Write What You Know… Is this really a good idea?

In the dark dawn, as I scoffed porridge topped with home made mincemeat before wrestling with annual accounts, “Yes, yes, I’m doing it,” I scanned last week’s Broadcast.  It struck me – yet again – how fundamental an arresting story idea needs to be.


The reason for this thought was reading about a new TV series, Hostages recently bought by BBC-4.   The story begins when a surgeon’s family is taken hostage just as she’s about to perform a routine operation on the president. The kidnappers tell her she must kill the president or they will murder her family.

What a good idea, I thought.  But, why?

It’s not simply that the idea is easy to understand, the drama is implicit, the character has a dilemma and is going to be strongly motivated but also, it’s the type of story.

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of talented writers who are working on stories where the main story drivers are issues of esteem and self-actualisation. I see these types of story as a problem in terms of audience accessibility.

Abraham Maslow, a 1970s psychologist developed a psychological model about human motivation.  Called Hierarchy of Needs, the theory has story telling significance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

In essence, it’s a pyramid with needs such as safety and sustenance at the bottom and needs such as creativity, esteem and self-actualisation at the top.  The theory is that when human beings achieve the base needs, they strive for the next level and so on.

An audience easily understands and identifies with the base needs such as thirst, hunger and safety.  We quickly engage if a character is lost in space, taken hostage, chased by zombies, threatened by a shark, and endangered by Daleks.   However, the higher up the pyramid one goes in terms of character motivation – in other words, what the character wants – the narrower the potential for audience engagement.

So the problem for many writers – and I include myself – is that the desire to write, the urge to express oneself, is about creativity and self-actualisation.  In other words, it’s a top tier motivation and one that’s not intrinsically audience friendly.   So the theory of slavishly “writing what you know” is risky because the majority of writers are going to be drawn to issues of self-actualisation.   The minority, of course, will have been lost in space, taken hostage, chased by zombies and endangered by Daleks.

English: Photo of a black and gold plastic dal...

English: Photo of a black and gold plastic dalek model on display at the science museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The answer is to develop the story with care and thought for the audience.   And perhaps, consider using the two base levels of Maslow’s Pyramid as story drivers and the upper levels as emotional arcs.

Back to the accounts.

About merlenygate

Writer, script editor
This entry was posted in Script Editing, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s