Exciting and original ideas are among the most elusive commodities in the film industry. It’s the Holy Grail for writers and what gets filmmakers out of bed in the morning – the possibility of finding that unique and compelling concept which will strike a universal chord and clean up at the box office.
You only have to look at the output of major Hollywood studios (comic book adaptation, prequel, sequel, series reboot) to see that the industry in general is somewhat cautious of original ideas and preoccupied with producing screenplays which come with a pre-packaged audience and therefore comprise a safer bet for those who write the checks. But nonetheless, original ideas are what storytelling and writing is all about. And since writing something derivative is a common pitfall for many first time writers, here are some tips to alleviate the problem and make your screenplay feel distinctive, fresh and original.
1. Absorb Filmic References, Don’t Steal Ideas
It’s a frustrating phenomenon that all writers face. You have what you think is a wholly original idea, you know you’ve conceived it of your own accord and you can’t wait to start writing it. You pitch it to someone and quickly discover it’s already been done. Unfortunately, the fact is, if it’s a good idea, something that’s beautifully simple and has an innate power and energy, there’s a good chance someone else will have already thought of it. And if it’s really good it will have got made. It’s like when you see a film with a central conceit that is so ingenious you feel like you’ve seen it before because someone must have already thought of it.
When this happens you shouldn’t be downhearted but rather go and look at the film in question, study it and think about how you can absorb what works about it into your story. But also think about how you can set your idea apart by putting a fresh twist on it, having your own unique angle on the material and your own reason for telling this story.
It’s OK to be influenced by and draw inspiration from other films; all great filmmakers have their frames of reference. In fact, watching great films and reading great scripts is arguably the best way to learn the crafts of filmmaking and screenwriting respectively. (Just ask Quentin Tarantino – “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films“). Film inspires film and filmmakers borrow from one another – we would have never seen the golden period of American cinema in the 1970s, with films like Taxi Driver and The Conversation, if it weren’t for the French Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s.
But there is a difference between being inspired by other films and copying other people’s ideas….
2. Combine Your Influences
Even the most optimistic among us will concede some ground to the notion that there is no such thing as an original idea anymore, and every new screenplay is merely a composite of different themes, characters and ideas from previous films, or will at least have shades other movies contained within it.
One way to alleviate this is to combine different influences and ideas from opposing genres, or to merge two separately average ideas you’ve had together to create something unique, exciting and original. Edgar Wright’s Sean of the Dead is a great example. Lot’s of people had made zombie films and lots of people had made rom-coms. But how many people had made a zombie rom-com?
Perhaps an extreme example, but the technique of combining influences and frames of reference from left field areas is quite a common way of pitching and can be a ludic technique for distilling the essence of your idea, exemplified in the famous opening sequence of The Player where writers pitch to Tim Robbins’ producer, variously describing their ideas as ‘Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman’ and ‘Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate’. However it should only be thought of as a kind of shorthand to give someone a picture of the tone of your piece rather than as a road map for writing your screenplay. If you stick to the label too rigidly it will do the opposite of making your screenplay original.
3. Draw On Your Own Experiences
I recently went to a talk with an experienced screenwriter who was extolling his grief about the current state of the industry, saying how Hollywood writers these days are funnelled straight out of film school and into studios where they start writing and making films, their only frames of reference being other films. He argued that a direct consequence of this was of the film industry effectively eating it’s own tail and churning out ever-paler imitations of previous films rather than telling new and original stories.
The point he was making was that it’s important for writers to have a healthy amount of their own life-experience on which to draw rather than just basing their stories on other films, which will essentially result in a pastiche rather than an exciting and original story. It will also be shallow and superficial in terms of the characters’ emotions and the drama.
This relates to the importance of having a ‘voice’ as a writer, having your own stories to tell and your own unique angle and perspective on the world. A script must have a heart and this comes from the writer’s real feelings, passions, angers etc. You can of course be inspired by other films, literature or art but it’s important to fit yourself in there too and this comes from using your own life as a basis for generating ideas.
4. Find An Original Form
While screenwriting theories and formulas, most famously the three-act structure, are useful tools they shouldn’t be thought of as anything more than road maps and guidelines, to aid creativity rather than replace it. Following them too rigidly can lead to a script which is dull and formulaic. Equally, it may be true that the content of your story isn’t 100% original but that doesn’t mean you can’t find an original way to tell your story.
Films that bend the rules and successfully subvert audience’s expectations about genre, style and structure are often the ones that stick in our minds and set themselves apart. So you could cover old ground in story terms but tell your story in an innovative and unconventional way. If done well it creates something unpredictable and fresh (however it is generally accepted that you have to be aware of the rules before you bend or break them). How often do you go to the cinema and come out thinking, ‘That was something I really haven’t seen before and I couldn’t anticipate where it was going’ – for me, the mark of a really good piece of work.
Recent examples of films which find original forms for their stories are Lars Von Triers’ Melancholia, an end-of-the-world movie told using an episodic structure and disposing of any semblance of the three act paradigm, and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List which employs various cinematic touchstones (social realist style, a crime/thriller set-up) but does so in an unconventional and wildly unpredictable way, notably eschewing any sense of resolution or denouement and ending suddenly and immediately after a jaw dropping climax.
Whether you love or hate these films it’s hard to deny their originality, and finding a unique voice and carving out a niche for telling original stories is surely the best way for new writers to get noticed in an evermore-saturated market.