They always say “write what you know.” But often we hear aspiring writers say, “Eh, my life isn’t interesting. I’m an accountant,” or “I’m a plumber.” Uh, hello? OZARK? Accountant. A slightly elevated one, sure, but that’s where the writing part comes in. MIDNIGHT RUN, same thing.
How about BREAKING BAD? A sad, milquetoast, high school chemistry teacher.
That detailed knowledge you have that might seem pedestrian and boring to you might just be gold on the page. So you’re a plumber? What if your plumber is fixing a clogged toilet, and he pulls out a finger with a mafia guy’s ring on it? All of a sudden, your plumber is embroiled in a twisty crime caper. You’re a statistician? Your heroine connects the dots and sees a pattern no one else can, and discovers a massive threat and runs to the press – but no one believes her.
Yes, write what you know – but heighten it. That wealth of knowledge you bring adds verisimilitude. That is worth its weight in gold!
Why is verisimilitude important? Because it makes your script shine and stand out from the crowd. Some people may not be able to put their finger on why your script seems so much more alive than a similar script with a similar premise and a similar protagonist, but they know it is. And the reason often comes down to verisimilitude.
As writers, we want to let our imagination run wild. That’s the fun part. But often we forget about the research aspect of writing. After all, it’s a lot more fun to create offbeat characters than to read up on court procedure or the ins and outs of the Fish and Wildlife Department or the mundane life of a hotel concierge. However, if you want your script to set itself apart from the crowd, then that’s exactly what you have to do. A side benefit of that is that you’ll come up with plot twists that you would never have thought about otherwise.
If you don’t take the time to create the verisimilitude, that producer you’ve submitted to may shrug and say something like, “Nice writing, but it didn’t grab me.” Worst case scenario, the fact that you have not done any research on the subject matter will stand out like a Louisiana Hot Wings stand at a vegan convention. For example, sometimes we get scripts sent into Coverage Ink set in a Hollywood milieu. And they are often written by people who clearly dream of Hollywood success but have absolutely no idea how the movie business functions, nor have ever even set foot in Los Angeles.
Of course, not only aspiring writers make this mistake. We recently watched an episode of a basic cable show where a detective happened upon a dead body in a bathroom. Now what would a real cop do in that case? They’d call it in. The crime scene would be cordoned off. Cops would interview the neighbors to determine if they saw anything. Forensic experts would look for hair and fiber. What happened in the show? The detective took a photo with her cell phone to use many hours later to accuse a fellow officer, whom she suspected was in on it, of not having told her the whole truth about the situation.
If this was real life, the detective would almost certainly be called onto the carpet by the captain for such a lapse of judgment, since in those hours, the crime scene could have been contaminated, evidence lost, and any suspects could be in the wind. Why did this happen? Because the writers wanted to shoehorn in a confrontation scene between the two cops. The result was an episode that came up short in verisimilitude and stood out for its lazy writing.
Do the research. You won’t regret it.
And that’s where we come back to your life. If you’re using aspects of your life — something you are probably an expert in — then you don’t have to spend many hours on research.
So: what aspect of your life can you use in your next script?