Write what you know.
This quote has been an old saw for writers for as long as I can remember, but its meaning has always been obscured.
I’m currently a judge for the screenwriting competition at the Austin Film Festival and others, and I’m employed in reading more than 100 scripts a month. Some of these are very good and will develop into some excellent film, but in so many cases I find that, while the words themselves may be there, the emotions they are meant to relate are missing.
That is, I am not feeling what the writer is trying to say.
Screenplays must be built upon scenes which convey universally relatable emotions because movies, at their most basic level, are emotion delivery systems. No successful film can reach an audience through intellectual argument alone.
We watch films to feel, and if the writer is only creating on the surface – that is, if they are not actively in touch with the emotions that they are writing about – the audience will never feel the power behind the word and the script (and the film) will fail.
So, the phrase “write what you know” does not mean you have to write about the things in your life that you have personal observed. But it’s meant to help you find a way to give more emotional meaning and connection to your writing, by using the personal examples in your own life to find those universally relatable emotions to bring veracity and power to what you create.
The Personal Story Arc
I believe that connection is found by mining your own personal story arc: those events and emotions in one’s own personal life that you have a direct and visceral connection with.
Our personal journey can be chronicled by the four cardinal directions our own lives have taken.
- Our experiences
- Our challenges
- Our limitations
- Our losses
I’ve used this technique for a long time now, both in my personal writing and with my students, so I’m going to speak frankly to you about this in order to show the power of this approach.
Now, if I am to be honest, I am a person molded almost entirely by loss at a very early age.
My mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 22 and I was only 6 years old.
This was, in fact, a portent of things to come. Her sister and my closest aunt died several months later at the tender age of 21.
My sister died of the exact same illness at age 19, when I was 21.
As a result, I watched my young father struggle with this loss in his own life and, several years later, watched him remarry and begin a new family.
My childhood was marred in many ways by a world without my mother to guide me and, while I love my stepmother and the family we all created together, I never truly got over these traumas and I can chart the ripple of these events even now in my life.
As a result, themes developed in my own writing of loss, retribution, anger and an overwhelming need to understand my world. I believe this is what led me to be a writer in the first place.
Who I am – the whole of who I am – was of course molded and sparked by what has happened to me, and my writing career was, in a very meaningful way, meant to seek out the answers that I felt I so desperately needed:
- Why did the women that I loved have to leave?
And, more selfishly,
- Why was this happening to me?
Some of my very best screenplays and works for the stage are directly influenced by my need to explore these issues. I suspect it is the source of the power and connectivity of my work and will be for the rest of my career
Now, that’s me – you are different.
You have your own arc. Your life has formed strong emotions in your life. Rather than shying away from these feelings, you should seek to use them in your work. So, let’s explore them.
1: Your Experiences
The foundation for all that you are today
This is your history, the recitation of everything you’ve gone through. This is you in a nutshell.
Let’s start with the events you consider milestones. These might be your memoir moments, or the scenes that would make up the thrilling trailer of your life if it were a movie.
Questions to ask yourself.
For five minutes, using a timer, write down every meaningful event in your life that comes to mind. Don’t stop for five minutes but also don’t stop until you get them all down. Write until you’re empty! This is the foundation of what we’re going to do here today.
Once the list in complete, ask yourself:
- What emotions do you associate with each event?
- Can you describe a single powerful image that you remember from this time?
- And how did it affect you later on?
- What can you say about these events that are absolutely true?
- What do these events say about us in general as human beings?
If you go back and really spend some time with these events in your life, and be honest about what you went through, you can certainly write about it.
You already know how such events unfold, the steps and stages you went through, and how it all ends. This is plot.
You know exactly how it felt at every stage. This is character development, motivation and arc.
These are new tools in your tool box.
2: Your Challenges (Goals)
The things that life calls on you to do.
First, let’s keep in mind the list of our experiences – they form the foundation for all we do now.
So, challenges – for example, things that are specific challenges to me:
- Grow up faster that my peers.
