Write What You Know… And Other Stupid Advice For Screenwriters

Writing is done in isolation.  It drives you batty sometimes.  Like anything that bleeds, you leave a writer alone for long enough and they’ll snap.


by The Single Screenwriter
And snapping gets in the way of the writing, no matter what form the meltdown takes – deviant binges, forced stays in a luxury padded cell, swat team take-downs – so writers naturally seek out others to guide them through the madness and to give them solid advice.

But sometimes, good advice can do more damage than a mob of hormonal teens with no adult supervision and a supply of booze.  Always take advice with a grain of salt.  Hell, if the advice isn’t working for you, dump an entire shaker of salt on the sucker and watch it writhe like a slug.

Here are the four worst offenders disguised as well meaning advice:

Stupid Advice Number 1: Write what you know

STFU with that.  People as a general rule are boring as hell.  And that includes you.

I know a whole heck of a lot about bone china, but my goal is to connect with the audience, not bore them to death.

Sure, a china shop could be a good setting, and the knowledge could make for some quirky character bits, but please, unless you work for NASA, or have some awesome kick-ass job in the sex industry (which you don’t ’cause you’re a writer) please don’t write what you know.

People don’t go to movies to watch other boring lives. They want space aliens, or cool undiscovered viruses.  Not lawn mowers and laundry.

Sure, there was that one time back in school where you and your friends did that awesome thing that you bring up every time you get together and get drunk, but… It probably isn’t that awesome to everyone else in the room, even with a good deal of embellishment.  And besides, you’ve already used variations of it in three previous scripts.

If writers stuck to what they knew, no one would go to movies.  There would be no space cowboys, no secret agents, no world leaders, no sex goddesses with seven breasts.
(Yes, some of these do exist, but do you think sex goddesses and secret agents have any time to write scripts?!)

Write what you don’t know.  It’s much more interesting.  And guess what?  You already know everything you need to know about all the stuff you don’t know, but you just don’t know it yet.

Write what you don’t know.  It’s much more interesting.

Huh?

Listen, what makes a good movie isn’t specific expertise in stuff like nanotechnology or world politics. That’s just window dressing.  It’s called research.  Any monkey with Google can do it.

What makes a movie worth watching is the universality of the human condition.  And if you’re human, you’re qualified.  Find the human element of the story and you can do whatever you want with it.

You’re a single dad with a mundane job who hasn’t had a date in five years?  You, sir, are the guy to write that script about being trapped with a mutant kid on that distant alien outpost.

Spend your day in a cubicle wishing the girl three cubicles over and one down to the left knew you existed?  You know way more than enough to write that superhero with the power of invisibility flick.  Who gives a crap if you have no clue about the science that would go into designing an invisibility cloak.

You don’t need a degree in bio-nuclear mechanical electromagnetic particle physics to give yourself permission to write it.

And if you turn tricks to pay the rent?  Ummm, I won’t touch that one, but trust me, you’re more than qualified to write one hell of a kick-ass script or several.

The point is, don’t get hung up on what you don’t know.

You don’t need a degree in bio-nuclear
mechanical electromagnetic particle physics
to give yourself permission to write it

Go ahead. Write whatever the hell you wanna write about.  Just remember to channel good ole’ Joe Campbell and find the universal human element in whatever crazy twisted story you run with, then you’ll be onto something good.

Stupid Advice Number 2: You can fix it in the rewrite

STFU.  Yeah, of course you can fix it in the rewrite.  Rewrites are for fixing!

But if these words are going through your brain in the middle of a first draft, it’s usually a sign that something’s really not working and hasn’t been well thought out at all.  For real.  You can either figure out the big problem and fix it now – be it story, character, pacing, whatever – or take the easy way out and leave it ’til the rewrite to do the heavy lifting.

Do it now.  Trust me.

Yeah, first drafts are usually crap and the magic happens in the rewrite, but man, give yourself a leg up and start with a solid foundation.  You’ll save yourself days, weeks, sometimes months, and cut way down on the number of rewrites if you fix it now.  Otherwise, you’ll waste so much time wandering aimlessly around making more problems as you try to fix crap you have no idea why you wrote in the first place, rather than using the rewrite for its real purpose – elevating and clarifying an already solid story.

On a similar note:

Stupid Advice Number 3: Just get it down

Again, STFU (see above).

Yeah, sometimes this is good advice, but sometimes getting it down is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Some concepts need to percolate.  Build.  Become more than they are.  Sometimes you have to take the time to explore every avenue before just getting it down, because just getting it down solidifies a direction (not necessarily the best), and cuts off alternate pathways that could lead to brilliance.  Sometimes just getting it down is settling for okay instead of pushing for great.  Sometimes this advice is just plain wrong.

Okay, if you’ve been percolating for 5 and a half years, you’re not doing it right.  You may think your wonderful percolating brilliance will pop out of your writer womb fully formed and be able to walk on water, but really, you’re just using the percolation thing as an excuse to procrastinate.  And procrastination is just one of many forms of writer’s block.

The above is usually followed quickly by this gem of advice:

Stupid Advice Number 4: There’s no such thing as writer’s block

Well, technically, there’s not.  But that doesn’t stop millions of wanna-be writers from suffering from this phantom disease.  In fact, there’s a 50/50 chance that you found this post because you Googled looking for a cure.

But the thing about writer’s block is, it’s only a symptom of something else.

Fear.

Fear of success.  Fear of failure.  Fear of frog feet.  Whatever.  Something outside of your writing is scaring you, and messing with the pathway between your brain and the page.

And the thing about fear is, there’s only one way to get over it.  Face it.  And by face it I mean slay the living crap out of it ’til it’s nothing but a pile of blood and bones and intestines ‘n shit.  If you don’t, you won’t write.  Simple as that.

It goes back to write what you know.  (No, I’m not talking about that sweet collection of boogers you keep in a matchbox under your bed.  I’m talking about what you know about the universal human condition ‘n shit.)  You may know jack all about medicine, but give your medical thriller a lead character facing a similar fear to your own, and voila!  You’ll force yourself to face your fear AND tap into the universal human crap that sells movies.  Two birds.  One stone.

(You’re welcome.  Expect my very over-priced bill for this therapy session in the mail.)

My advice when it comes to all this stupid advice?   Simple.  Embrace the fact that we’re all totally messed up and human.  Write what you want, how you want.  Use the rewrites wisely to save yourself a page one rewrite or twelve. And forget about writer’s block.

Write what you want, how you want.

Or don’t.  Doesn’t matter to me.   Do what works for you.

-The Single Screenwriter


I am a phenomenal screenwriter and self-appointed guru on all things.

I am here to spread wisdom to anyone stupid enough to listen to me.

 

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