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Screenwriting Rules And How To Break Them

By Expert Author: Ralph Adams

One of the most misleading ideas in screenwriting is that as a writer you should "write what you know."
On its surface, this is a brilliant idea. After all, writing what you know means you're a whole lot less likely to get into trouble in your writing-and even your fiction is a whole lot more likely to be rooted in truth.
As anyone who's ever told a lie can tell you, building on pure fiction is like building on quicksand.
Things might look so much easier for awhile, but pretty soon one fabrication piles upon another until you're spending all your time trying to keep your story from from collapsing on itself.
Writing what you know makes things so much easier. Rather than reinventing the wheel, you get to focus on something you know profoundly well, conjure it for your audience, help them to connect with it, and take them on a journey in relation to it.
But of course, if great writers truly only wrote what they knew, some of the greatest works of fiction would never have existed.
I think it's safe to say George Lucas never spent much real time "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away". Nor were JRR Tolkien or Peter Jackson ever abducted by Gandalf.
You don't have to be a serial killer or an FBI agent to write The Silence of The Lambs. You don't have to be a mobster to write Goodfellas. And you don't have to be a pet detective to write Ace Ventura.
As writers, we know on some level that our job is to invent. We are creators of fiction... So how are you supposed to write what you know, when you're conjuring a world you never lived in, or a character whose life you've never experienced?
The trick with writing what you know is not to write what you know literally-it's to write what you know emotionally.
George Lucas may not have known Darth Vadar-but he was deeply connected to the idea of the force. That's what makes the early movies so powerful-and its absence is what makes the later movies so easily forgettable.
JRR Tolkien may not have dwelled in middle earth, but he clearly understood the nature of addiction: the irresistible urge to put on the precious ring of power-even knowing that it draws the dark lord closer. And the way the end of that addiction-with the destruction of the ring by the ultimate addict, Gollum, also means the end of the age of magic, and the beginning of the age of man.
What a great writer does is not simply to write the literal truth of what he or she knows.
What a great writer does is to translate what she knows into a fiction that tells the truth even more powerfully than the literal truth ever could.
As any screenwriting teacher will tell you, flashbacks almost always mean big trouble for young writers.
No matter how exciting their content may seem to be, by their very nature flashbacks almost always kill the drama of a story, distracting both writer and audiences from what is most important in a script: the main character's present day journey.
For this reason, it's become dogma among screenwriting gurus, enlightened producers, and film professors that flashbacks should be avoided at all costs.
Good advice. Except for the fact that sometimes flashbacks just plain work.
Can you imagine what would happen if the writers of great films like Memento, Sophie's Choice, or Blue Valentine had clung to the rules about avoiding flashbacks?
Their films would have lost some of their most powerful elements- and possibly never even been written in the first place.
While avoiding flashbacks may be a good rule of thumb for keeping you out of trouble, the real question is not whether or not you should use flashbacks, but how they are affecting the drama of your story.

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