Happy New Year! And welcome back to my fortnightly screenwriting newsletter. I hope you had a good Christmas break and are feeling mentally refreshed and ready to write and create in 2022.
As promised, the next few newsletters consist of feedback from the readers of the scripts submitted for the 2022 Channel 4 screenwriting course. I’m hugely indebted to the 7 readers for their immense hard work, their excellence and their generosity in taking the time and trouble to each write something that will be helpful to the writers who submitted scripts (and indeed all screenwriters). First up in 2022 (after Maud Dromgoole’s brilliant piece in the Nov 26th newsletter) is AMY ARNOLD. Amy is part of the Manchester-based script team on CORONATION STREET, as well as being a talented screenwriter.
Writing what you know
‘Before I write anything else, I’d like to say a massive thank you to all of the writers who submitted scripts to 4Screenwriting this year. Please believe me when I say we know how hard you’ve worked and how exposing it can be to put something as personal as a screen or stage play out there into the ether, not knowing how it will be received. I think I speak for all my fellow readers when I say how grateful we are to you for trusting us with your writing babies – over the past six weeks they have made us all giggle, cry, gasp and reflect in equal measure. To those of you who weren’t successful in getting onto the course this year – we can’t wait to see what you come back with in 2022. Please keep surprising us.
Reading this year’s submissions I’ve been able to reflect on the common features of the scripts with which I really engaged; what made them stand out and connect. Many of this year’s readers have offered invaluable (and far more eloquently written) feedback, but I’ll chuck my two pennies on the pile and hope it proves useful to someone.
As a writer, there are probably several phrases and buzzwords you’re sick to death of hearing – but write what you know is almost certainly in your top five. It’s definitely in mine.
It’s an innocuous and simple enough sounding instruction – until you start to think about some of the greatest and most successful stories and storytellers from throughout history. “Tolkien didn’t know what it was like to be a three-foot hairy-toed mound-dweller!” I have shouted into the void on occasion. “Or a talking tree!”
It’s obviously true that the vast majority of stories we read and watch – be they in books, on stage or on screen – are not direct, faithful autobiographies of the writer who penned them. From quirky rom-coms to epic science fiction series, writers employ creativity and imagination to create worlds, characters and stories that are entirely fictional constructs, many not appearing to resemble their real life at all. As writers, that’s what we love to do – create! So why the obsession with this four-word adage oft-lauded as a silver bullet for successful storytelling?
One of the conclusions that I’ve drawn through this reading process is that, in my opinion, writing what you know is a two-pronged fork. It deals with the practicalities of your story (subject matter, plot, character profiles), but also (and perhaps more importantly) the emotional heft that makes your story individual and worth telling.
From a practical standpoint, it is perhaps harder than ever not to read into the phrase write what you know and let it dominate your creative process from the get-go. For a long time the question ‘am I the right person to tell this story?’ barely factored into the thought process of many creatives, and it’s undeniable that in a lot of cases this was to the detriment of the story, as well as the people/places at the centre of the narrative. As the television writing landscape undergoes a much-needed wave of diversification it is more important than ever to make sure you are writing stories in which you feel personally invested.
That said – it’s no secret that fear is the enemy of creativity. It is also true to say that our access to information and ability to connect with people from a variety of places and backgrounds is more broad-reaching than ever before. Research is a vital tool and should be one of the joys of pulling your story together. If you don’t know everything about a place/person/era – make it something that you know inside out. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than a poorly-researched detail that removes you from the story – if you’re writing about the Vietnam War for example, make sure you know what year it ended! Talk to people. Read up on your subject. Become the expert. It will pay dividends in the authenticity and detail it lends to your writing.
The emotional side of writing what you know is much harder to just go out and research. It’s at this point you should remember that what you know doesn’t just boil down to facts and details. Each of us has lived through a kaleidoscopic array of situations and emotions – different family dynamics; friendships; love; disappointment; grief; betrayal; fear; excitement. You might not think you’ve got the lived experience to write that great idea you have – but writing what you know just means finding the common emotional thread between your idea and your own experience. You want to write a comedy about a family of aliens who live on Mars? Bring your petty sibling rivalries to the table. A love story set in 1850s Berlin? The setting might look different (research, research, research!) but the emotions – and more importantly your unique experience of them – can be the same. Draw on them and allow empathy to steer you.
As readers, our job is to look through hundreds of scripts and find the stories that really affect us – the scripts that feel (TW: buzzword ahead) authentic. With so many submissions and so few places on this course, we can only recommend the scripts that truly make us feel something. In each of the scripts that went through this year what was clear to us was that the writer really felt those emotions too – almost all of them had strong, believable relationships at their core. Creating a true sense of empathy for your characters and the situations they encounter that your reader/viewer can buy into is very difficult to do if you, the writer, too don’t feel the same towards them – it’s almost impossible to successfully fake. So no, Tolkien didn’t have experience as an animate evergreen with prehensile limbs. But he had fought in a war, which informed so much of his writing; from characterisation and plotting of conflict (practical prong) to his intimate understanding of the corrupting influence of power (emotional prong). Before you relegate an ambitious idea to the bin because you don’t feel qualified to write it, consider – what have you felt that can emotionally inform your story, and how your characters interact with one another?
To summarise, when it comes to writing what you know – you can never do enough research, and inhabiting your world and your characters fully should be relished. But when it comes to empathy and emotion, what you know is probably a much deeper well than you think.’
Thank you Amy!
The next newsletter will be on Friday January 21st.
January 7th 2022