By Elizabeth English
“A good writer needs to know what it’s like, and “it” can be just about anything. We have far too many writers today who have never ridden a horse, or fired a gun, or sharpened a knife, or fought with their fists, or been shot at. And so on and so on.” ~ Gene Wolfe, science fiction & fantasy writer, interview in a Barnes & Noble book review.
“Write what you know” is the vital, traditional message for all fiction and non-fiction writers, screenwriters, playwrights and journalists. You need to know the details, the visuals, the emotions, the reactions to events, and the totality of the experience, in order to write coherently about a subject, and action, a character and his or her dialog, and for your reader, or audience to relate to the story, the character and the action.
If you don’t know anything, or very little, about a subject, do deep research, learn about it from others, ask an expert, read about it online or in books, go experience it yourself, pay attention as you go through your daily life, listen and look, remember what you’ve seen, heard, learned and experienced, then use it in your writing. It’s a vital element of your “job” as a writer. You would never be hired by any company if you didn’t know anything about the job and had no experience in the work required!
Expand your knowledge and your experiences beyond your desk and computer. Go on out there and see the world, watch and listen to other people, experience other events than usual. Learn to tango, ride a horse, go to a rodeo, cook a foreign dish, go for a long hike in the woods, join a political group, plant an organic garden, build a snow sculpture or sand castle, surf the waves, swim with wild dolphins, visit with the elderly in a nursing home, practice yoga, learn to meditate, shop at a farmer’s market, volunteer to work with an environmental group, attend a lecture, go to a museum or an art gallery, study improv acting, travel to a foreign country, play hide-and-seek with a child, listen to teenagers to learn their lingo, sit in on an Al-Anon meeting, pick apples from a tree, chat with some homeless folks, go on an archaeological expedition, and, above all, remember and use your past, discover your roots. Don’t just rely on movies, TV, social media and the Internet for your writing ideas…that’s not necessarily real life!
Screenwriters absolutely need to know how movies are made, what goes into the project, the budget considerations, and how and why scripts are selected by agents, investors, producers, directors and actors. You also need to know what story, style and subject matter different potential clients want to see. A script is merely a story, a blueprint for a film. Imagine an architect designing a building properly, if he or she knows nothing at all about what the client wants, the details, the budget, and how the blueprint is ultimately selected by the client, is paid for and built by the contractors!
To learn how and why a script is selected and made into a movie, a TV show, or a stageplay, you can volunteer to work as an intern at a production company. Read scripts that have been rejected or successfully produced, and pay attention to why they work or don’t work. You can audition for a part in a film or show, even as an extra, or apply for work on the crew. Direct your own short film. Attend professional workshops and seminars on writing and filmmaking. Networking is another very important method of learning about the film business from all aspects, and for getting your work and talents noticed.
Most importantly, keep writing and experiencing as many aspects of life as you can! Write in different genres to expand your knowledge and talents. Are you a writer of drama? Write a great comedy! Romance writer? Write a scary mystery or an action story. Sci-fi writer? Write a contemporary romance or drama. Have at least 3 to 5 completed, edited and polished screenplays to show. Create fabulous loglines and one-page synopses for all of them. And get an agent, any agent.