What Is ‘Mental Real Estate,’ & How Can It Make Your Writing Better?
You will probably stumble across the advice to “write what you know” at some point in your career. And it’s great advice! However, as beneficial as it is to “write what you know,” it’s only one small portion of a larger concept you can implement when it comes to storytelling.
Writing what you know can seem both maddeningly simple and alarmingly complex. It suggests that you should draw on your own experiences with people, places, and events to create a more intricate and realistic world for your reader. It’s a great way to add flavor to your writing and make what you’re working on feel that much more intense, gratifying, and yes, even sad or thought provoking.
After all, you’re not just creating your scenario or character, you’re pulling from real-life memories you felt and understand and can describe in detail.
But as a culture and as people that have many elements of entertainment from all over the world, it can be easy to forget our shared experiences — especially when it comes to writing.
This is where mental real estate steps in and sweeps “writing what you know” off its feet. These two concepts are ideal partners. One helps you make your writing fuller, and the other teaches you to write a story people will love!
The brilliant thing about mental real estate is that it’s a concept that holds an infinite amount of information in your mind. If someone names an item — like Mountain Dew, for example — and you recognize it, then that item has staked a claim in your mental real estate.
Basically, people are all a little Pavlovian by nature, and if you repeat a phrase or word at them enough with a catchy little jingle, soon they’ll start singing along. This is a concept that retailers rely on so heavily that you probably don’t even know how engrained their logos, slogans, and brand names are.
Also, you’re probably thinking about getting Mountain Dew now. Sorry. (#notsorry, that ish is delish.)
Every song you’ve ever loved and sang along to? Mental real estate. Quotes from your favorite poem or movie? Mental real estate. Being able to name the product from hearing, “The quilted quicker picker-upper?” Yep, you guessed it! All of these things take up space in your head. But mental real estate isn’t just a concept that works for retailers. In fact, it works for storytellers — from indie authors to Disney movies — and it can work for you, too.
If you’re asked to name a fairy tale, there’s a 99 percent chance that you’ll know what a fairy tale is and have at least one example, whether it’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or a dozen others.
The point is that you recognize these stories because they’re already in your head. They’re a part of your mental real estate and have set up camp right there on Fairy Tale Lane (which, let’s be real, probably intersects with Fetish Ave. at some point).
But it’s not just the names of these stories that you can recognize. It’s also their plots. The heart of the tales. The lessons they teach. Remember when Avatar came out? It made a crap-ton of money and was hugely regarded by viewers.
And then someone came along and pointed out that it was the exact plot of Disney’s Pocahontas set in space with giant blue aliens. And instead of corn, the evil invading humans were after unobtanium, aka the world’s worst placeholder name that somehow made it through every edit into production.
You might think that people would feel cheated if they got told the same story again. But the trick of mental real estate is that your sweet, innocent brain looks at the concept, says, “Oh, I know this one!” and embraces it in a giant pile of squishy, comforting familiarity. So instead of saying, “I just spent $30 to watch blue alien Pocahontas,” you said, “Oh man, how cool was that?!”
And while this may seem like cheating, it really isn’t. People are comfortable with what they know. What’s familiar and embedded in your mental real estate is Hollywood gold. Filmmakers vie for it like crazy. Many of your favorite movies probably share a ridiculous number of similar traits to many of your other favorite movies.
When it comes to writing, if you’re ever stuck on what to do with your characters or where to go next, write what you know! Think back to similar instances in other stories you enjoy, and try and find a new angle for your audience; a new hook that employs a familiar concept.
There’s a reason why Hollywood can get away with remakes and reboots of the same stories. There’s a reason no one admits to watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales but it got nearly 800 million dollars in worldwide box office sales.
These are stories you know. They’re comforting. They’re familiar.
So when it comes to being a storyteller, it’s okay to look at other plots, other concepts, and try to come up with something that will introduce a lovable old story with new vitality. Read everything in your genre; learn what worked and what didn’t. What reoccurring themes happened? What tropes and characters do you see repeated, and why?
Recognize these things and employ them in your own writing in a new way. If you want to retell Sleeping Beauty, ask yourself what can you do to make it different and yet familiar enough to be “safe” to your reader’s brain. Can you put her in the future? Absolutely! Can she be steampunk and trapped in a moving tower that roams the land? Yes! Does she have to be Sleeping Beauty at all? No! Change her name; her hair; her skin color! Make her a boy and have a mechanical dragon guarding the tower that your scrappy mechanic prince/princess has to dismantle before they can save him!
You can use these shared concepts and themes to make that novel familiar and comfortable to readers while giving them a new journey to go on. This doesn’t mean copying the story, it means understanding what your readers want and giving it to them. In the end, you can write not only what you know, but what we all know and enjoy together.
Merethe Walther is an award-winning author, writer, and editor out of Atlanta, GA who graduated with a BFA in Creative Writing. She is the author of Mercury in Retrograde, a contributor to Twisted Wonderland, and is due to release her next novel in May 2019. When not writing, she can be found with her husband and their rescue cat playing video games, watching anime, and reading books.