“Write what you know” is often the first piece of advice beginning writers get from instructors, teachers, charismatic filmmaking podcasters, and YouTube screenwriting grifters. Most writers, myself included, draw heavily from personal experience to make our writing more realistic or specific or emotionally honest, depending on the goal of the piece. As such, even when we’re writing fantastical stories set in outer space, people we’ve met and events that have happened to us frequently make it to the page.
Whether you’re the right person to tell a particular story is a personal decision, and this great article by Ijeoma Oluo will help guide you. It may also be worth considering how important the most identifying details are. Can you tweak the specifics to stay true to the emotions instead of the identifiers? How important is it for the characters in your script or story to have the same job as who they're based on IRL, versus just their point of view? Cough Cat Person cough.
We’re going to assume, for the purposes of this article, that you’ve decided definitively that you’re telling a fictionalized version of true events, and now comes the awkward part: how to tell the people who may recognize themselves in it.
First, though, a caveat: you don’t have to tell people first! If it’s a person you’re estranged from, or a person you can reasonably assume won’t see the work, or if you just don’t want to talk to them about it, don’t. I don’t know your life or your relationships, and this article is not required reading. But if you like having some structure for tough conversations (I know I do!), read on.
I recommend starting with your mission: are you asking for forgiveness, permission, or just giving them a heads up? What do you WANT out of this conversation—what is your goal? Know this before going in so you stay focused and on topic.
Picking your location well is also important. Neutral, public ground like a cafe or park are my favorite options, because you’re not straining their hospitality, they can’t grab your belongings and start to smash, and hopefully other people around encourage both of you to be on your best behavior.
Then, don’t beat around the bush. Too much conversation padding will just delay the inevitable and potentially make the interaction even more fraught. It’s honestly more cruel to string someone along, thinking this is just a regular conversation or coffee date.
Example: "I wanted to give you a heads up that my next script is about [this experience/event]. I want to explore [themes/emotions] because [the WHY you're writing this] and this is my entry point."
Clarifying the themes and the mission behind your story helps depersonalize things, focusing instead on why this makes sense for you, and potentially for the world at large. Don’t apologize, or caveat, or hem and haw. Be direct about your purpose, and remember what your goal in this interaction is.
Next up, we need to set some boundaries. "I will be including [true things you're including]. I will not be including [other true things/ identifiable details]." Be transparent and concise, because this is the real meat of why you were probably avoiding this conversation. It can be helpful to be willing to have a dialog about where the line is, but this is ultimately optional.
If it’s necessary, you can include how true events have shifted and abstracted to soften the blow, emphasizing the differences between the fictional event/character and what really happened. Remind them of your themes and how these true details shape and inform them.
Finally, where do we go from here? Are you willing to make changes to further protect their identity or ego? Is this the first of many comfort checks and conversations and you just wanted to get the ball rolling? Or was this a courtesy call so they aren’t blindsided?
Be clear, and if possible, come to a conclusion together.
*Feature photo by George Becker (Pexels)