What You Should Know Before You "Write What You Know"
When I first started writing, it was my dream to capture my life story at that point in time, which was centered around my sibling rivalry with my twin sister.
I had never seen myself on screen—and I’m not talking about representation as we’ve come to understand it (although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a half-Korean, half-Polish woman protagonist on screen).
What I mean is that I had never seen a character who experienced jealousy in the same way I had.
Sure, there was the nerd who was jealous of the popular girl at school—but that girl didn’t have to come home and sleep in the same bedroom as the object of her jealousy. And, yes, there’s the classic story of Othello and Iago—but my jealousy wasn’t vindictive. I loved my sister as much as I was jealous of her.
All my life, it was hard to find characters I could relate to. Aside from some blips of solidarity (thinking of Rocky Balboa’s son in the six film of the franchise), I felt like my story was largely untold.
Naturally, when I decided I would pursue writing as a career, capturing this deeply personal and specific experience was at the top of my to-do list. I wanted to express all the feelings that had been bubbling inside of me for years. I wanted people to understand what I had gone through. It was as much of a therapeutic endeavor as it was an artistic one.
In my second semester of grad school, I decided this would be the year I would finally do it. I would put pen to paper and make this dream a reality.
When I handed my outline to my screenwriting professor, I had all the confidence in the world. After all, I had mapped out my story in a way that was authentic and vulnerable, as many of my literary heroes had done before me.
What could go wrong?
Given my optimism, it’s no surprise that I was completely blindsided when my professor pointed out the many flaws in my outline. These weren’t small, nit-picky notes. They were huge, fundamental problems that, if left unaddressed, would render my script a complete failure.
In my meeting with him, I think he could tell how hurt I was because he started asking me questions about why I chose this story. As I explained how much this script meant to me, he empathized and offered me some comforting words.
He also recommended that I put this outline away in a drawer for the time being and to come back to it once I had gained more knowledge of the craft. I could keep working on it if I wanted to, but he warned me that it might be difficult, since I was so attached to what I had envisioned.
I left his office completely dejected. Deep down, I knew my professor was right. My outline needed a major overhaul. It was probably too much to tackle in a single semester … but I didn’t want to leave this script in a drawer.
I decided to keep working on the story. I made several huge revisions, but in spite of my best efforts, the script fell short.
The experience left me feeling betrayed. I’d heard the adage “write what you know” countless times. If it worked for other writers, how come it hadn’t worked for me?
Since the writing of that script, I’ve written many more. I’ve also read and analyzed hundreds of scripts as a development executive. I can now look back at my old writing and see exactly where I went wrong.
To save you some of the pain I went through, I’ve come up with three questions to ask yourself before you write anything based on your life:
1. Am I writing about something I did or something that happened to me?
Sometimes, a writer will pitch their movie with a line like this:
The best part about this story is that [crazy thing] actually happened to me!
Just by reading this statement, I know we’re in for a lot of trouble. A line like this inherently implies passivity. Something is happening to the protagonist (you) instead of you creating the story.
Granted, there are a lot of things in life that happen to us that set us off in a new direction. But does your excitement end at the inciting incident?
This was a major mistake I made with my script. I thought I was excited to tell a story about how I overcame my jealousy. But what really excited me were the scenes that focused on what jealousy felt like—the pain of always feeling second-rate, the yearning for a better life, the frustration of being misunderstood by others, etc.
This means that my favorite scenes—the scenes I poured my heart and soul into—were the ones where my protagonist was getting berated by her parents, or watching her sister receive an award, or crying in the bathroom. They were scenes in which my protagonist was being passive, which is a big no-no in scripts.
After becoming a development executive, I realized I wasn’t the only one making this mistake. It’s actually very common, especially in personal scripts.
It makes sense—there are usually so many emotions and painful moments to unpack with our life stories, so naturally, we spend more time unpacking them. It even makes sense that we write passive characters. There are times when our pain was so deep, we got the wind knocked out of us, and we were unable to do anything for a while.
