Is that title too confusing? Yeah, I thought so. Though, to be fair, the idea of “write what you know” is widely misunderstood anyway.
That’s where I come in.
Lately, I’ve been seeing a TON of discussion about this topic. Mostly on Reddit’s r/screenwriting and some social media writing groups I follow. It’s one of those things people always want to know more about. Hell, there’s been more than a few articles on this site trying to reveal its mysteries.
The confusion, as I see it, comes from the fact that people are taking this adage literally, when they should be applying it to their work more broadly. "Write what you know," does not LITERALLY mean make people read about your boring-ass life. It means that you should draw from your personal experiences to help you tell a killer story.
It doesn’t mean your next screenplay should be about a wannabe writer who dreams of making it big in Hollywood but still lives in his mother’s basement, working a dead-end job at Wawa.
Am I saying it’s impossible to write a kick-ass narrative with a protagonist like that? Hell no. As I’ve said before, any script can be great with the right execution (read this article if you don’t believe me). But I’ve also seen wayyyyy too many screenplays over the years that try to do this and fail. It’s so abundantly obvious that the author has nothing to write about, so they tried to write about their lame lives and make it compelling.
Again, that’s not what “write what you know” means.
What it does mean is that you should take your personal experiences and channel how you feel into your work. This is what the core of the message is really about.
Because you know how it feels to desperately want something (having one of your screenplays be produced) more than anything in the world. You know the shame of still living in your mom’s house, feeling like a failure because your dreams haven’t come true yet. You know how to describe what’s going on inside your soul when it feels like every damn thing you try to fulfill your destiny doesn’t work. How angry and upset and broken down you get when every door you knock on slams in your goddamn face.
That’s what “write what you know” really means. It means you should take a feeling, or a unique experience you’ve lived through—something that is quintessentially you—and put it on the page.
During the pandemic, I worked for a job at an electrical contracting company. They’d get hired by big outlet stores like Target or Walmart and send technicians to upgrade their electrical systems. It was boring, and I wasn’t there long, but I gained enough information while doing that to understand how that world works.
And did I write a script about a guy working behind the desk of an electrical contracting firm for three months? No. But I did write a script about electricians doing an overnight job at Walmart, and they happen to realize that they’re locked inside with a monster that haunts the store. That’s figuratively writing what you know. You’re taking personal experiences and crafting an entertaining narrative around them.
Here's another example I like to use: I once had a client who lost his grandfather six months prior. He was writing an action spec about a spy who was trying to save the world. It was an okay screenplay, but do you want to know what he did that finally took it from “okay” to “this script slays"?
That’s right … he added a subplot where the protagonist was dealing with the loss of a grandparent. Someone who was really close to him. And instead of banging bikini babes and shooting faceless bad guys, lots of time was spent exploring the emotion and feeling of loss.
Because that’s something he knew intimately well. It was something he could write about. He figuratively wrote what he knew.
So, if you’re someone who has feelings—feelings that you need to let out—or personal experiences that are unique and would make hella awesome settings for movies or TV shows, then I implore you:
Get off your ass and write what you know … figuratively.
Godspeed y’all, and happy writing.
Feature Image by Psychoshadow (Adobe)