“Write what you know” is the advice that most writers receive, but few actually know what to do with it. Writing from personal experience is a tricky beast, as personal experience often comes attached to personal bias, and a deep dive into flawed characters requires a degree of distanced perspective. Still, semi-autobiographical works have been a mainstay of film and television. And for good reason.
Movies crafted from the historical record dominated every market in 2020 — from faith-based to mainstream — and intimate stories told from true-life tales like MARRIAGE STORY, PRECIOUS, ERIN BROCKOVICH, and RAGING BULL have shown that personal journeys can be worthy of Academy Awards. Of course, a true story isn’t always a good story, and knowing what seed of truth can grow into a dynamic film or pilot script will help you do justice to your history and all the characters who’ve lent their voices to your work. Here are three ways to use personal experience to write your screenplay.
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Good seeds grow healthy crops
The urge to tap your the biggest, most powerful life experience for source material isn’t always the best way to mine your life for screenplay ideas. The spark that originated what would become BREAKING BAD came from a casual joke about writers traveling the country in an RV selling drugs. But contained in that small story were the themes of amateur drug manufacturing and desperation, which matured into a prestige series that helped define the New Golden Age of Television.
A good seed idea is dense with themes, not necessarily robust with details. In fact, a script bogged down with too many pulled specifics can hinder your story’s pacing. Remember, films are not novels.
Focus on the cinematic motifs in your personal experiences, and know that even a deeply personal tale can fall into the realm of cliché. Distinguish your personal story by using the tricks of artistic artifice to accentuate the themes therein, and distinguish it from what is sure to be a sea of semi-autobiographical tales that lack a universal hook.
Hold on tightly, let go lightly
John Leguizamo has written and starred in true-life stories like the auto-biographical FREAK and going on to work on films like CHEF, SUMMER OF SAM, and recently, CRITICAL THINKING — all based on the real-life journeys of everyone from chess teachers to serial killers. He talked with Marc Maron about turning his personal story into a groundbreaking show, emphasizing craft over bombacity:
“…personal life does not fit in three-act-structure. It just doesn’t naturally fit in: so, it’s a really painstaking thing to make it a three-act structure… and its gotta be mad funny, and it’s gotta be mad moving… ’cause my life’s not that fascinating, so it’s more about my execution than it is about my fascinating life…”
Hold tight to the unique details that make your story your own, but remember that screenwriting is not dictation. Skill and patience are required to distill the elements of a personal experience into a three-act script with momentum, so be sure to avoid any elements that might create drag en route to your story’s denouement.
Honesty is the best policy
While writing what you know, keep in mind that “honesty is the best policy” – and that begins with some self-auditing. Ask “why this story, why now?” and be honest about your reason for wanting to share. Art may be therapeutic, but it isn’t meant to be therapy. An edifying universal tale can spring forth from your personal journey just as easily as a self-indulgent slog.
When in doubt, find a trusted voice for consultation. If the narrative can grab a reader with no connection to the real-life happenings, then there’s a good chance it can do the same with an audience. Professional feedback from people within the industry — who can give you feedback on the story itself and where it might fit in the broader film landscape — is the best way to know if your story built from personal history has the legs to propel you into your screenwriting future.
How to write a screenplay from your personal experience
Some of the best on-screen stories are ripped from writers’ personal experiences. But just because a story is true, doesn’t make it a great script. Find the authentic details in your own experiences and work to bring that specificity to your screenplays and you’ll be on your way to immersing readers (and eventually viewers) in a complex and impactful narrative that comes from lived experiences.
Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.