This is the thing. Submissions-wise, part of the battle of getting OUT of the spec pile and through someone’s door – either by actually selling your screenplay, or as a writing sample so you can be a writer for hire – is getting NOTICED. We all know this.
What’s more, every single one of us *knows* that our writing simply cannot get noticed if it’s the SAME AS EVERYONE ELSE’S. Duh. Yet the sad fact is, there are countless specs in the pile that blend together **because** they’re so samey. Ipso, fatso as Bart Simpson might say.
So how do we avoid samey-ness? By rejecting those mythical writing “Rules” everyone goes on about online. You know the ones: do X, or there will be CHAOS. Do Y or you’re an AMATEUR. Do Z, or you’ll never work in this town again.
Let me be frank. There are no “rules” to writing. Tools, yes; conventions or guidelines, sure. But beyond having a great story and telling it “well” (whatever that means), there is nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – you *have* to do in order to get your story noticed.
Nope, not even format!
If you’ve ever read a Tarantino or Ron Bass script, you’ll know they use acres of the black stuff. And as for the Coen Bros ... Those cheeky so-and-sos don’t even use Courier apparently, but hell they’re making the films themselves so who cares.
Okay, okay – unknowns are held to a higher standard and readers are stricter than ever ‘cos of all the stuff online about it. But that’s why I created The Format One Stop Shop – a complete rundown of all the format issues I see most often and what to do about them. So “reader proof” your script – and then forget about format. Seriously.
When avoiding samey-ness and trying to stand out in the spec pile, what matters most are STORY and CHARACTER. It really is as simple – and as difficult – as this. In getting noticed, you need to break down the following:
1) Genre and tone are key. Knowing the TYPE of story you’re telling is key on HOW to tell it. There are certain things we *have* to do, to make a Horror horrifying, or a Thriller thrilling for example – they are not the same. But equally, we don’t want to do the same-old, same-old either. You also need to know the main differences between a genre story and a DRAMA! MORE:What’s The Difference Between Horror & Thriller?, plus:Genre Vs Drama: The Difference Between Them
2) Structure. Know what this is and how you’re using it. Be an expert. It doesn’t matter which method you prefer, we just want a story well told. Structure is not a formula, it is a FRAMEWORK. Audiences are more media literate than ever before, so don’t make them wait for the story to start and make sure your plot is CONSTRUCTED, not a series of “happenings”. MORE:2 Things ALL Writers Get Wrong In Early Drafts
3) Concept is everything. If you don’t know what your concept is, no one else will either. You simply HAVE to pin it down. If you can’t, that’s when alarm bells should be ringing in your brain. MORE:7 Steps To Road Testing Your Concept
4) Know your target audience. Know WHO you are targeting with your concept and WHY. Most spec screenplays don’t do this adequately, or at all. Instead they will be a mad mish-mash as the writer insists their story is “universal”. NO! There is no such thing as a universal story. MORE:Your Audience: Who Is Your Script FOR?
5) Know what’s gone before. Figure out how your concept is “the same ... but DIFFERENT.” Emphasis on the different! We DON’T want recycled stories that have already been told. I can’t stress this enough. MORE:What does 'the same ... but different' mean?
When it comes to character, we don’t want the “usual.” In other words, Maverick Cops, Tortured Hero, Depressed Moms, Hardcore Hotties or Spooky Kids. We’ve had acres of these in spec screenplays in particular and we readers are BORED.
Human beings prize novelty, so an UNUSUAL character can pay dividends in a spec screenplay. However, you don’t want to go to the other end of the scale either and have the reader scratching their head because your character is off the scale ODD.
So really crack open your character. Check out your protagonist and antagonist, giving them each a mission and a counter mission.
But remember those all-important secondary characters too. Give them each a role function in HELPING or HINDERING the protagonist in achieving his/her main goal.
But more than that, give your characters AGENCY, a “reason to live” as Script God Joss Whedon would say. No character should think they’re “just” a role function. Protagonists should have obstacles to overcome, nothing should be “easy”. Antagonists should think *they’re* the good guys. Secondary characters should have their own lives and problems, too. Try some of these for your inspiration:
Top 7 Writing Tips For Great Characterisation
4 Tips To Write An Unusual Character
Is “Good” Characterisation Really About Change?
6 Stock Characters That Need Retiring By Writers NOW
4 Secondary Characters Who Deserve Their Own Movie
Concluding, in order to stand out, you must consider STORY and CHARACTER first. Not format; not how cool the finished product might look; not how much money you *think* it might make; not even how much *you* like your own idea.
You need to reach out and pull someone INTO your world. Dazzle them with your great characters, doing *something* for *some reason*, that shows you got this writing malarkey DOWN, because you know what you’re doing in terms of genre, tone, concept, structure and target audience.
So what are you waiting for?
- More articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Balls of Steel: When to Stop Listening to Screenwriting Experts
- Meet the Reader: Critical Thinking
- FREE Screenwriting Downloads from Script
Writing The Hollywood Blockbuster
How to Build on An Idea and The Importance of an Outline