Thursday, 30 September 2010

You are your own best source

There's a maxim in writing that you should write about what you know.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that you shouldn't write about what you don't know.  That is, it's more important in writing to avoid showing off your ignorance rather than bragging about your knowledge.  The reader expects you to know your subject.  You don't have to be the world's greatest expert, but you are expected to do your homework about the bit you're writing about.  If you set your story in Tuscany, you should know what Tuscany is like.  If it comes across like the Napa Valley with Chianti bottles, you're in trouble.  If you're writing an article that opens with a description of someone shaping a bowl on a wood lathe, then you need to know how that's done.

It's simple and obvious advice, but it's amazing how many writers ignore it as they pen scripts set in Bangkok that read suspiciously like atmosphere gleaned from a Thai restaurant in Birmingham. 

This idea of writing about what you know is very important because there is one source of knowledge and inspiration that so many writers ignore and that is the source which you (no matter who you are) are most familiar with: Yourself.

I'm not being trite here.  The fact of the matter is that the most dramatic, intense, and fascinating stories are ones about the most mundane and everyday experiences.  Each of us, if we could see it, lead lives of tremendous drama.  I don't mean in the way of some  blood-and-thunder adventure or over-egged soap opera.  I mean in that if we could see our lives from the outside and if we had the right talent for describing it, our lives would make Hamlet look like a work of limp fan fiction.  In fact, if you examine your own life, the people you've met, and the experiences you've had, odds are that if you used them as the starting off point for your writing you'd probably have to tone them down rather than jazz them up.  Fiction is much easier to roll out because fiction must be believable.

I'm not arguing here for autobiography, but I am arguing that if you want your writing to really work you should, no matter how fantastic or epic the subject matter, look at it from the human dimension because that it where the real drama is played out.  The trick is to be able to describe it properly.  Look at the best stories, the ones that really work, and you'll find that it's what happens at that level that makes them work.  The funniest comedies often revolve around someone trying to ride out a moment of embarrassment.  The most intense suspense is two men in a train compartment; one of whom knows a secret.  The most poignant love affairs are the ones where nothing happens.  And the greatest struggle is the one we all face as we go through our daily lies toward an future wrapped in fog.  It is in the intimate and the personal that the best stories occur.

I think that's one of the reasons why television dramas, especially in Britain, have fallen so badly in the past twenty years.  In the old days, the primitive nature of technology and the low budgets of the producers meant that television scripts had to work under tight restrictions. Programmes had to be shot quickly, in the studio, often with video cameras, little or no editing, and not much in the way of effects.  That meant that the stories had to be intimate, almost claustrophobic ones that dealt with realistic characters and plots carried along by dialogue.  Today?  The effects and flashy editing is all very nice, but it means that the programmes are carried along by images and music while the stories revolve around emotionally stunted creatures who wouldn't last five minutes in real life.

But that is a topic that  I'll deal with properly another day. 

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