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What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!

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