by Fin Wheeler
Last month I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. As the title suggests, it’s him waxing lyrical about his lean, early years as a writer. He provides extended answers to questions he’s heard a million times from fans and would-be writers over the years. He also extrapolates on topics he always wanted to be asked about in detail.
So often you hear critics of popular writers say that best-selling authors just phone it in, implying that anyone who bothers to slap a few derivative ideas together can come up with a hit, which isn’t the case.
My mind keeps returning to a section of the book on plot and theme.
Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Best Sellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.
The “something new” he’s referring to eventually became Carrie. Idea One: How cruel high school kids can be to one another. Idea Two: The supernatural idea of mind over matter. (And how one poor taunted soul eventually snaps and uses such powers.)
At the time he had the idea, he was supporting his young family by teaching at a high school, so I’d argue that the concept wasn’t “out of nowhere.” That it’s actually his personal experience of the story’s environment that lends the work, Carrie, its chilling authenticity.
In his memoir, Stephen King goes on to recommend would-be writers read as much as they possibly can, and also that they write from their personal knowledge.
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to (read and) like what they’ve written.
He’s not concerned with what subject matter people choose to read. Popular fiction, classics, non-fiction, short stories, newspapers, graphic novels or produced screenplays; all styles and genres increase a writer’s knowledge base, understanding of human behaviors, and also make them more aware of the complexities of their craft.
I like King’s take on the “write what you know” mantra. He suggests,
Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work. Especially work… People love it. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider (writing about) a plumber aboard a starship.
The point he makes repeatedly is that you have to write about what concerns you and what you care about.
Deciding that you want to become rich and famous by writing a feature for Matt Damon to star in isn’t authentic (or realistic). Your spec would just be a string of big budget set pieces with no emotional core.
But start with a guy whose job it is to propagate edible plants, then separate him from his beloved family and your story has a beating heart. You’ve got an authentic foundation to build on.
When I was at film school, most of the students found it really difficult to write with emotional honesty. It’s not just film students who find it hard. My two favorite Ernest Hemingway quotes are, “Write hard and clear out what hurts” and “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Sadly, he preferred to get blind drunk rather than listen to his own advice.
[For more advice from Hemingway, read Why You Should Write a Shitty First Draft]
It is daunting having to put it all out there for everyone to see (and criticize). It’s never not going to be daunting, but there are two things to remember. One, you aren’t the center of the reader’s universe. They’ll probably be too busy looking for characters and situations they can relate to in your work to analyze why you write about what you do. Two, a writer writes to figure out the world. If you censor yourself, you’re not going to do genuine work. You might as well do something else, something easier with your spare time.
For some of us, it’s pretty clear cut what we’re driven to write about and why. For others it can be less obvious at a conscious level. Personally, I believe we’re all driven by a sense of injustice. Some focus on superficial, petty forms of it (Why don’t I have more than the next person?). Others are driven by something deeper (Why do situations of human trafficking/genocide/ inequality still occur?).
With each spec, all of us choose to create either a better or worse version of this world.
Understanding why, and what triggers that feeling of injustice in you, can help you harness that energy that fuels you to write, and pair it with plots that best represent what it is you are trying to express and explore with your body of work.
Don’t be afraid to write something original.
Screenplays do need to follow the standard Three Act structure, but that standard structure only becomes an effective story when it’s formed around an authentic, original core.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.