For screenwriters, this is the skill that gets you consistent adaptation/re-write work: if you’re the writer who knows how to write about a particular world, then you get the first crack at all the projects set in that world. Aaron Sorkin can write politics and tech-speak in entertaining ways, so he’s the first go-to guy for projects like Charlie Wilson’s War and Jobs.
This is one of the big reasons why networks love to hire showrunners who learned their trade firsthand, rather than getting writing degrees. David E. Kelly was a lawyer. David Simon was a Baltimore crime reporter. “The Americans” was created by an ex-CIA officer. The assumption is that anyone can learn to write, but learning the tradecraft takes a lifetime.
Obviously, that’s not true: any writer can learn this stuff, but it takes a lot of work. Not only do you have to learn the details of your world inside and out (read the memoirs, watch the reality shows, hang out with the actual people), but you also have to know how to package that tradecraft for an audience in an appealing way.
Screenwriter Ted Griffin was presumably never a con man, but he mastered the lingo and wrote a fantastic screenplay for the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (and then he became the go-to con/heist guy, so he was hired to adapt the novel Matchstick Men and rewrite Tower Heist). The secret of Ocean’s Eleven is that it deftly moves back and forth amongst three different types of tradecraft-writing:
- Colorful but incomprehensible con man jargon that’s never explained: “You’ll need a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, a Leon Spinx, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.” Is this jargon real? Who cares? It sounds convincing, and that’s all that matters. We’re happy to be baffled, pressing our nose up against the glass as we peek into the bizarre world.
- Nitty-gritty details about this world that they do explain, such as the specific roles of the each of the con men: “the bank”, “the grease man”, etc. These details open up the doors and let us into this world, so that we feel like we’re really learning the inside dope.
- The best of all: Inside tips about this world that are also applicable to the life of the viewer: “Don’t look up, they’ll know you’re lying. Don’t look down, they’ll know you have something to hide. Don’t use three words when one will do. Don’t shift your eyes. Look always at your mark, but don’t stare. Be specific but not memorable. Be funny but don't make him laugh. He’s gotta like you, and then forget you the moment you’ve left his sight.” This makes us feel like we can solve our own problems using the clandestine secrets we’re learning.