When it comes to screenwriting, people often say, write what you know. While this is a great starting point, it’s the kind of advice that needs to a pragmatic approach.

This advice is very useful because it helps you to write from within, from your personal frame of reference, knowing what you know and transporting someone into a world that is familiar to you and yet relatively unfamiliar to them. This often means that the research has already been done, whether experiential or implicitly learned in what we could call your locality. This automatically gives you authority over your domain, an anchor to your writing and enables you to write a story with an added degree of authenticity and precision even.

locality vs universality

Being an insider automatically gives you special insights and layers your ability to craft a story that is both engaging and involving. This isn’t to say that there aren’t instances where people who are coming in as a complete newbie don’t find a way to inject the same level of insider storytelling. However, it just takes much longer to broach that world and become well-acquainted enough with it to sound like a local.

Having said that, sometimes the added authenticity and and true understanding can become too detailed, assuming the audience understands the nuances of the local, community, culture and history. This deep-end kind of storytelling does have its place, but can actually become quite alienating if you are too detached from the characters or the situation. Operating from an arm’s length will create a certain numbness when you are detached from the story, but this can also happen when there’s just too much detail or assumed foresight into what’s really going on.

The trick is to find a good balance between telling a story that is not detailed enough to be interesting and engaging, but generic enough to remain relatable and intriguing. Walking this fine line is the screenwriter who has to marry these two disparate worlds in order to compel an audience, one that isn’t specifically geared towards your film. So while it pays to write what you know, there are some precursors and it helps to come at it from an alien perspective in order to get a clearer idea of the right balance.

If you are writing a film screenplay that is almost foreign to you, there are also ways to bring it back home, taking moments from your life and weaving them into the story to make for a stronger human connection and relatability. This is partly what makes screenwriting so tricky in navigating and fine-tuning so that your film isn’t overtly niche to connect or universal to the point of oblivion. Getting feedback from friends, family and trusted colleagues is a great way to test the waters.

You want a screenplay that compels readers to want to know more and to deepen their involvement rather than bombarding them with too much information and minutia. Even films made within the confines of a car, like Locke, can remain fiercely engaging and entertaining, leveraging the power of imagination, so it seems almost criminal for a film with much more space to roam to become dull or alienate its viewers.

Finding the Balance Between Locality and Universality
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