Ask the Expert: Thinking Big – How to Sell Your Small Town Story

Question: How can I make my small town story ‘big’ enough for Hollywood producers to want it?

“Your story is too small!”

How many times have you gotten this note? How many times has a consultant said that you had a good concept or the script was well written but the story was just too small? I know I have a number of clients (not to mention agents and managers) who have heard me say these words. It used to be that movies that were set in a small town were relegated to indie cinema. But you’d be surprised at how many big movies are actually small-town stories. They CAN sell! They CAN be commercial! And so I wanted to give you the keys to making your small-town story a big-time page-turner…

The first step is looking at your small town setting and asking – what makes this place special? Is it the people? Is it the location itself? Is it the town lore or legend that surrounds it (often used in horror movies)? Is it a secret that is held? What sets this place apart from all other small towns? Keep this phrase (that I just made up) in mind when figuring out what type of town you are creating. Towns with quirk, work. Towns that bore, snore. I’m copyrighting that one!

Next, take a look at your story. Do you have a new and original hook? Is your logline more exciting than just, “A couple, living in a small town, deals with stuff”? Use the town you’ve created to make your story shine. Are you treating the town like an actual character in your script?  Sometimes doing this will connect a reader to the setting and really make it pop. How does this town add to or affect the main conflicts in your story?

Many writers think that if their setting is small, their story can’t be high concept, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most small-town set movies are all about the characters and what happens to them, and who says something big, commercial and exciting can’t happen in small towns? Raise your stakes! Sure, perhaps the stakes in your small town setting aren’t of national importance, but raising the emotional stakes of a story can be just as satisfying!

In my article on what you can learn from the Black List scripts, I mentioned that the comedy “Cedar Rapids” is a perfect example of how to make a small-town story commercial. The writer of Rapids built the story perfectly. It starts out in this tiny cold Wisconsin town with a sad man who has never left, and never wanted to. He’s happy in his tiny town. But when he’s forced to venture outside (to a slightly bigger town), he not only realizes there is more out there that he has never experienced, but the story builds in an over the top way to this big climax involving sex, drugs, violence, love, money, etc. It goes from small town to commercial and crazy. And the stakes for the main character were huge to him, and therefore seemed huge to us.  Basically, in the end, it didn’t seem so small anymore. That’s the result you want.

But this isn’t the only project that exemplifies small town, big story. Let’s look at some other major successful films that at their cores are small-town stories.  Fargo, In the Bedroom, No Country For Old Men, The Truman Show, Napoleon Dynamite, The Mist, Stand By Me, Winter’s Bone, Frozen River, Sweet Home Alabama, The Amateurs, Beautiful Girls, Where the Heart Is, etc. All of these movies are set in small towns – some Southern, some New England, some unknown – and all have certain elements that help them connect to a broader audience.

The most important element they all have is characters that we like and/or can relate to. Yes, they all have wonderful actors, but the actors were attracted to these movies because of the characters the writer created. Characters in a small-town piece need to have real depth, real personality and quirk and a point of view so that executives (and audiences) in LA and NY can connect with them even if they’ve never stepped outside a big city.

The best way to make your smaller story connect with a broad audience is to use universal themes that everyone can relate to – friendship, revenge, protection of one’s family, love, hate, jealousy, greed, etc. Make us feel like we’ve all gone through what your characters are going through – they are just doing it more cinematically and in a different location. Fellow Black List top ten script “Prisoner” has a small town feel, but it’s an exciting thriller that encompasses themes and character motivations that everyone can connect with – trying to save ones child. In Where the Heart Is, it’s about mothers and daughters and making hard decisions and sacrificing. These are universal themes that elevate your story and can make it more commercial.

How about the ultimate small-town, high concept movie – Groundhog Day. This film cashed in on the feelings of coastal snobs – the horror of being trapped in a small town without any way of escaping. Of course eventually Bill Murray’s character makes the best of the situation and finds what he’s always wanted – love. The story was wonderfully high concept even though the setting was wonderfully quaint. All it takes is an original and clever hook.

There are some other small-town story templates that have always worked well – you just need to find an original hook for them, a new angle or character that will set it apart. One is a big city guy with big city problems moves into a small town and therefore brings his problems with him, basically infecting the whole town and changing it somehow. Or the reverse, where he comes with his problems but is changed by the town and realizes the error of his ways (Did You Hear About the Morgans? was the rom-com couple version of this story).

Or a town must solve a problem or controversy together or a town erupts in conflict over something amazing that happens, like in Waking Ned Devine.  Heck, even 30 Days of Night was a small town story – a sleepy Alaskan town is invaded by vampires who are about to embark on a feeding frenzy because it’s dark 24/7 for 30 days. Small town, big story. Sweet Home Alabama used the contrast between big city life and small town livin’ as the lynchpin of its love triangle.

And the same rules apply for television. Small town shows can lead to big ratings. People may go to the movies for escapism, but they want to curl up on the couch every night and watch their “friends,” and I don’t mean the show. People connect with small town shows because most of the cities in this country…are small.  Plus, these shows often do quite well because if you create the right town, there is so much rich material to pull from, you will find more than would fit into a 90 minute movie and characters you want to see week after week.

It all started with Little House on the Prairie and Gilligan’s Island – the two smallest towns ever created. But the 90s through today have continued the tradition with Northern Exposure, Friday Night Lights, Picket Fences, Ed, Providence, even King of the Hill and South Park are all small-town shows. Don’t forget Twin Peaks! That show turned a small town into the biggest cult murder mystery of the decade. And the much-loved Jericho was basically just the small-town answer to 24, where a town had to come together to save themselves and figure out what happened.

So for writers out there who are worried that they are writing what they know, but all they know is small town life, stop worrying! All you need to do is add a little imagination, find a new and original hook and conflict, create quirky wonderfully developed characters, use universal and relatable themes, build your story – no matter where it’s set – to a big exciting climax, and make it connect to a broad audience. And voila, your small town story can find big time success!

One thought on “Ask the Expert: Thinking Big – How to Sell Your Small Town Story

  1. carolyn kingsley

    This has been very helpful. A small town in Florida (Mims) is the backdrop for my script The Citrus Baron. A few citrus magnates in old Florida owned groves there. The place was always a hotbed of intrigue and gossip, probably because the town was (and is) so small. FYI this tiny community is located four miles north of Titusville, on the space coast.

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