Inspiration from Life, Not Movies
Here in TV staffing season, if you read interviews or listen to podcasts with showrunners, a familiar refrain comes up repeatedly. People who have led interesting lives tend to be more compelling writers, because they are drawing inspiration from real life, not from other movies/TV shows they have seen.
Writing primarily from movies/TV as a frame of reference is a bit like making a copy of a copy. The quality of the second copy is likely to decrease. The work is also likely to be derivative. Does this mean we should all drop everything and become firefighters, cops, or tiger wranglers?
No. But, in anyone’s real life, there is going to be something you can draw from. Often, that something is painful to draw from, which is why it’s easier to avoid it. Let’s say, as an example, that you suffer from a mental illness.
That’s scary to even write down on a piece of paper. But that’s also why there’s a stigma around mental illness, because people don’t like to talk about it, much less admit they have one.
Again, though, this is an example of drawing inspiration from real life, no the movies. If you are bipolar, for example, you could never admit it, never write about it, and only write broad comedies.
But imagine if, instead of writing a generic comedy not true to your personal experience, you wrote something about bipolar disorder. THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, for example, has a protagonist who is bipolar. That specific choice colors the entire film.
Let’s say, as another example, you grew up extremely poor. Like mental illness, there’s a stigma around poverty. Admitting poverty can feel like admitting defeat, especially in a capitalistic society.
But if you write a blisteringly honest pilot about growing up poor, that’s more likely to be compelling material because you completely understand it. Even if that pilot is about a poor person who travels to another dimension, on some base level there’s going to be a captivating authenticity to it.
“Write what you know” is a truism of screenwriting that doesn’t mean writing about someone who loves movies/TV and hopes to become a successful screenwriter. It means writing about something primal to your life experience, which you have passionate feelings about.
And this also doesn’t mean the writing has to be autobiographical. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, for instance, is about keeping hope alive through difficult circumstances. That’s something anyone can relate to, which can apply to any situation. You don’t have to spend decades imprisoned to understand that theme.
Search your life for the most challenging components of it, and write towards them. You may find your work becomes super-charged as a result.
How does your life experience inform your writing?