The One Thing You Never Want Your Screenplay To Be
Okay, I lied. There are a lot of things that you don’t want your screenplay or television pilot to be. You don’t want it to be boring. You don’t want it to be forgettable. You don’t want it to be commonplace. You don’t want it to be Meh. And, I’m sure, lots of other things. But there is one word that comes up again and again when I talk to my counterparts in the representation space that you don’t want applied to your screenplay or your writing:
Boring is subjective. Forgettable is subjective. Commonplace… also, possibly subjective. Derivative? Definitely not subjective.
Traditionally, DERIVATIVE is defined as follows: (typically of an artist or work of art) imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason.
So how do you keep from being derivative in a world that constantly asks you to be same-but-different?
Let’s break it down:
Same-but-different does not imply that you should find a way to do something that’s already been done over and over again. Quite the contrary. Especially these days, when everything that’s been done is just a click away, waiting to be watched on one of the many streaming platforms (which is why we’ve yet to see the new DEXTER, the new BUFFY, the new BREAKING BAD, as all of them are readily available to be viewed again and again and again), the DIFFERENT in same-but-different is more important than ever.
Same-but-different does not mean making slight alterations to something that we’ve seen before. An element, be it a character, a plot twist or a maneuver that is all too familiar. So similar, in fact, that we can recall the source. And for industry people, the source is rarely unfamiliar. Like writers, most people working in this industry are doing so because they love movies. Because they love television. Because they’ve spent many hours of their lives consuming that content. The big difference between writers trying to break in and industry folks? Industry folks are consuming content, discussing content, hearing about content all day long, as part of their job. Writers who are still trying to break in are engaging in content, both writing and watching, less so, be it due to their time still in school, as parents, or working a regular job.
As literary manager Lee Stobby put it when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “If you’re an executive at a production company or studio, literally your job is to think about movies all day long. So, if you’re a writer and only think about movies an hour a day, then you’re not going to have a very interesting conversation with somebody who spends their entire day thinking about these things.”
Which is to say… if there is one thing that executives, agents, managers, and even the likes of me know, it’s content. We’ve seen it all. And if not all, then definitely A LOT. So if you present us with something we know we’ve seen before, we are going to be significantly more willing to put it down rather than read on.
Let me be clear: No one is looking for HARRY POTTER meets THE HOBBIT. We’ve seen those movies, and they’ve been made by the most capable people we’ve got.
Once again, I’ll turn to Lee Stobby here, who’s client Isaac Adamson wrote BUBBLES, a screenplay told from the point of view of Michael Jackson’s chimp about life in the kingdom of The King of Pop, a screenplay as far from derivative as possible, which also topped 2015’s The Black List. Lee Stobby told me: “Don’t write something because you think that, ‘Oh I have something that is totally like TAKEN.’ Don’t even bother. They’ve already made TAKEN. You’ve already lost. As soon as you start trying to chase that kind of dragon, the dragon’s already way ahead of you and you are never going to catch up to it. You have to pave your own kind of path. You are much better writing off real tiny, weird, Sundance-y, indie movies. If you can write those well. Because it’s just about what you can execute well. And if you do that and it gets to the right person – that’s how you break in. And it only takes one person. But you have to inspire that one person. And you don’t inspire somebody by supplying something like TAKEN. People aren’t going to fall over themselves, they’re not going to get out of bed in the morning and think to themselves ‘How am I going to get that movie made today?’ Right? People are motivated by passion and wanting to do something that’s going to try to make the world better. And that’s the way to go about trying to write a script because those are the things that your long-term success will jump off from that point. Right? Write LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and then you can write TOY STORY and STAR WARS.”
To explain it in a different, and maybe even simpler way, humor me while I step out of the box for a bit. Remember SOUND OF MUSIC? Julie Andrews spinning on an Austrian hill? The one in which she sang, heading into her new life as the nanny of the Von Trap family:
“A captain with seven children? What’s so fearsome about that?”
Almost 50 years later when, in THE BOOK OF MORMON, Elder Price heads into the rebel camp to convert General Butt-F***ing Naked and asks himself (in song, of course):
“A war-lord who shoots people in the face? What’s so fearsome about that?”
An homage for sure, yes. Similar line. Same general contest. Entirely different setting and circumstance. For those of us who caught it… Funny. Fresh.
Alright. It’s that time. I’m gonna get blunt. And here is what it boils down to on my end: I have read scenes entirely ripped off from movies I know and love. Espionage maneuvers I’ve come to know all too well in old favorites repeated verbatim on the page. I have read characters described almost entirely as Jack Sparrow, but with the slight variations of comparing pirate-of-the-high-seas to pirate-in-space to Steven Tyler or Axl Rose, rather than Keith Richards. I have read, all too often, screenplays that are way too similar to GOOD WILL HUNTING and STAR WARS and GET OUT. And while – as long as we work in traditional structures I do expect structural commonalities, a certain familiar tune powering a brand-new tale – the reality is that it’s a fresh voice that will get me excited on the page.
Whenever I work with writers on developing new content, we will assemble a list of comparable projects for reference, in order to have a common language when we discuss “They did this there, here’s what I liked, here’s what didn’t work for me. In my movie (or TV show) I want to do…” It’s an inspiration. A point of reference. A way to frame a starting point for the project that lies ahead. Less of a “Here is what they did before, and here is what I want to repeat in my own work,” more of “Here’s what’s inspired me, how do I make it new/interesting/different?” Never, ever should what you want to do be something that you can already see on the screen.
There is one simple truth here that can’t be over-stated. Derivative doesn’t just point out that the material is all too familiar. Much, much worse than that, and more damaging to the writer who created it, is that it speaks to a general lack of vision and/or imagination.
Keeping your screenplay or pilot from being derivative is not about changing everything entirely or reinventing the wheel. It’s about putting a new spin on an old story, saying something new and refreshing in a genre not known for making any sort of statement. Utilizing old tropes to stand up for new things. Exciting work is work that paints old characters in new light, that exposes worlds in which we’ve yet to take a deep dive, that tells new stories in worlds that are comfortable and familiar. Write that, and industry folks, be they agents, managers or producers will surely be excited to meet you, sign you, talk new projects or even just read your next thing. Do that, and your work will never be considered derivative.