Lately, I’ve had some interesting discussions with clients about the very early stages of the writing process and those critical private deliberations every writer must have when deciding whether or not to seriously pursue a new story idea. One very simple and basic principle that keeps coming up I think is worth sharing, something that all writers might need to be reminded of from time to time.
So at the risk of stating the obvious (something that at times can prove useful), as you begin to consider possible story ideas, one important single and simple “truth” to keep in mind is that every play or screenplay you write should be set in a world you know extremely well. Good plays, like all good fiction, are built on detail on top of detail, minutia on top of minutia. Audiences thrive on the tiny, specific things about characters, places, and events because that’s the only way they can get inside the play. That’s how they are able to relate to the people in that world.
The paradox here is that the more specific and detailed and personal your writing becomes, the more universal will be its appeal. People will begin to recognize themselves and be able to identify with your characters. You are giving them access to your play.
As playwright Terrance McNally told me in my interview with him at The Dramatists Guild, “I think the biggest way to get in trouble as a playwright—or any kind of writer, perhaps—is to start thinking, ‘This will be commercial; people will really like this; this will be funny; this will be sad.’ Instead, tell your story in your own voice. Get the facts together that you remember, that you know.”
It doesn’t matter if the audience itself knows anything about the world of your story. What matters is that you do. Then you can write true characters who behave according to the rules of the world they’re a part of. Audiences delight in films set in worlds set far apart from their own—from high level corporate maneuvering to the inner workings of a champion sports team to traveling in outer space to the gritty battlefield to the intimacies within a particular family. They may know absolutely nothing about the ins and outs of the world they’re witnessing, but they’re watching characters who are entirely familiar in their environment. Any world where the characters seem real and are behaving in what appears to be a truthful way will be accepted (if not finally applauded) by an audience.
Because of this, it’s critical you know intimately the world of your story and the people who populate it. And therefore it’s only logical to draw on your own life experience for your material. You’re incapable of taking a false step in this arena, because you know it inside out already. You have this rich, unique, and vast place to go for your story ideas, a place no one else has access to. It’s like your own private bank into which you’re automatically making deposits every day of your life and from which you’re always free to make withdrawals.