A lot is made in screenwriting classes and books of the importance of a writer’s ORIGINAL VOICE. And it’s true! You don’t want to rewrite Black Swan for goodness sake, or pass on an obvious Tarantino rip-off to prospective managers or agents. You DO need to find your own muse, your own style, and your own point of view. A truly original plot will turn heads and make producers take you seriously. A great hook will get you invited in to pitch. Originality is everything, right?
Well… Sort of.
All of the above is true, but if you can learn anything from THIS writer’s mistakes, it’s important to understand that originality... Is relative.
Relative to what?
Yep. At the end of the day, filmmaking and screenwriting is a BUSINESS, and the market will only bear SO MUCH originality. Skilled screenwriters know that a great script (read: a SELLABLE script) manages to be two things at once: original AND familiar. When your script is done and out there trying to find its place in the market, producers will be looking for like-films to use as comparison-points in setting budgets, guessing revenues, and inspiring financing. For this reason ALONE it’s important that your script resemble at least a handful of previously released films—but the need for familiarity runs even deeper.
Audiences (and producers, readers, etc. by proxy) like to be surprised, like to have things turned on their head—but also want their expectations met. When they go to an action movie, audiences expect explosions, sweeping camera work, death-defying stunts. At a drama they expect tears, and at a comedy they expect laughs. Blending genres and throwing out the rules may feel revolutionary when you’re alone at your computer, but one of the first things a producer will ask himself when reading your script months later is, “does this script satisfy?” A great script will pull the rug out from under its audience—then catch them in a way that feels familiar and bring them along for the rest of the ride.
Another practical consideration in the “Don’t Write Scripts That Can’t Be Made” category is MPAA ratings. I once spent an entire summer writing a screenplay that I was sure would ‘wow’ audiences and push the envelope to the absolute edge. It was a thriller about a group of urban 13 and 14 year-olds who find themselves witnesses to a murder, and must spent a night on the run from the police and murderers alike. These kids were REAL, I told myself. They cursed, fought, had sex with other young teenagers and generally carried on like the 20 year-old gangsters they were trying to emulate. Just like real kids who’d grown up on the streets, right? I finished the script, ended up pitching it to a few companies, and finally met with one that was interested. Their first note? Make the kids 18 and 19. I made my case for keeping the characters young, but their argument was stronger: A script full of cursing pre-teens will never be made. Why? The MPAA. I had written a rated-R movie starring an age-bracket of kids that are meant to be watching PG-13. Older teens wouldn’t go see a movie starring 13 year-olds, and 13 year-olds couldn’t get into the theatre. It was valuable lesson in market realities.
So there you go. Yes—you should be original. In fact, you need be! You need to write scripts that startle and surprise, but at the same time you need to write scripts that coddle and reinforce.
It’s a weird dichotomy, but it’s this trick—balancing the old with the new, and the worn-in-the-pants with the cutting-edge—that will determine your ultimate success and longevity as a screenwriter. Sometimes when I’m writing, I try to imagine the audience in the theatre watching my film play out—I literally try to see their faces and imagine their thoughts. I’ll ask myself—are they thrilled? Are they one step ahead of the plot, but never two or three steps ahead? Are they being surprised? And finally—are they getting the experience they were promised? The answers to all of these must be YES—or else you need to step back and recalibrate.
And, uh… Only write movies your target audience is old enough to see!