ALT-SCRIPT: How to be Original, Part 1

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by Santu creative commons license  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mithril/

by Santu creative commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mithril/

We tend not to talk too much about how to be original in the screenwriter training industry. When we do, it tends to be to denigrate it as an idea. The screenwriter training industry is largely about us encouraging competence, which is not a bad thing. Far too many people come into the industry with no real idea of what a script is… What it is for. How a film is made or, how to tell a story cinematically. Giving people the tools to make them more competent is a noble thing to undertake.

Some argue that originality and competence tend to cancel each other out. This argument goes: the more you teach a writer to conform to existing ideas about how a film is supposed to be written, the less likely it is that you will create original voices. This is one of the central points of conflict in the screenwriting community. At least a couple of times a year, a massive pissing contest will take place between those people who believe screenwriting technique is vital to a writer’s development and those who want to fly the originality banner. These are usually bitter and bloody events. The central problem with these arguments is that it is always an argument about, “what the industry wants.” On one side, you have the argument that 98% of spec scripts in circulation are unreadable, largely due to poor technique. On the other side, you have the argument that the industry needs original voices more than it needs another “competent” writer.

The real problem with this debate is that both statements are true. They can both be true at the same time because the term, “the industry” is misleading. It implies that there is one coherent industry that shares a common understanding of the difference between a good script and a bad one. This isn’t the case. The industry is a complex collection of different producers, each with their own variations on what constitutes a good script and what is a bad one. Some producers are looking for an easy sale. For them, even a bad script will work, if it ticks the boxes they need to make a return on investment. Some producers are looking for the next Charlie Kaufman or the next Tarantino, in that they actively want to find the next distinctive cinematic voice. They want to discover someone who can create and hold a cult audience. Fundamentally, there isn’t a single, coherent answer to the question, what makes a good script? And, anyone who says that there is, either wants access to your wallet, your pants or both.

The screenwriter training industry doesn’t do itself any favors in this debate, largely because for the last twenty years it hasn’t been able to tell the difference between the tools you teach a screenwriter and the tools you teach a script-editor. What the screenwriter training industry has imposed on the industry is the idea that writers should pre-script edit their scripts. Or, in other words, the idea that writing is more about form than content. So, for instance, the idea that a script should be a certain number of pages long is really a script editor’s concept. If a script reads slow at 120 pages, then it makes sense to edit it down to say 100 pages. The decision to lose those pages is part of the script editing process. Cutting those pages is the thing we should do when we realize the film isn’t as pacy as it could be. This is a different proposition from the idea that all scripts should be written to hit the 100-page mark, in ALL circumstances. The first thing any writer needs to understand about the things they learn as “rules” of screenwriting is that these rules are invariably script-editor rules, rather than writing rules. There isn’t a single rule of story-telling that you can’t ignore providing whatever you write is compelling, cinematic and interesting.

All of which brings us back to the start of this article, which was the question: how can we be original?

The first way in which a writer can approach originality is by giving themselves permission to do original work. To do that, you really need to believe that originality is a good thing. I believe most writers are so afraid of failure that they need to be given permission to take risks, to break perceived rules, and to concentrate solely on writing compelling, cinematic stories. This is largely because far too many people in the screenwriter training industry imply that failure to follow their rules will destroy a writer’s chances of creating a career. As I said before, this is, at best, a half-truth. A more accurate description would be this… Failure to follow certain “rules” of writing will hamper your chances of selling scripts to people and organizations that apply arbitrarily, script-editor rules to script acquisition. What’s also true, is that in a marketplace where anyone can acquire the same rules and skills as you, and where only the outstanding writers are going to make a name for themselves, how can you be outstanding if you write in the same way as everyone else?

So, having given yourself permission to write original material, what next?

By far, the most important thing to understand about original ideas is that they don’t come from thin air. A lot of writers talk about creativity as if it is a magical act. That the ability to be original is some kind of genetic parlor trick that some people can do and others cannot. This isn’t how it works. Rather than being a creative process, where ideas are pulled from thin air, creating is more like a filtering process. By this, I mean that a writer is only ever as good as the ideas they are exposed to. Once you understand this, it’s easy to see why the film industry struggles to find original voices. These days it’s not just possible, but it’s also probable that any writer pitching material will be consuming exactly the same TV and Films as everyone else pitching. It may be a blow to our individual egos, but if you watch the same shows as everyone else, then you are going to have the same kinds of ideas, you’ll create the same kinds of characters and you’ll construct stories in the same kind of way as everyone else. For me, one of the most useful things a screenwriter can do is to spend time in bookstores. Read some biographies. Read some history. Read some travel books. Don’t do it as a course of study, but embrace the idea of just pickings up a book because it looks vaguely interesting. However, there is a rule, and that rule is: no best sellers. The same is true of magazines. The same is true of movies. In fact, I think a good screenwriter should be watching documentaries rather than drama. If you set yourself the goal of watching two factual programs for every piece of TV or film drama you watch, you’ll be heading in the right direction. As well as moving your viewing habits from fiction to factual, within your fiction viewing, make a shift to independent film and world cinema, and away from Hollywood and mainstream TV. Instead of immersing yourself in what the market is doing, look at the rest of the world and use those creative insights to offer the market something fresh and new.

As we can see, in any screenwriter’s life, there are usually two forces that push people towards mediocrity. The first force is screenwriting advice which, if used as a set of rules rather than as a set tools, tends to standardize people’s approach to cinema. The second force is consuming the same material as everyone else. Once you know this, it becomes much easier to free yourself from those constraints and to move towards more original work. The four most fundamental rules of creative work are:

  • Think for yourself
  • Read Books (not best sellers)
  • Watch factual programs rather than drama (with a 2:1 ratio)
  • If you must watch drama, watch more world cinema than Hollywood mainstream or big budget TV

The great news for any writer considering these options, is that you will definitely be in a minority. Most writers would rather try to second guess the market by immersing themselves in what Hollywood is making right now, rather than take the risk of developing a unique voice. Most writers would rather watch box-sets of the latest big TV show, than hunt out interesting areas of world cinema. Most writers would rather buy into a cheap set of rules that “guarantee” success than go to the trouble of developing a unique form of narrative and cinematic story-telling. Basically, most writers aspire to mediocrity. All of which is good news, if you aspire to anything better than that.

These four steps are the start of a process that leads writers to a more creative and freer way of creating. However, it is only half the story. In the next article, I will talk about the two questions that unlock a new way of thinking about what a story is and how to tell it.

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