Saturday, March 21, 2009

What Story Should You Write?

I am frequently surprised by the kinds of stories my students choose to write in my class. I don’t care whether they want to do horror, comedy, action or sophisticated drama. I encourage them to write the stories that mean most to them. They, however, often don’t do that.

Sometimes a student will tell me he loves Monty Python and Spinal Tap. Then when I ask what his story is he’ll pitch me a serious drama about a blind, suicidal dog walker. Another student may worship Truffaut and Godard and then pitch me an action comedy about two mismatched cops chasing a drug dealer. Why do they want to write movies they wouldn’t even go see?

The first one probably feels peer pressure to do something “important.” It’s one of the pitfalls of film school. The second probably feels like they need to be “commercial.” It’s one of the pitfalls of the business.

So the first thing you should ask yourself before starting a script is would you go see that movie? The screenwriting profession is challenging and risky no matter what path you choose. Why take on that challenge and risk to write movies you don’t like?

A lot of aspiring writers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what kind of screenplay sells. They want to write something commercial. Paradoxically, choosing commercial ideas is not always the most commercial thing to do.

If you’re an untested writer, why would a producer hire you to execute a by-the-numbers script? He’s got plenty of writers who’ve proven their ability and professionalism that can do that. If he’s going to take a risk on an unknown, it’s because that unknown is doing something the established pros aren’t. In other words, that unknown screenwriter has a voice.

If you talk to a lot of screenwriters who work regularly you’ll find many will have one sample script that gets them most of their jobs. That script usually has never been produced. It’s the script that everyone goes, “I love it but we could never actually make it!” It’s not commercial but it has a strong voice.

So the best script to break into the business is the one that’s the most original and the most personal. Don’t worry; if they buy it they’ll force you to turn it into a commercial, clichéd, main stream script before they make it!

If your sensibilities are very mainstream, good for you! You’ll have a slightly easier time in the business. But if you’re going to write a type of movie that comes out every other weekend – a romantic comedy, for example, or a thriller – you’ll want to think long and hard about what makes your movie unique within the genre.

My agent, who’s been in the business for decades, once told me that he’s always surprised by what sells and what doesn’t. The supposed slam dunks frequently end up gathering dust while the difficult scripts end up as big hits. The one constant, he said, is that when writers write the scripts that they’re most passionate about, they tend to have the most success.

So go write what you most want to write!


H said...

Inspiring post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

To borrow from Maurice Rodriguez: "Wear what you dig!"

Your post strikes me as very good advice, Doug. I certainly agree with Judas!