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Monday, January 7, 2019

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Write What You Know"

You've probably heard the writing rule, "Write what you know," but in the world of fiction, that advice can seem questionable, especially if you work in the speculative realm. No one alive has ever met a dragon, but there are load of books that have them. On the other hand, if you write about Latter-day Saints attending churches filled with crosses, those familiar with the religion will be shaking their heads.

So where do we draw the line? And what does it mean? And when can we write what we don't know?

What's the Rule?

Write what you know.

Why it's a Rule

My church example above is problematic because that religion doesn't use crosses. So the person who wrote it doesn't know what they are talking about. Here is another example from the book Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

"Mush, mush!" Nooknook shouted, as he threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe.

That's not how dog sledding works.

One of the most obvious (and quickest) problems that arise from this is that it messes up believability. We are instantly taken out of the story because we know that's not how dog sledding works.

Having done ballet, including pointe shoes, I find myself cringing a lot in movies when they incorporate it. For those that don't know, wearing pointe shoes requires very specific technique and you also need the shoes to fit in the exact right way (you should have a professional fit your foot), which is one reason why you have to sew the ribbons and elastic on yourself. If you haven't developed the right muscles, haven't learned the accurate technique, or you wear shoes that don't quite fit, you can develop serious health issues. It's hard to get to the threshold where you can even use pointe shoes, but being able to continue to use them can be even harder.

So when I see Gwen Stacy zip down from the trees and land on hers hard like this:

I cringe inside.

Look at how damaging that alignment is! Ouchie.

(Even worse is when movies show a character skipping the ballet slippers and going straight for the pointe shoes. *facepalm*)

But there are more problems than just believability issues.

If it's a reoccurring thing in entertainment, negative and inaccurate stereotypes can emerge. Also, if audiences see inaccurate information enough times, they begin to believe it as truth.

As a writer, you probably know what I'm talking about. You know those movies that are "about" writers? Where the character has a moment of inspiration and then stays up all night and completes a novel by morning? It's a joke, right? But because that's how the process has been conveyed so much, the average person thinks that's how it works and is completely clueless as to what actually goes into it and what it takes (same with pointe shoes).

I still remember watching La La Land and laughing internally as the protagonist spends the entire movie struggling to be an actress but then magically becomes an amazing screenwriter/playwright after writing two stories (one when she was a child). Please. Even when they try to show how difficult the arts is, they show the writing part of it wrong.

Anyway . . .

My writer examples are rather harmless, but these things can have real world, real serious consequences. Such as when someone started slipping off the edge of the Grand Canyon, so their loved one reached out for them and they both ended up dying. Folks, real life is not like the hanging-on-the-ledge-by-one-hand movie trope. Also, mines don't really go off after you step off them--if you wanted to kill someone, why would you invent it like that? You'd have it go off asap.

Then there are the stereotypes, which is a whole other thing. Some of you might be familiar with the popular Disney ride, Splash Mountain. Fewer of you may know that the movie it's based on, Song of the South, is actually banned because of racism. Lots of people who've seen it will argue all day that the movie has nothing negative about blacks in it. But the point isn't that it doesn't have blatantly negative depictions of blacks, the point is that it perpetuates damaging stereotypes and ideas about blacks.

See, back in the day, blacks were often depicted as being happy to be slaves, in order to encourage society to keep them as slaves--which in some ways is actually more dangerous than being blatantly racist, because the average person watching the entertainment is blind to it. Whether or not you agree that Song of the South should remain banned, the reason it was banned, is because it taps into and perpetuates that damaging stereotype. This is also why every Halloween there is controversy over someone painting their face black--because back in the day, people in power intentionally did that when intentionally portraying blacks in negative or damaging ways, subtlety keeping them in a culture and societal state of less power (and in a way that would seem harmless). This is also why there are arguments regularly about who has the right or ability to portray minorities, period.

If this is a new idea to you, or you are bit skeptical, let's go back to the writing example. How many people have you interacted with that expect you to whip out a book in a week, and if it takes you months or years, they become skeptical of how you spend your time, or if you are "actually" working? Probably a lot of us have had an interaction like that of some sort (seriously, no wonder there are so many closet writers! Because writers don't want to deal over and over again with all the misunderstandings). Even as a writer, you may be faced with perpetuating myths and misinformation that have been so ingrained into our culture and society that people do not even know to even question them as possibly being false.

This is one of the crazy powers of storytelling.


I guess I had a lot to say about that. But the point is, when you write what you don't know, not only do you damage the audience's suspension of disbelief, but if the audience doesn't know, you can intentionally or unintentionally create or perpetuate false ideas as truth, which can be harmful to individuals or even a culture or society.

I mean, imagine everyone grabbing pointe shoes and dancing around on concrete.

