The key question that all screenwriters should ask themselves is: how do I write a script that Hollywood wants to buy? Most writers mistakenly think that success is all about connections and star power. Not so. The real trick to writing a script that will sell is to know and use Hollywood’s central marketing strategy. And that can be summed up in one word: genres.
Former Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger recently said, “There’s no doubt the star system is in transformation. Arguably the two biggest stars in the first half of 2009 were Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and Liam Neeson (Taken). That’s a significant shift in the meaning of star power and a shift to the premium that is being put on concept and genre.”
Shmuger is telling any screenwriter smart enough to listen the first rule of the entertainment business worldwide: it buys and sells genres. Genres are story forms and each has from 8-15 special story beats (story events) that make up the form. The reason Hollywood marketing is based on genre is that executives are selling to a worldwide audience. And people the world over love particular types of stories that speak to their deepest desires.
I’d like to tell you 10 story techniques that must be in your script if you want the best chance of selling it in a genre-dominated business.
1. Know the 10 most popular genres
Step 1 in writing a script Hollywood wants to buy is knowing the 10 most popular story forms. If you write a script that is not based on one or more of these genres, your chance of a sale plummets. They are Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.
2. Combine 2 or 3 genres
In the genre-focused entertainment business, the most important story strategy today is to mix genres. 99% of films made, not just in Hollywood but worldwide, are some combination of the ten most popular genres. Why? It all goes back to that old rule of selling: give the customer 2 or 3 for the price of 1. This, in a nutshell, is how Hollywood works.
Let me give you some examples. The super-popular Bourne films are Action + Thriller. Knocked Up is Comedy + Love. Little Miss Sunshine is Myth + Comedy. Titanic, the most popular movie of all time, is Love + Disaster Film + Myth. The Dark Knight is Crime + Myth + Fantasy. The Harry Potter stories, the most popular books of all time, are Fantasy + Myth + Horror + Coming-of-Age Drama. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are Fantasy + Action + Horror + Myth.
3. Find the right genre for the story idea
The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you are developing your premise, or story idea. The decision is: which genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because their original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1-line idea to 2-hour, 120-page script.
Each genre will take a story idea in radically different directions. So when writers choose the wrong genres to develop their idea, the result is not only a lot of bad scripts but also the waste of thousands of great story ideas. Given that you can use many genres to develop the same idea, the key question is: what are the right ones?
The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the story idea itself. You need to dig into the premise and find the genres inherent to that idea. Instead of trying to copy a popular movie from the past, you need to find what is original, what is organic to your story. One of the powers of genre is that the right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses.
In my genre classes, I talk a lot about techniques for digging into your premise and finding the best genres for you. One of them is to focus on the desire line, one of the seven major story structure steps. It turns out that each genre has a unique, pre-determined desire line. For example, the Crime desire is to catch a criminal. Detective is to find the truth. Horror is to defeat a monster. For Love, it’s to find love. Myth is to go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself. Figure out the goal of your hero and see if it matches the desire of any of the main genres.
4. Use Myth as one of your genres
Because Hollywood only wants scripts with blockbuster potential, your story must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities. That’s a lot of communication barriers to cross. Unfortunately, most writers don’t know which genres travel well and which don’t. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue DON’T travel. Myth, on the other hand, loves to travel. That’s why Myth is found in more blockbusters by far than any other form.
Myth is the oldest of the 10 most popular film genres, and is surprisingly complex, with 15 special story beats. But boy, is it popular. Try adding up the box office of these Myth-based films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek, Star Wars and The Lion King.
5. Combine Myth with one or two other genres
While Myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it almost never stands alone. That’s not just because Hollywood wants to give people 2 or 3 genres for the price of one. It has to do with the deep weaknesses found in the form itself.
The Myth form is thousands of years old. And it has a very episodic structure, so it can grow tiresome and decline in power through the middle of the story. Top professional screenwriters know this, which is why they always add 1 or 2 other genres to modernize the Myth form and overcome its episodic quality.
6. Make one genre primary
Screenwriters who are smart enough to study Hollywood as a business know that it’s all about combining genres. Where they sometimes go wrong is in execution. It’s one thing to say, “Take 2 or 3 story forms and put them together into a seamless whole.” It’s another thing to do it well.
Combining genres is more difficult than it looks, because of what it does to the story structure under the surface. Each genre has a pre-determined hero, opponent, desire line, thematic focus, and so on. Which is why most writers combining genres end up with a structural mess. They have too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, themes and story beats. Any one of these structural mistakes will kill a script, so imagine what happens if you make them all.
When mixing genres, the key is to make one form the primary one. This will give you your hero, a single desire line, a single story line and the most important unique story beats. Then put in other genre elements where they fit, so they amplify the primary form.
7. If you’re writing a screenplay for an indie film, write Horror, Thriller, or Love
One of the best ways to break in and separate yourself from the thousands of other screenwriters in the world is to write and make your own film. Of course, that requires keeping costs to a bare minimum. And the cheapest genres to shoot are Horror, Thriller and Love. These genres require the fewest actors, sets and special effects. Of these, horror is the most popular worldwide. But the most important determinants of which genres you use for your indie film are which genres are best for your story idea and which genres you are best at writing.
8. Hit all the genre beats
Writers of blockbuster movies always know their genres so well that they hit every one of the story beats unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues.” And it’s absolutely essential or the audience feels cheated. Remember, they are there to see the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they crave. And that means knowing how your genres work under the surface, in the structure, where the real story work is done.
9. Be original, transcend the genre
It may surprise you that the biggest reason a reader turns down a script is because it’s “derivative.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the writer hit all the beats of the genre, but nothing more. Readers have read scripts from every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying the dues.”
That’s why professional screenwriters not only hit all the genre beats, they do the beats in an original way. This is known as transcending the genre. And you simply cannot succeed if you fail to transcend the genres you’re working in.
Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for how to do this for all genres. Transcending genre is different for each form. In the 1-day class I teach in each genre, I spend a great deal of time on exactly how to do this. Transcending depends on the story beats that are unique to your form. It also requires that you study the best films in your form so you know what has already been done.
10. Be honest with yourself, and specialize in the forms that are right for you
Genres are extremely powerful structural tools for a screenwriter, and they are the key to your success in the entertainment business. But they are complex story systems. I don’t know a single professional screenwriter who has mastered more than 2 or 3 of them. That’s why it’s so important that you look honestly at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Determine which genres highlight your strengths and express the themes you believe in. Then apply yourself with laser-like focus to mastering those forms.
When you let genres do the hard story work, and concentrate on writing them in an original way, you will be amazed at how good, and how successful, your scripts will be.
John Truby has been bringing his acclaimed screenwriting class to London since 1995. Check out Anatomy of Story