Don’t write what you assume

11 Aug

The advice several writers are given when they are starting out is ‘write what you know’. This is patently stupid advice if taken literally. What I knew when I wrote my first play was very little indeed. If we stuck to that advice we’d never have Lord of the Rings, or Southpark, or Star Trek, or Harry Potter. We wouldn’t have Ben Hur, or movies like ‘Never Let Me Go’.

What I’ve always amended this to, when people bother to ask me, is write from what you know. Find the point of connection to the situation or character you’re writing about. Maybe you’re both mothers. Maybe you’ve both had to leave home and travel across the world. By both I mean you and the character, in case you’re wondering – I believe everything comes from characters. If your characters are believable, then your plot can ride on top of them. If your characters are not believable, the most devilish of plots will leave your audience cold. Bluntly: if I don’t care about your characters, I think you’re a bad writer.

So how do you find that point of connection, that way in to your story? I would like to amend the above to ‘don’t write what you don’t know’. And honestly, why would you want to? I’m not saying it’s impossible. But when I see a play about ‘how women feel about their breasts’ and it’s written (and directed) by a man, I am going to wonder why. If you set your play during the Irish potato famine, make sure you know what the potato famine was.

Ooh, a further amendation, and I think I’ve nailed it this time: don’t write about what you assume you know. Because other people, your audience or readers, they will really know. If you write about a woman who miscarries, you need to know it will ring true for a woman who has miscarried. If you don’t nail your character’s truth, people will know. They will spot you a mile away.

It comes to this, for me. Yes, the historical sticklers may (will) pick up on an error in the costuming of your period drama – but if your heroine has captured the audience’s hearts, it will be a petty detail. The character’s truth: that’s what you need to know. The rest you can make up – you are a writer, after all, aren’t you?

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