Every so often, I will do an edition of this column pointing out (hopefully in a humorous way) certain screenplay elements – stories, characters, narrative and screenwriting gimmicks - that I feel have been overused to the point of becoming exhausted, clichéd, or just plain ridiculous. The point of these columns is to encourage writers to avoid using these worn-out elements in their own scripts.
Whenever I write these pieces, I usually get a lot of responses from readers. Most thank me for my advice (or point out typos), but there are always a number of annoyed respondents who remind me that many of the elements I am complaining about – tired or not – continue to appear in film after film. These readers irately accuse me of trying to sabotage the careers of aspiring writers by encouraging them to not incorporate into their screenplays the very elements that producers and studios obviously seem to want. Well, let me start by assuring you that I am not out to sabotage anyone. I’m only trying to help. Honest. As for the rest…
Does Hollywood tend to tell the same types of stories in the same types of ways using the same types of characters over and over again? Sure, of course. Does that mean that you should do the same in your screenplays? Absolutely not! As hard as it may seem to believe, producers and studios are always on the lookout for original material – fresh tales told in new ways by authors with original voices. However, once they begin developing this original material, anxiety often sets in over its commercial prospects. Fearful that something too new or out of the box might not connect with ticket buyers, nervous producers, development executives, actors, directors, and marketing people will frequently -- sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously -- begin reworking unusual material into more familiar forms
But, of course, all this happens after the material is acquired. When looking for scripts or writers to assign to a project, Hollywood is no more interested in the same old same old than you are. Every exec and rep in town will tell you that the main thing they are looking for in a spec is originality – a fresh voice, a new perspective, an unexpected take.
So when writing a spec, it is to your advantage to not follow trends, be they in content, form, or execution. It’s the only way to separate yourself and your work from the crowd.
• Tell an original story or, if you choose to tell a tale in a well-worn genre, put a really fresh spin on it. Whatever you do, don’t tell a story similar to one that’s currently doing well at the box office. Why? Because, by the time that film reached the theaters, the powers-that-be already had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a hit and have put dozens of similar projects into development. Even if you are the first outside writer to whip up a screenplay similar to this week’s number one, you are already at the far end of the line. By the time your script reaches their desks, producers and execs have already begun looking for the next big thing.
• People your story with characters we haven’t seen a million times before, so that we won’t be able to predict their every move. If you do choose to use a stock character, then by gosh give him/her some surprising, unexpected traits that cause us to sit up and take notice that this isn’t going to be just another highly trained government operative/burned out detective with only three days left to go before retirement/single gal looking for Mr. Right/boorish wingman/whatever.
• Tell your story in a way that is appropriate for your particular tale. If you choose to employ storytelling gimmicks such as non-linear narrative, flashbacks, voice-overs and the like, then do so because they support or enhance your specific plot and theme, not because “everyone else is doing it,” which, as always, is the single worst reason for ever doing anything.
The more original, the more unique, the more “you” your script is, the better it will show off your unique talents and voice and the better job it will do of selling you to producers and studios looking for some special to hand out assignments to. And should your script actually be acquired for production, it may still get reworked into something more standard and conventional, but with luck the original spark you provided will still shine through and make the final product something just a little more special.
See, I told you I could be helpful.