Aaack, let's not! It's too cringe worthy.

Does this all sound like a burden?

Let's talk about what the advice actually means.

What it Actually Means and How it Applies

"Sound bite" advice can always be dangerous when it's applied to everything. Very, very few things in life can apply to everything.

Let me give an example.

I hate the adage, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Because there are so many exceptions to this, depending on how you interpret it.

However, in the right context it can be absolutely true. But as human beings, we don't want to reiterate the whole context and setup and everything else every single time we use an adage. It's monotonous and long winded. And it looses its punch. We like when phrases sum an idea up and communicate it quickly. "No pain, no gain." --obviously this doesn't apply to everything in life, but it's shorthand advice for a particular situation. Problems come if we take it out of that context/situation and assume it applies to everything. Sometimes, we hear an adage so much, that the context is lost over time, so we assume it's absolute--that it's intended to always be true on all accounts. (Dangerous.)

But really, adages are meant to serve as a written/verbal symbol for a thought process. We don't want to go on a long winded speech about courage, liberty, and purity every time we incorporate American ideas, so we display the flag as shorthand. Same with adages.

"Write what you know," probably originally had a whole thought process, but it's been used as shorthand advice for so long, that a lot of us don't know what it actually means or what it applies to anymore. (And this happens a lot with writing advice.)

But I like how Stern rewords it in Making Shapely Fiction. He notes it might be better to think of this advice in the negatives:

Don't write what you don't know.

If you don't know about dog sledding, and you are going to write, "Nooknook threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe," we have a problem.

Don't write what you don't know.


But it's still vague, right? I mean, does any of us actually know definitively what real aliens are like, assuming they exist? No.

What the advice is really saying is:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Don't write something wrong when you or society has the capacity to know what's accurate.

Obviously, for a lot of things, this is taken care of through research. I can research dog sledding. You can interview someone who has done pointe shoes.

Heck people, we have the internet these days! Research is easier than ever (though it takes a level of discernment with your sources).

However, some of this section overlaps and is bleeding into the next section, so I'm going to move onto that.

When to Break the "Rule"

The most obvious, and the one I touched on in the last section, is speculative fiction.

Speculative Fiction

None of us know about aliens, so in that case, we have to imagine them. We get to make it up.

Have you or has anyone you've known met a dragon? Of course not. In order to write a dragon, you will have to write about what you "don't know." Sure, you can research all you want about "dragons," and if you want to, that will fill in a lot of blanks. But since they don't exist, it's all myth anyway. And even if you do use what's historically available, you will have to make up some part of it.

Same with science fiction. Even with things we know, like all we know about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park still had to imagine and make up what we don't know about dinosaurs to fill in the blanks. How they moved, how they sounded.

Remember my modified version of the rule:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Is there really a wrong way to write your own made up magic system? In most cases, no.


Weirdly enough, sometimes even the fantastic can go wrong. That's because even the imaginary needs to be believable within the realm of the story and within the audience's suspension of disbelief. (For more on problems with believability, see this post). For one, your magic system probably needs to follow the rules you established in the beginning of the story. If fantasy or science fiction doesn't follow the established rules, there is (probably) a problem.

Personal Experiences

Because I already talked a bit about what the rule is actually supposed to mean, I almost feel like I don't need this section, but I'm adding it because people get stuck on it.

Sometimes we think "knowing" means we have to have experienced it. Obviously experiencing something firsthand is super helpful when writing, but it's not a requirement. Just because I've never owned a sugar glider doesn't mean I can't write what it would be like to own one, if I do the proper research. Just because you are a man doesn't mean you can never write from a heroine's viewpoint. Learn what you can, then draw from your own intellect, imagination, or experience to fill in the blanks. (Notice I didn't say "make up the blanks," I said "fill in the blanks.")

I'm not a murderer. In most ways, I don't really know what it would be like to actually be one. I know some things because I love watching the creepy I.D. channel on tv. But I have been very angry before, and I have imagined what it might be like to be a murderer (if only through television and fiction), so I could use that to fill in the blanks.

When we confuse "knowing" with "experiencing" we can really paralyze ourselves as writers. For most of us, it's impossible to experience everything everyone in our cast of characters has experienced. If you want to cripple under powerful bouts of imposter syndrome, this is a fantastic way to accomplish that.

One way to help make something you haven't experienced still feel authentic is to make it very human. Another helpful way is to ask how that experience would play out for that specific person in that specific setup. So, maybe you are a man writing about a woman walking home in the dark. How is walking home in the dark different for a woman than a man? Well, a woman is going to be more cautious and suspicious of others. Personally, I'd have my hand on my pepper spray. So you brainstorm that, then slide some choice details of that experience in. They key is you slide in some--don't overdo it. Some people draw attention to their lack of experience by overcompensating.

