Writing about what you don’t know!

Screenwriting gurus exhort writers to write “what you know”. It’s perfectly good advice. Your work will be authentic, you can rely on your experience to tell a more nuanced story, you will save precious hours of research and you will (hopefully) connect with your audience. It does make life a lot easier for the writer. So, if a writer who has some first hand experience of large corporations were to write a story that is set in the world of high-finance, she would be within her comfort zone and would be able to tell a compelling story.

Another piece of advice that is often given to writers is: enjoy the process of writing. Makes sense. After all you are writing a movie that hopefully will be watched by millions (or at least a few hundreds!) of people and if you don’t enjoy writing it, how can you expect them to have the time of their lives (especially if it’s an action-adventure-slash-comedy-slash-thriller)?

Now put these two pieces of advice together and there is a problem. At least, I have one! I want to explore new worlds, and live vicariously through the roller-coaster emotions of my characters. And while I would be able to create a perfectly good (and believable) story set in a world that I am familiar with, it wouldn’t be an exciting enough writing process for me. Besides, if screenwriters only wrote what they “knew”, Star Trek would perhaps never been made. Or perhaps, an alien collaborated on that project? 😉

So when I came across Simon Beaufoy’s article in The Guardian, I was pleasantly surprised to note that a screenwriter of Beaufoy’s caliber prescribes to my “write what you don’t know” philosophy. This is what he says about his experience of writing Slumdog Millionaire:

“India is desperately romantic, utterly unashamed of its sentimentality, its generosity, its fierce pride and massive heart. And of all things, only love can overwhelm the seductive narrative of money that threatens to swamp the story. The euphoria of this discovery is soon replaced by the frightening realisation that I will have to reinvent the whole journey of the central character, Jamal the slumdog. I will also have to create the love of his life, Latika, and make their love story, not the quiz show, the real crux of the film. But what does a middle-class white Englishman know of a Mumbai slumdweller’s life story? Not much.

I decide that the only way to do this with any authenticity is to return to my documentary roots. Whereas screenwriters are always being told “write about what you know”, documentary makers prefer to dig, investigate, deliberately court exactly what they don’t know. For me, it is the best way to work. Where’s the fun in writing about what you know, when you can instead dive headlong into the new, the exotic, the utterly unknown?”

His last sentence resonates with me. Big time! And that inspires me to create stories set in worlds that I may not be familiar with but am fascinated about. Now, if only I could do that with as much skill as Simon Beaufoy does!

About Adite

Author & Screenwriter
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5 Responses to Writing about what you don’t know!

  1. Eleni says:

    Great article Adite, and I guess it depends on the writer and what they want to achieve during the process. I’m now working on my third book, and I enjoy this so much more than any other kind of writing I’ve done in the past. I weave my own experiences into my stories, which come to me from my spiritual experiences, some of which I’ve personally discussed with you. I still do a lot of investigating and research which also force me into many new and unexpected directions. So for me, at least, there’s a little of both involved here. It’s been a truly euphoric journey for me, and I’ve noticed that my stories come out a lot more authentic when I write from my heart. That’s just the type of writer I feel most comfortable being, and as a result I have found a confidence in my writing I never had before. One of my stories is science fiction and the other paranormal. Both worlds are completely foreign from our own, but it comes from my understanding of reality, all be it told in a very strange and sometimes freaky way! LOL. I oftentimes find myself writing outside my comfort zone. It’s sometimes unsettling to deal with issues in my life and seeing how far I can take them in a story. That can take a lot of courage! Good luck with your stories Adite!


    • Hi Eleni. Thanks for sharing your writing process. The ability to translate personal experiences into stories that are universal and resonate with your readers is truly the sign of a great writer. Do keep me posted about your books and happy writing!


  2. Tina Kumley Barnes says:

    I was glad to see this issue discussed about writing what you know. I felt I knew snippets of some of my characters’ experiences and settings, but not everything. So did that mean I couldn’t write about it? I came across information that Washinton Irving’s Rip Van Winkle had never visited the setting of eastern new England but set his story there. Hmm. So I am encouraged by your article to write about what I know and what I don’t know, but research and learn what I think I need to include.


    • Hi Tina. I am glad you found my post useful. Research can be very useful in getting the locations and other physical details right. I have found that I often get leads into characters’ motivations as well. But as Carl Sagan has so rightly said: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” Happy Writing!


  3. scriptlarva says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with you here. I think that good writing is about trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, forcing oneself into that new vantage point and still appear authentic.


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