Sometimes it’s easiest to explain things as a mathematical formula:
Perspective = (Experience * Consideration) + Time
A clear understanding of what’s important to a story is a function not just of personal experience, but time and considered thought. This is one of the reasons I warn college students not to write scripts about college students. They may have fresh, first-hand experience of what they’re writing about, but enough time hasn’t passed to give the story proper consideration.
But there’s more to this formula than the idea that you shouldn’t write about what happened just last weekend. Consider the number of people who sit down to write, but freeze up at the thought that they haven’t lived enough; that their personal experience is insufficient to have anything worth saying.
Look at that formula. A sense that you lack personal experience worth mining can be overcome through time and effort. That’s research. That’s writing and revising. Not every story needs to be about parachuting into occupied territory or barely surviving running with the bulls while hungover. A story about something small and relatable can have a refreshing perspective if the writer can take the time to discover a nuanced approach to the story’s telling.
And some things can’t be directly experienced. You aren’t going to have a chance to experience life on Earth in the year 3652. You weren’t a vampire in Victorian England. But the experiences you do have that can relate to those stories can be enhanced by consideration and time.
There are no set numbers attached to this formula suggesting that after x hours you’ll attain enlightenment, but it does pose a set of questions for a person looking to pursue a story idea:
- What have I experienced that relates to this story?
- What about those experiences have I examined, and how deeply?
- How long have I been living with these experiences and thoughts?
I had a bad idea this morning over breakfast. A ridiculous bad idea that started out from a fun high-concept premise, but that I found to have a variety of potential plot holes and red flags.
I added it to my idea notebook anyway.
Bad ideas can become good ideas over time. You may eventually come across solutions to the problems you see in the idea and want to run with it. Or, part of this idea might fit better with something else you come up with. A bad idea can still be stripped for parts.
But some bad ideas will stay bad ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. By writing it down, you already know you’ve had that bad idea before. You can see the problems you had with it. The idea gets out of your head and into a more tangible place where you can look it over a little more objectively.
It’s good to make reasoned judgements about what stories to take from idea to execution, but that same filter can stifle your creativity if you apply it too early in the process. Keep that idea notebook (or app) handy. Fill it up. Get everything out of your head, no matter if you know for certain you can use it.
Per my previous post on avoiding writer’s block, I’m working on more than one project right now. One of these scripts is brand new, though some of the ideas have been percolating in Evernote and a previous script for a while now. And it’s at this point, where I’m making the transition from idea to actual pages that I’m running into an issue:
I don’t know what this script is for.
It could be something low-budget. Possibly even something I’d want to produce myself. It could be a little more action-packed and blockbuster. It might not even be the story that I thought it was when I committed to figuring this one out.
This is the part where I bring up the fact that I’m bad at Buddhism. This kind of thinking is focusing on the end result and not on the act of writing. It’s a less mindful approach than working to discover the story and see where it needs to go as opposed to figuring out what kind of box I’m trying to place the finished script in.
Coming from a film school background, there were plenty of late nights working with specific limitations. “We only have 15 seconds worth of film left.” “What do you mean we can’t shoot on the shoulder of the freeway?” “How can we show that in a way that doesn’t involve 1,000 animated paper cranes?” These were concrete obstructions imposed by the need to have something to turn in by the end of the semester.
Sometimes a lack of constraints can be a frustration. I need to be reminded that in this draft I can write literally anything, and that’s OK. It’s all wide open. It’s a time to remember that if the first draft shows promise, external constraints will come soon enough.
This is a corollary to the previous post on the dangers of the writing what you know mentality. If you do choose to write a story based on something from your own personal experience, the closer you are to that moment, the less sense of perspective you have on it.
Think about perspective as being the range of magnification that you can see an event with. When dealing with something that happened five minutes ago, you can only see the situation in close up. You’re able to see the details of that moment, but not the larger context. Compare that experience to something memorable that happened seven years ago. You can still see the close up details of the event, but you can also pull further back to see the chain of cause and effect that lead to and from that moment for you. You can pull further back to see how that moment relates to other, similar moments you may have experienced. You can even see how others involved in that moment have been affected by it, and you may even be able to make assumptions about their motivations and actions while in the moment you’re remembering.
There’s also a process of natural selection that happens to choosing ideas to work with. Every idea seems fantastic when you first have it. Ideas that still seem great months or even years later are ones with staying power. Writing something based on an event that hasn’t had that time to fight it out with competing ideas does a disservice not only to your writing, but the idea. Without giving the idea time to prove its strength and fully ripen, you’re cutting the thought off at the root and freezing it in a state of immature development.
This isn’t to say that an idea based on something that has happened to you recently can’t become a great story, but by giving the inspiring event time to move into the past tense, you allow yourself to detach the idea from the facts of the moment so that you can focus more on its truth. “That’s how it actually happened!” is a weak justification for plotting, but weaving something that did happen into a fictionalized version of events can be a way to make the fictionalized aspects of a story feel more honest and real.
Your duty is to your story, not to your past.
This is a phrase that gets used frequently when working with beginning writers. It’s important to have your writing come from something that resonates strongly with you. If there isn’t something about what you’re writing that you care deeply about, it will be difficult to put in the time and effort to make it the best it can be.
This is also a phrase that gets misinterpreted by beginning writers. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that you should translate events you have experienced directly to the page and call it a day.
What you know, in this context, is much more vast than most people are willing to give themselves credit for.
You know what has happened to other people, both those you know in real life, and those you know anecdotally. You have emotional knowledge of the way situations have felt, and this can be extrapolated to fit other narratives. Most importantly, you have the ability to learn and expand your knowledge.
Maybe the phrase itself is insufficient to explain its aim. Here’s another attempt:
When writing, start with what you know.
A few years ago, I attended a Q&A session featuring Paul Schraeder, and he offered a suggestion for a way to prepare yourself before diving into writing a script.
Pick a friend. Maybe two or three friends. Invite them out for a coffee, or to a bar. Somewhere you can talk without a lot of distraction. Let them know that if you can bend their ear for twenty or so minutes, the first round is on you.
Don’t pitch a thumbnail of the idea. Tell the story. Start from the beginning and work towards your end. Try not to paint in too broad of strokes. Get in to the nitty gritty of what you have. Again, tell the story.
Watch your listener. See where their attention shifts and at what points they ask questions. Do they need something clarified because they’re confused? Do they want to know more?
What you’re looking to see is if your story can keep the listener wondering what happens next. There’s a mildly sneaky test for this: Build to a cliffhanger, or some other dramatically tense point, then pause and excuse yourself to the restroom.
If they ask you what happens next when you return, you’re on the right track.