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Submissions Insanity # 3: Familiar Screenplay Ideas to Avoid

Script Editor Lucy V. Hay explains why your screenplay ideas need to be the same but different, giving examples of familiar ideas to avoid.

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You’ve written a screenplay and it’s AWESOME. And really, congrats to you. Getting words on the page is never easy and frankly, too many of us are fighting uphill battles with day jobs, kids or at least Twitter.


You get feedback from your writing mates on your screenplay. They say you have major writing skillz. You’re feeling fantastic. You’re ready now! You’re gonna get an agent and sell a script!

You send it off. And the weeks roll by. You spend more time on Twitter; the doubts creep in, but you tell yourself:

“No. I did everything I was supposed to do. I worked on my craft. I worked out what my character wants. I thought about structure. IT’S A GOOD SCREENPLAY DAMMIT.”

And then finally you get a reply from the industry pros you sent your awesome screenplay to. And another one. And another. And another. And though they’re all very nice and some even tell you to stay in touch, their feedback boils down to one thing only:

This still needs work.

But how can this be! You worked your ass off… You did everything you could to tell the best story you possibly could. Supersadface. Maybe you’re not meant to be a writer after all?


Don’t quit yet.

As a script editor, I can tell you one of the biggest issues any new writer has is standing out from the crowd. There are so many people jostling for position and trying to get agents’ and producers’ attention – and less slots than ever before. So what’s an obvious way of getting somebody’s attention?

By being different from the rest.

Yet dive into your nearest spec pile, and you will not only find the same types of stories being told, they will feature the same types of characters, doing the same sorts of things. REALLY.

Try some of these for size, which I have seen over and over again:

1. Miserable Bloke Leads Miserable Life Then Dies.

If you want to grab people’s attention via depressing drama – and of course it’s possible – then you need to be EMOTIONAL and INSIGHTFUL in such a way that we can’t NOT be literally devastated by this journey and be unable to think about nothing else for days afterwards ie. BLUE VALENTINE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE ICE STORM, HARSH TIMES, SWEET SIXTEEN, etc.

2. Sexy Vampire or Spy is Sexy and Runs Around A Lot Shooting People and Disarming Bombs Etc.

Yay! Let’s save the world. And let’s be sexy doing it. Why not. But c’mon, we need a plot. And we need something *never seen before.* And it's no good just saying, "It's better than what's out there already". UNDERWORLD may not have been a fantastic film, but it was genre busting. SALT went to hell in the second half, but in the first half she was rescuing her husband: how many times have we seen THAT? (Clue: not many.) What are you bringing that’s NEW to the table?

3. Time Travelling People/Mutants Live In Crappy Futureworld And There’s Nothing We Can Do About It.

Don’t you just hate the future? Not only is it a dystopia we’re completely helpless against corrupt governments AND we’re all turning into frog people (or whatever). C’mon spec writers: stop writing love letters to DR. WHO and THE X MEN and give us something we’ve never seen before. Y’know something “the same, but different”… like LOOPER.

4. Oblivious Troubled Parents Go To Spooky House/Village And Get Haunted By Stuff And Everybody Disappears.

Adults suck. Not only do they tell kids what to do, but they also can’t even pick the right place to live in, and kids get attacked by dead people, clouds of flies or zapped into televisions. Noooooo! Of course, some of those produced movies are great… Which is probably why spec writers emulate them, constantly in the supernatural thriller/horror genres. But it’s important to remember the likes of POLTERGEIST, AMITYVILLE and THE SIXTH SENSE were 15-30 years ago; that’s a looooooooooong time in terms of the industry. Spec writers need a NEW TAKE on these old tired conventions that takes its lead from the likes of more modern movies like SINISTER or INSIDIOUS and then runs with it and updates it even further, rather than going with recycled Shymalan or Spielberg.

5. Female Protagonist Haunted By Past Event Of Some Kind Goes Nuts And Takes A Gun and Kickass Skillz To Everyone.

I love strong women. Yet still, a little part of me dies every time someone pitches me with the breathless addition of, “And it’s got a strong female protagonist!”

Why? ‘Cos 9/10 what the writers really mean by this? They’ve got a “typical” male protagonist, reversed the gender and given the character the motivation of avenging something, usually her own or a sister’s rape. Bleurgh.

NEWSFLASH. “Strong women” do not have to be physically strong. Not because there are not any physically strong women in the world, but because physically strong women on the silver screen are grossly overrepresented. And YES, of course rape is a worthy topic for movies – THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER and THE ACCUSED spring to mind – but spec writers risk trivialising this back story by making it a motivator so frequently, especially when so often said “strong female protagonists” are so alluring.


A character of any gender, race or creed can be anything you want, with any given motivation you want, in any given plot you want. You’re the writer.

But don’t go too far the other way… think “left of the middle.” You could even get away with a kickass female, as long as you think differently to the rest… check out Mallory in 2012’s HAYWIRE.

Fact is, human beings prize novelty. Script readers are no different. If you want attention, your screenplay MUST NOT be the same as the rest.

If you can’t *be* original, then you must be perceived to be original, not “the usual.” In other words:

Differentiate or die… or at least risk your spec sinking without trace.

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