However, these scenes do not comprise a story in themselves. A character repeatedly getting hurt over and over again is not a story.
A story must have a character actively pursuing a goal. If your character is not being active throughout your script, all you have are pages that should’ve been a diary entry.
So, how would I rephrase the earlier pitch, you ask?
The best part about this story is that I actually did [crazy thing]!
This line inherently implies an active protagonist who set a goal, went after it, and accomplished it, which is what we want.
In other words, if what most excites you about your life event is how you handled it, you’re good to go. But if you’re only interested in expressing what that life event felt like, it may be better to take out the old diary.
2. Will other people find this interesting?
Have you ever had something hilarious happen at a party? Maybe your best friend spilled wine all over their t-shirt or somebody got so drunk, they revealed some embarrassing secret. Whatever it was, everyone at that party agreed it was a moment for the history books.
Now, what happened when you tried explaining this moment to people who weren’t there?
I’ll bet you were met with crickets instead of the raucous laughter you were hoping for. That’s because a lot of the elements that made that moment magic—the music, the smells, the person’s behavior, the timing, etc.—are hard to translate through words alone.
This doesn’t mean the moment isn’t worth telling, but you’re going to have to exaggerate it.
Stand-up comedians do this all the time. They never tell a story straight. They do caricatured impersonations, they add in extra jokes, and they even change the order of events so the timing is stronger.
This same concept applies to your scripts.
Let’s say you really want to write about your personal experience with grief. Maybe you processed it by withdrawing from the world for a while, which is totally valid.
But, again, that’s not a story in and of itself. After 30 minutes of seeing a character grieving and doing nothing else, your audience is sure to disconnect.
This is where exaggeration comes in. If you’re a genre writer, you can go as far as externalizing grief into a terrifying monster, which is what The Babadook does. This film is a phenomenal example of how you can externalize an internal obstacle in a way anyone can understand and empathize with.
But even if you want to keep your story in the realm of real life, you can still invent storylines that heighten the drama. Rabbit Hole focuses on the relationship between a grieving mother and the teenager who killed her son in a car accident. Although it focuses on grief in a very grounded, realistic way, the unique relationship adds tension to the entire film that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Don’t be afraid of exaggerating the truth or finding a more interesting vehicle for your memories.
3. Am I ready to get feedback on this?
When it comes to writing material that’s highly personal, it comes with a lot of emotions. This can be a beautiful thing when you’re able to pour all your feelings into your writing in an effective way.
But an excess of emotions can also mean that your ability to think clearly and logically about your script is impaired.
For instance, I give notes all the time on three-act structure. I know where certain beats should land, and I generally try to align my story within these beats.
But I’ve noticed that when I write personal material, structure goes out the window for me. I’ll make my first act 40 pages long because, if I can quote my brain, “I just can’t edit down my life like that.”
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with structure or trying new things. But 9 times out of 10, I’m “experimenting” because I’m so attached to my vision, I can’t think logically about what’s actually best for the story.
Fortunately for me, I’m pretty responsive to notes, and I’m able to get to a place where I can see my scripts more objectively. But I’ve seen writers who never get to this point. Their story is so personal to them, they emotionally cannot budge on any decision they’ve made, and their work suffers for it.
Like I said earlier, scripts aren’t diary entries where your feelings take prominence, and anything goes. Scripts are meticulously crafted pieces of art that require equal amounts of passion and analytical decision-making.
If you’re not mentally prepared to do that second part, don’t expect others to regard your script as a meticulously crafted piece of art—because it most likely won’t be.
I realize some of my above advice might be construed as a bit harsh, so I want to stress my love for personal stories. Sharing a vulnerable experience with the world is one of the most powerful feats one can undertake.
But pulling this off successfully is not as simple as “writing what you know.” It requires so much more effort and critical thinking than what that quippy adage implies.
In some ways, writing your life story can be as difficult as the life event itself.
But that’s also what makes it so rewarding.
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)