Having read thousands of scripts and watched hundreds of films and television dramas I’ve found that classic stories appear over and over again. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re always hearing that audiences and producers want films and screenplays that are ‘the same but different’. So how do you deliver on the expectations of your genre, produce something recognisable and familiar enough to engage an audience and yet make your script feel fresh and original?
For me it comes down to your own personal take on any given story and being true to your view of the world. Lucy Hay recently wrote an interesting piece on Vanilla Screenplays which really rang true for me. You could give the same basic story (mythic hero or boy meets girl) to Quentin Tarantino, Nora Ephron, Joss Whedon and Diablo Cody and get back four very different screenplays. That’s not just down to differences in genre but in their world-view and strong sense of writing style.
The other key to making sure your screenplay isn’t just a pale imitation is to know what’s in the market now and what has gone before. If you’re going to pitch a television drama about a magician’s apprentice at least try to make it substantially different from ‘Merlin’. If you’ve got an idea for a film about a prostitute falling in love with a rich guy, make sure it isn’t just a pale imitation of ‘Pretty Woman’. Trying to make your idea feel different from what’s already out there is sometimes easier said than done and the first solution you come up with may not be the best. John Cleese gave a talk about Creativity and the advice that stuck with me the most was to give yourself as much thinking or pondering time as possible. Keep coming back to the problem and thinking of new solutions.
If you can’t find a ‘take’ on your story that feels distinctive and original, then maybe it’s not the right story for you. Don’t bin it, just put it away in that handy bottom drawer and maybe in the future you’ll find a very personal take on the idea that you and only you could write. In the meantime, be bold and imaginative not just in your concepts and ideas but in how you execute them.