrill of hitting a home run to win the World Series, you can, you know, TALK to people who’ve had kids and watch Joe Carter skip like a child around the bases. You’re a person. You’re supposed to be able to intuit and approximate the feelings of another person. You listen, you engage, and you process their history. It’s called empathy. And if you don’t possess the capability, you’re a sociopath and your very survival is predicated upon learning enough about human emotion to fake and convincingly replicate it, so you might even be better off.
You have to give the audience an excuse to INVEST IN YOUR STORY. You have to compel them to spend their time and open their hearts. That can only happen if they believe they can experience something worthwhile out of what you’re giving them. And the only way to forge that connection is to prove to them that you know. That you get it. That you’re telling THEIR story too.
But what if the sum total of all your experiences just isn’t enough?
RESEARCH IS YOUR FRIEND
Maybe, at the end of the day, it should be, “Write What You Can Learn”.
I’ve never been to Korea, but I’m currently writing a movie that’s set in Korea. The studio wasn’t going to pay to send me there because it’s not Hollywood in the 1990s anymore, so what were my options? I could have gone myself, but I’m not into 15-hour flights and didn’t want to spend an extended period of time abroad. So what then? Well, I immersed myself in research. For the first time ever, I’d be writing something I wasn’t intimately familiar with (or wasn’t made familiar with) on most levels. So all I could do was learn.
I spent three weeks going academically deep into Korea before even opened Final Draft. I continued to swallow up more information as I started to write the script. I talked to Koreans, native and otherwise. But that’s only the first part of it. The story is set in the music industry, so I had to build on what little I knew about that as well. The story is also populated mostly by women, so there was even more research to do on issues that affect Korean women specifically and Korean women in the Korean music industry more specifically. This is a PG-13 studio comedy we’re talking about here. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. But I still needed to understand. Because even if it’s just a PG-13 studio comedy, I want it to be a GREAT PG-13 studio comedy. So the strive for authenticity continues unabated.
And while that’s all a constant and continual learning process, I “know” enough about each of those things now that I can capably tell the story I want to tell. And I can lean on others that know far more than I do for the instances where I fall short of getting it right.
That’s a winding and solipsistic way of saying, “Probably don’t just wing it and hope for the best.” That never works. You end up with a script that’s cloying and fake and a story that’s – say it with me now – not worth telling. Because readers don’t invest in something that feels inauthentic.
And so, no, we can’t call it “Write What You Can Learn”. Because you don’t start writing something you CAN learn; you wait until you’ve learned it, then you write it. The maxim holds, but the explanation is clear: you can learn just about anything, to one degree or another, that you make a concerted effort to learn. But you have to decide to do that first. And most writers simply don’t.
SO…WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT HERE?
Yeah, look, it kind of seems like we went off the rails there, but we didn’t. Trust me. Here’s what it comes down to:
Not all stories are worth telling. In fact, pretty nearly all stories are not worth telling, even if (and maybe especially if) they happened to you. And your very first job as a writer is to recognize this fact and to develop the ability to discern what’s going to be entertaining and what’s not.
WWYK is a perfect piece of advice – as long as you understand what it means and know not to simply take it at face value. And then, once you understand it (and correctly value its sub-face!), you’ve got to apply it intelligently and appropriately. The major trick? Don’t be lazy. Do the work. Develop your instincts. Educate yourself. Improve yourself. Learn about others. Make an effort to understand them and how their experiences have shaped them. Expand your horizons. Be introspective. Be extrospective. Know when a story is not enough, and know when to let it go if you can’t MAKE it enough.