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!