(SPOILERS: Lord of the Rings, Shaun of the Dead, Sucker Punch)
Write what you know. It’s a cliché, but one that persists because writing from experience tends to produce the most powerful, original stories. I don’t think that means everything you do has to be semi-autobiographical. Whole genres would vanish if that were true – westerns, historical drama, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The key, I believe, is finding the emotional reality of the story.
Last Post I talked about the difficulty inherent in making true stories dramatic. The challenge with fantastic stories is making them relatable. It turns out the key is writing what you know. Not the reality of your world, but the reality of your emotional experience.
Think about it – why do we care about Frodo in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson)? We’re not hobbits, we don’t live in Middle Earth, and we don’t have to deal with orcs or rings of power. And presumably the filmmakers don’t either.
The reason we care can be found in the Prancing Pony scene. Frodo and his buddies have just left home and travelled to a strange town. The person they’re supposed to meet isn’t there. The people in the tavern are all bigger than them – rough, scary men. Frodo is anxious.
And we can relate to that anxiousness. We’ve all been in a place we didn’t know well among people we weren’t sure we can trust. We’ve all had plans go awry and not know what we should do about it. In fact, Frodo’s experience is not so different from a child getting separated from his or her parents in a mall. Just about everyone knows what that feels like.
We relate to Frodo on an emotional level.
I also relate to Shaun in Shaun of the Dead (Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright). Not to his battles with zombies, but to his struggle to balance the demands of his girlfriend, his best buddy and his mother. Those relationships feel real. Let’s face it, I watch Shaun of the Dead because of the zombie action and humor. But without that emotional core of a character I can relate to, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about the outcome.
For example, I loved all the visual stuff in Sucker Punch (story by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Zach Snyder & Steve Shibuya). But I was bored after about twenty minutes. Most of the movie is made up of Baby Doll’s fantasies as she dances – essentially short films. But those fantasies play out like video games. It’s all visually stunning women in visually stunning environments blowing stuff up. Within the fantasy sequence, we don’t know who these women are or why they want the object or why the monsters don’t want them to have it. The impact of Baby Doll's dreams on the “real world” is never made clear.
As a result I don’t really care about the characters or their adventures. The eye candy is interesting for a while but the impact quickly wears off. You can’t sustain a feature film with eye candy. The framing story fares better because there are recognizable human emotions going on, but it’s just the framing story. Again, it can’t sustain the movie.
We are involved in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings and not in the fantasy worlds of Sucker Punch because the hobbits are more recognizably human than the nubile dolls of the latter movie. In a way, the more fantastic the world, the more important it is that the characters are complex and relatable.
I would even venture to say one of the more important reasons that the first Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV – VI, written by George Lucas, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan) is so superior to the second (Episodes I – III, written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales) is that Luke Skywalker feels more like a real person than Anakin. Luke embodies that universal feeling of wanting to leave a boring home life and do something great. We can relate to his quest, to the loss of his mentor, to his growing maturity. Anakin is a brooding brat who often behaves inexplicably. (This is far from the only flaw in the newer movies – I could probably fill a year’s worth of blog posts on why the first trilogy is superior to the second.)
When you’re writing something that is not based on your personal experience, you have to find the emotional reality in the characters. How are they like you? How would you react in that situation? If you find that, your story can be just as powerful and original as if you were writing about your own experiences.