How To Write What You Know

By Ben Glassen

“Write what you know.” It is a phrase that seeps through the teeth of everyone who has ever given advice on script writing. What you may not realize is that it is misinterpreted almost as often as it is effortlessly uttered. I am here to let you know that you know more than you know.

There is a common misconception by amateur scriptwriters that “Writing what you know” means they need to have had a first hand or a very similar experience to the one in their script. They think, “How can I write about a New York firefighter if I live in Scotland and have no experience fighting fires outside of blowing the candles out on my birthday cake.” This is a frightening and wildly unnecessary box to stuff your creative being into. There is a very simple and often over looked solution to this problem, which is knowing the difference between plot and story. These two may seem like synonyms, when in reality understanding their individual distinctions could help you become a better scriptwriter.

Plot is what you will see on the screen. It is a series of events that happen inside of the story. The story is what the script is really about. It is the underlying force that moves the plot along. An example plot would be, “Johnny and his brother Marco own and operate a restaurant during prohibition era New York City. They are both arrested because Johnny was bootlegging alcohol through the restaurant without innocent family man Marco knowing. While in jail, Johnny devises a plan for him and Marco to escape prison by putting on a play in prison about escaping prison and then actually escaping through the play.” However, the story in this script would be “Johnny struggles to overcome crippling selfishness for one last chance to save his relationship with his brother.” As you can see the plot is far more convoluted. It is simply the series of events that show the story. The story is truly the core of the script.

So, now that you understand the difference between plot and story you can truly begin to grasp the full meaning of “Write what you know.” It should be obvious now that this phrase in no way involves the plot. I know for a fact that the writer of the example script above has never owned a restaurant or gone to prison. This is not to say one can’t use personal experience in the plot, just that it is in no way necessary. It is the story to which this refers. The story is human emotion and struggle, which is something we all experience. The writer of the example script did in fact have a brother with whom he had had problems with, similar to the selfishness shown in the story. The best scriptwriters channel their own experience into the story, while using the plot as a way to relay their message. Their message is what will engage the audience, which is always your end goal. The audience and the writer can relate to the reality and depth of the story, thus making your script a success and allowing you the ability to “write what you know.”

Wrong or Write...

There you have it. You now know you know more now about what you know.


Your Comments Please

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Good article and I completely agree. The other thing about thinking that what you know is all encompassing is that what you know is limited to you own experience. However everyone's experience of a given situation is different and as such, will always be biased. Stories are universal and as  storytellers we simply cannot afford to limit ourselves in this way. 

- Mark <markwilliamz@ymail.com>

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About The Author

Ben GlassenBen is a second year University student at Ithaca College in New York.

While studying in London he is an Intern here at Raindance. Ben has written for film, television, and theatre hoping to one day be a professional scriptwriter.










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How To Write What You Know