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Live It, Love It, Learn It… Write It

By Patrick Kirkland · July 1, 2011

There’s a guy that somehow finds his way into every one of my scripts. He’s roughly between 25-35. Middle class. Always in and out love. He wants to do something really big with his life, but can’t seem to get out of his own way to do it. Of course, the “something really big” changes with every new script. Once, he was once an artist, once a tech geek, once a Wall Street banker. And once he was just an unemployed fuckup without direction who just asked for directions. And this guy, to no one’s surprise, is me.

Why the hell would I put myself in the middle of every script I write? Simple. Because it’s what I know. And you know what? I write myself pretty damn well.

I know what I had for breakfast.  I immediately know the moment before any other moment. I have a good idea of what choices I would make under pressure. Call it cheating. Call it lazy writing. Tell me I’m not using my imagination. But the fact is, I’m writing. And without knowing the world you're writing about, getting pages out is pretty damn tough.

As a writer, you’re constantly making decisions. But the one decision that precedes all others is this one: What’s your genre?

Genre decides everything. Genre decides your world, and all the other decisions that go on inside of it. For instance, if you’re writing an historical drama, you wouldn’t necessarily have aliens fly out of your Vietnamese POW camp. But if you’re writing Predator, that’s another story.

 

Pick your genre honestly.

Quick! What's your favorite movie? What's your second favorite? And if you're left at home on a Saturday afternoon, what DVD makes its way into your DVD player?

As writers, we are complete sponges for the world around us. So the movies we love are the ones that stick with us, over and over again. Picking your favorite gives you an easy look into what type of genre you'll write best. Spend your time watching Saw and Halloween sequels? Your next film should be a slasher. Still waiting for another Tom Hanks/ Meg Ryan/ Nora Ephron flick? Create a likable guy, find him a partner, and let the two create chaos as they fall in love. That's right, you should be writing a Rom/Com. Why? Because it's what you love.

 

Be an expert.

Just because you're waiting for another You've Got Mail, however, doesn't mean you should start writing the sequel. For one thing, you might live in Kansas, so what could you possibly know about love and corporate warfare on Manhattan's Upper West Side? On the other hand, I wouldn't begin to write another Hurt Locker, because I've never spent time around bombs, and the only desert I've been in is Las Vegas. Screenwriter Mark Boal, however, was a war correspondent, and spent day in and day out with these guys. He knew the world. He researched it. He lived it.

Once you've chosen your genre, you can pick your world. But in order to pick it, you've got to know every inch of it. Kevin Smith started out (and still does) writing about suburban New Jersey. He grew up there. He knows it. If you’re a bartender, go write another Cocktail. It's time to update that movie anyway. Want to write a card shark flick instead? Go play in the back alley poker games, like the writers of Rounders. Want to write a Batman script? I hope you're a fanboy, because if you don't know everything about the man in black, you're in for a world of hurt.

 

Knowing is honest writing.

When I was a reader, I'd get hit every so often with a script that was a replica of what was already out in theaters. This isn't unusual. After every hit film, a slew of scripts get into the pro readers hands at Fox, Miramax, and Universal, only to be some warped version of the same script they just developed. The success of Pulp Fiction sent us over the moon with nonlinear scripts.  After Carrie and Samantha ruled the airwaves in Sex and the City, I read several submissions, and wrote several reports, all with the same concept: a group of women friends get together and take the city by storm. Were any of them any good? No. All had already been done. And all had been done better.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to try something different. The truth of the matter is that that's where a lot of the fun ideas come from. Big ideas come from trying new things, but the rules still apply: know your genre. Know your world. Write within them.

 

The Problems of Writing Out of Your Realm.

Spiderman: Turn off the Dark is about to become the biggest flop in the history of Broadway. And last winter, I went to go see it.

It was everything you've heard. Beyond terrible. What was supposed to be a high-flying Broadway adventure was a complete meltdown. The songs were laughable, but the book was horrendous.  

I can go to town on what I thought were the problems with the production. But my biggest of all issues was exactly this: Julie Taymor, famed Shakesperean and Greek Classics director, went way out of her realm.

Taymor, in an effort to make it her own, used little of Stan Lee's original material, a lot of Sam Raimi's film, and added elements from the Greek tragedies of yore: the main villain Arachne, an eight-legged Greek Tragedy-inspired Spider Goddess who appears only in Spidey's dreams, and the "Geek Chorus".

It makes sense. Watch her background, and you can see that she knows- almost breathes- Greek Drama and Shakespeare. To her, a Goblin villain might not be enough to work with. She might feel like the story needs a Chorus to give a play by play, just like Agamemnon, or Euripedes' The Bacchae. These additions obviously made sense to her, because it was what she knew. However, the typical Broadway patrons, the comic book junkies, and the kids waiting to see Spidey fly obviously disagreed. The problem? She mixed the genres. She picked up material she didn't know anything about, and it backfired. Exceedingly.

Still. Take your chances. You just saw Game of Thrones, and you want to write a story that takes place in medieval times? I salute you; have at it. But do your research. Watch a lot of movies. Read nonfiction. Do interviews. Learn the genre. And work your outline tirelessly until it makes sense. And then, if it pans out, fantastic. But when it doesn't – recognize it. Throw it away. And start over.

As creative writers, there’s the absolute desire to try something new. I constantly try to make my recurring character a smaller and smaller part with every script. Maybe someday, he'll just be a guy at a bus stop.