WHERE TO START?
Screenwriting is strenuous, time consuming, and overwhelming, often because we don’t know where to start, or if we do, we stumble down the wrong roads. So before you begin to develop all the specific tools necessary to build your original story, it’s important to take advantage of the assets you already have: start with what you know.
Sage advice. There are stories in all of us and the age-old adage of “write what you know” is always a good place to begin and keep coming back to. Any writing guru will echo these words of wisdom, but there is more to writing "what you know" than the catchphrase alone.
In order to fully appreciate the “write what you know” mantra, it’s helpful to separate this idea into its core parts, something I call The Three L’s of Story Creation. When it comes to story, you should always start with:
What you live
What you learn
What you love
WRITE WHAT YOU LIVE
Before you do all the external research, explore and elaborate from your own experiences, feelings, and beliefs. Who are the people you know that inspire you? Perhaps your grandfather told a story from when he was a pilot in WWII, and this provides an opportunity for a story with primary account material.
Or you grew up with a best friend who suffered from leukemia. If you decide to write a story where your character faces the obstacle of cancer, or some other terminal disease, you’ll be writing from a place of experience, which will only help to make your script honest, genuine, and realistic.
Oliver Stone didn’t simply write and direct the 1986 Academy Award winning Best Picture Platoon because war movies were hot property at the time. He wrote the script because he lived it. In September 1967, Stone enlisted in the United States Army, requesting combat duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart before his honorable discharge. Platoon, in a very real sense, is Stone’s semi-autobiographical account of his personal experience in combat.
WRITE WHAT YOU LEARN
This isn't to say that you should never explore material that you don't know intimately, but again use logic as your guide. If you never watch rom-coms, why are you going to write one? If you're not into sci-fi, why are you going to set your world on another planet?
Remember that what you know is not limited to personal experience alone; it is also the knowledge gained by what you learn. You may never have been in the military or stepped foot in a war zone, but if you do the research – interview people who have and read everything you can get your hands on – your knowledge is the learning experience that is necessary to begin writing your screenplay.
In 2004, freelance journalist Mark Boal was learning about bomb squads while embedded with troops during the Iraq War. In September 2005, his article “The Man in the Bomb Suit”, which focused on one of the bomb experts, Sergeant Jeffrey S. Sarver, was published in Playboy magazine. Boal then went on to write an original screenplay about a fictional set of characters and events based on what he learned in Iraq. His screenplay The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, won both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 2010 Academy Awards.
WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE
Whether your story stems from your own experiences, imagined ones, or what you’ve read, you must be inspired, because if the spark isn’t ignited from within, there will be no fire in your script. And the best way to conjure up and maintain that magic is to focus on who you are creatively and be true to yourself. If you obsess over American politics, write about it. If you’re interested in high fashion, explore it through your characters. If you love basketball, make it a backdrop in your story.
Your screenplay should be a movie you’d camp out overnight to watch yourself – okay, maybe not ‘overnight,’ but certainly, you’d wait in a very long line. Believe in your script; be excited and confident in your story – because if you don’t feel the magic yourself, no one else will feel it for you.
We go to the movies because of the genre, the plot, or maybe just to see our favorite actor play a new role, but rarely do we go because of who wrote it. That is, unless it’s a Woody Allen film. Love him or hate him, Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Midnight in Paris) knows who he is, never trying to be something he’s not.
And he’s not alone. Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe, Super 8, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) are all scribes who write what they love.
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.