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This Inside Out Screenwriting Video Challenges the Age-Old Advice “Write What You Know”

One of the first pieces of advice nearly every aspiring writer gets told is to “write what you know.” This seems like basic common sense, right? But too often, this advice ends up being distilled down far too literally, until we see the same stories told over and over, led by protagonists who all resemble the same straight white male Hollywood majority.

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This video from the series Lessons From the Screenplay offers a fantastic twist on that advice. Rather than writing what you know, they say “write what you want to know.” Because really, “a story is as much a journey for the person writing it as it is for the characters in it.”

The screenplay for Inside Out is a perfect example of this advice in action. The concept for the movie came about when director Pete Docter noticed that his previously perpetually joyful 11-year-old daughter was suddenly always sullen. And he decided to make a film exploring the question “What happened to joy?” But did he “write what he knew” and make a film from a father’s perspective exploring his relationship with his daughter? No, and good, because while that movie might have been fine and interesting, we’ve seen it a hundred times before. Instead, Docter wrote what he wanted to know, practicing imaginative empathy to get inside the mind of a young girl.

The video is a fascinating deep dive into both the storytelling process as well as the importance of self-exploration and empathy. It makes it clear that taken at face value, the advice “write what you know” is a hindrance not just to relating to others, but can ultimately keep writers from ever looking very closely at themselves.

(via Indiewire, image: Pixar)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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