Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Write what you know - or not .....

Perhaps the most often piece of advice given by writing teachers is to "write what you know."

Or "write about something with which you are familiar."

I know an extremely successful screenwriter, Michael Brandt (Wanted, 3:10 to Yuma, Courier, the Wanted sequel - Wanted: Weapons of Fate, many more and he's preparing to direct his first feature now!), who disagrees.

He says that his success comes from writing about what he doesn't know; subjects with which he is not familiar.

Even though I have incorporated things about which I know in my screenplays, I agree with him.

When we write about something we know, we can get bogged down with too much knowledge about the subject, and when we approach a subject from our knowledgeable point of view, we may not understand the reader's - completely in the dark - perspective.

There's a level of assumption about subjects we write for which we have a lot of - perhaps even too much - knowledge.

I definitely found this to be true in my work with THE WHOLE TRUTH - a film involving something about which I'm considered an "expert." I'd assume knowledge of the reader or audience because in my mind, certain things automatically made sense. But to an unassuming newcomer to the subject?

For my next film, THE LONELY GOATHERD, I knew *nothing* about the subjects I wrote. I had to do extensive research - books, videos, films and lots of hands on experience and education with live goats of all kinds and people who care for them.

All the other elements of the story were brand new to me as well. More massive research and character development for me. Plus that, most of the action takes place in Switzerland!

So how did I come up with the story? A story I've come to love - along with all its characters?

The Seven Steps.

The Seven Steps were developed by an actor several years ago - and are taught today by some writing teachers as a way to encourage students to fearlessly create stories.

I used them when I coached writers to help free creative juices and get my coachees to develop a number of potential projects on which to work. The most important use of these steps is to force the writer to complete a full story, from beginning to end.

Without a complete "story spine," most beginning writers (and even lots of pro's) run into walls in the second act.

After each step, just fill in the blank and move on to the next step. They're good for any genre of story, light or dark, comedy or drama, happy and unhappy endings.

Mind you, this is not designed to be an outline of the entire story, just a follow through line that keeps your story on track. It's like the Christmas tree without the needles and decorations.

Here they are:

1. Once upon a time ...

2. And every day ...

3. Until one day ...

4. And because of that ...

5. And because of that ...

6. Until finally ...

7. And ever since then ...

If you're interested in writing, I recommend you create as many stories as possible as quickly as possible using the seven steps. They aren't ideal for every writer, but they certainly do stimulate the imagination and lots of ideas!

Here's a silly sample of how to complete The Seven Steps:

1. Once upon a time ... (there were two high school teenagers who hated their French teacher)

2. And every day ... (they would plot ways to kill that teacher)

3. Until one day ... (they saw and seized their chance to send him into the next world - they drove him off the road, over a cliff!)

4. And because of that ... (while they had no French homework, they became increasingly nervous because the police came to school, asking everyone if they had seen the French teacher)

5. And because of that ... (they grew short tempered with one another, making sure each kept his story straight, that they remembered exactly "where they were" and "what they were doing" away from the scene of the crime)

6. Until finally ... (a persistent police officer who had visited the school several times asked the boys if they would accompany him. They found the teacher in a crashed car and needed an identification. Relieved, they willingly followed the police officer into the hospital - assuming they were going to the morgue. To their horror, they were taken to a hospital room - where the bandaged, oxygen-masked French teacher, both legs elevated in splints, weakly pointed to the boys as his assailants)

7. And ever since then ... (the boys have been in juvenile detention, sentenced to ten years of French lessons)

That's just off the top of my head. You can no doubt do better - please do! And don't fret over your choices, just go for it. It only took me a couple minutes to come up with the French students' dilemma.

Give your character(s) a happy ending! Or not...

Mostly, just enjoy the process - don't make it feel like it's laborious.

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  • At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Caitlin said…

    As someone who is very interested in writing, I think this would greatly help me formulate a solid story. The organization of ideas is the hardest part for me. Thank you so much for posting that, CP!


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