- Deal with the grief that I saw early in life in my then very young father.
- Learn to handle having a new stepmother when all I wanted was my mother back.
When we talk about challenges we are often talking about choices, the decisions or lack thereof that dictate which path we headed down for most of our life.
Because by choosing one path in life, we naturally exclude the ability to – at that moment – choose any other path in life.
Questions to ask yourself.
- What have you been called upon to do?
- Where has life caused you to rise above who you thought you were? Or who you were comfortable being?
You may have noticed that these are the same questions you might be asking of your characters (if not, why not?).
Your answers – your very personal answers – are where you will naturally find your motivations for all your characters. Why? Well, where else are you going to find them, if what you want is authentic, natural compelling writing?
In each case, you have a story about how you were able to rise above and change, or where you have failed to do so: all things that are important to your understanding of human nature and of yourself (one of the greatest byproducts of the writing process).
Give me at least five minutes on each question. Don’t be afraid.
What this means:
- You know what it feels like to have something that you wanted badly (character goals).
- You know what it’s like to have something stand in your way (obstacles).
- You know what it feels like to succeed or fail and what you stood to lose or gain (stakes).
- If you lived it, you can write about it in a compelling way.
Writers spend hours and hours trying to imagine just what their characters are going through, when all the time, they have personal experiences that mirror everything they will ever ask a character to do, ready to be mined and used in a story.
- Identify what your character is going through.
- Find a similar event/emotion in your life.
- Get in touch with what it felt like.
- Escalate, intensify.
- Live it out onto the page – you can do it.
3: Your Limitations (Obstacles)
The things in life that make other things difficult or impossible
Limitations are often about the effects of those challenges and choices. For me it was:
- Color blind
- Emotionally orphaned
- Not very athletic
These limitations made me react in certain ways:
Color Blind = see the world in a different way.
Can’t match my clothes/children correct me on color issues/always concerned that I might say something embarrassing (at 60 years old I’m pretty much over that, but it was a concern for a long time). My view of the world is very much like an old black & white television set. Because of it, I had to learn to see the world as other saw it
Emotionally orphaned = Learned to grow up fast.
In a way both stunted my development (failed to have that nurturing), and accelerated it (by demanding that I become more self-reliant). Lack of a mother means at the very least a stunted awkward sense of love and belonging to family.
Questions to ask yourself.
What are your limitations? List quickly all the things you cannot do.
Now look at those things one by one and answer the following:
- Can you actually not do this, and if so why?
- Can you really not do this, or just believe that you can’t?
- Can you do this, but refuse to at some level?
Why is this important?
This is what your characters face deep in Act 2 of all the stories that you write. (If they don’t, it could be why your stories are failing or why you’re failing to complete these stories.)
Note that at each turn, a choice was made. You could either become stronger because of these limitations or you could have just given up.
The choices we make are a result of these pressure and form and mold who we are.
The same for your characters.
4: Your Losses (Stakes)
Those things and people that were taken from you
And by now you know what to do: spend five minutes writing down all the things, people and opportunities that you’ve lost in your life.
Again, why is this important?
Your losses were the plot twists and turns of your life – usually things that you weren’t expecting. They can both throw your life in a suddenly different direction or slam it to a stop. You certainly know how to bring this to your stories.
I think you can see now that these cardinal points of your life are where your plots will come from, and the reactions you’ve had from the experiences, challenges, limitations and losses of your life are where both the motivations and emotional reactions of your characters will stem from.
I’ve been extremely candid with you for a reason here. The deeper you go into these cardinal points of your own life, the more power you can bring to your writing. Your authentic emotions can inform and help you create authenticity in your own writing. It can be a treasure trove of tools that you have now at your fingertips, available whenever the story calls for them.
The more truthful you are in your examination of yourself, the better equipped you are to be authentic, organic in your writing, and able to create storylines and characters that your readers and viewers will relate to.
It is simply the key to powerful writing.
Featured image: painting by Pablo Picasso