The Information is Known, but Inaccessible

There are still some things you can not know, even if other people exist that do know. Secret experiments. Government cover-ups. The latest technology in weaponry. Even if you manage to get some information from someone, you may not be able to get all of THE information.

Like the last section, build off what you do know, and then fill in the blanks. In some cases, it's okay to be vague (though it depends on the situation). For example, maybe you have a character fixing an advanced piece of equipment that is real, but you don't have access to information on how its components actually work. So write a little vaguely about him fixing it. The average audience member isn't going to care or notice, unless it's something already established as very important to the story. It's okay to bluff a little. After all, as writers, we are making stuff up. Remember, it still needs to be believable in the realm of the story.

Intentionally Writing What You Know is Wrong

In some cases, it might be worth really breaking the rule by intentionally writing what you know, wrong.

An Exchange is Worth the Cost

Remember my complaints about Gwen being on pointe shoes? Guess what? Even though I cringed initially, who really cares? It was a fun and cool character design. Maybe portraying pointe shoes wrong was actually worth the exchange of a cool character design. Spider-man is my favorite superhero, so a Spider-woman who does ballet and is in a rock band? Um, okay, that's really cool and fun.

Despite all my complaining above, after my initial response, I actually kind of loved the pointe shoes. I've never seen them used for a superhero costume. Also, let's not forget she's freaking Spider-woman, so she can flipping get beat up, mess up her body, and break her bones and still survive. Sure, we probably don't want girls running home and trying to do acrobats and land on pointe shoes they've never worn before, just like we don't want them to run through traffic in New York to get away from police. But at the end of the day, I'm willing to forgive any inaccurate portrayals in exchange for a cool character design (also the fact she's super-human does really help).

You might run into similar moments. Sometimes intentionally doing something wrong is worth the cost.

It Serves the Story

Similarly, you may want to intentionally write something wrong when it serves the story. HOWEVER, this is not to be confused with ruining the suspension of disbelief (believability). It's possible to write something wrong without making the audience roll their eyes.

As a lot of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Interstellar, and it was interesting watching the behind-the-scenes clips for the movie and hearing Christopher Nolan talk about the things he portrayed wrong, intentionally. I mean, it feels like we aren't allowed to do that right? But he did.

One thing he did in particular was put a whole cornfield on fire. When he said he was going to do this, people told him that Cooper's cornfield wouldn't actually burn. It's too green. Nolan said he was going to do it anyway.

Other than maybe a percentage of farmers in the audience, did anyone really care? No. It was a minor change that served the plot. Those who knew better would probably make note of it, but as for actually ruining the suspension of disbelief . . . ? I doubt it. You're going to tell me that having a green cornfield catch on fire is going to ruin your movie experience? If you are that guy, you need to loosen up and have some fun. "It's a movie!"--as they say.

It Serves the Audience

Sometimes the audience will actually enjoy the story and benefit more if you portray something inaccurately.

Also in Interstellar, there are a few lines of dialogue where the science is slightly wrong--intentionally. At one part, the characters talk about sling-shotting their spacecraft via gravitational pull. In order to do what they were talking about, you would need to slingshot around a little black hole. One problem: there was already a black hole in the story, and mentioning another one, in passing, was just going to confuse the audience. It wasn't important enough to slow down and explain that there were two and differentiate them, so instead, they said something else (I think it was a pulsar) to keep the story flowing.

A harmless little white lie.

That served the audience.

Note: You probably almost never want to portray minorities wrong--unless the point is that it is wrong, and therefore ridiculous for it. Any controversial topic should also probably not be portrayed inaccurately either. Use your brain.

Room for Forgiveness

After everything I said in the beginning of this about the importance of portraying things correctly, I also want to note that we are all probably going to get something wrong at some point. I mean, we're only human. Even writers can't know everything. ;)

It's better to make some mistakes or write a few minor things wrong than to not write at all.

I mean, if a writer gets something wrong, but the rest of the story is great, I'm going to forgive the error. I'd rather have a good story.

Also, don't forget that it's a story.

On the one hand, it can be incredibly important how we portray things in storytelling, on the other, it's important to also remember it's a story. It's not real life. And sure, that character can hang off a ledge by one hand and be fine, and that soldier can step on a land mine and not have it go off until after he takes his foot off. Sometimes we go so far one direction, that we can forget that it's a work of fiction and not necessarily a perfect nor accurate representation of real life. Or in other words, "It's just a movie!" (or book.)

Now go forth and write!


  1. Interesting ideas. I had never thought of the stereotypes about writers before. I don't talk about my writing a lot to people.

    1. Oh yes, there are definitely some stereotypes out there.


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