So, sifting through all the submissions I get for various clients, schemes and initiatives, one thing always strikes me (and by that I mean the thought strikes me, not the fact I get battered by piles of screenplays, though that’s true as well)… Where was I? Oh yes. I always wonder:
Where are all the “occasion” screenplays?
By “occasion” I DON’T mean anniversaries of various events that get producers salivating and spec screenwriters rushing to Get There First. Next year is the centennial of the First World War, so guess what all the script readers are going to get, all the way through 2014? Swathes of scripts dedicated to the event, by writers unaware they should have got their stuff optioned, developed and made at least two years ago. That’s right. 2011-2012, for a 2014 release. Unlucky.
No, what I mean by “occasion” screenplays are those stories that use a particular annual seasonal event as the backdrop for its characters, and/or that helps inform the narrative and/or plot.
An obvious example, being that time of year again NOW, would be Christmas (DISCLAIMER: other December-related Holidays are available). Well-known Christmas movies include:
• SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE
• HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
• THE SNOWMAN
• LOVE ACTUALLY
• HOME ALONE
• JUST FRIENDS
• JINGLE ALL THE WAY
• BLACK CHRISTMAS
• DIE HARD 1 and 2
You will note the above goes from the obvious, such as depictions of Winter-related *stuff* for kids, including animation and cartoon violence; through to more adult themes of love and romance; to perhaps LESS obvious Christmas-related stories of drug dealing, serial killing and terrorism.
And this is just it: your “occasion”-related screenplay can be ANYTHING. That’s the beauty of story and spec screenwriting. You can do whatever you want. But if you can do whatever you want, why am I advocating writing an occasion screenplay?
Look, I get it. You don’t want to be writing a Christmas Cheerer in July; a Halloween Horror in Spring Break; or a Summer Holidays flick in January. So, you pick a script idea that is “relevant” (whatever that means) all year round. Seems logical. After all, that way, it’ll never go out of date, right?
WRONG. Fact is, your spec screenplay can go stale very quickly, just like a loaf of bread. All you need is for a movie (or **too many** movies) to come out with your premise and BOOM! Your script is past its sell-by date, and no one wants to touch it with a ten-foot bread knife. Sad but true.
So you need something to DIFFERENTIATE it from the others in the spec pile. In a veritable sea of submissions, novelty and originality has a value all its own and is highly prized by script readers, even if they’ve seen a particular story many times before. Writing an occasion screenplay helps you in the following ways:
1) Mass appeal. Everyone knows what it’s like to celebrate an annual event of the MAJOR kind. Everyone knows how “happy” and “wonderful” Christmas, weddings, birthdays are SUPPOSED to be… and how they can go horribly wrong, in various colourful and unexpected ways. Bottom-line is, any event with expectations of any kind will have inevitable stresses and strains! This is UNIVERSAL, no matter where you’re from or who you are. Drama is conflict; that’s screenwriting 101. More: Who is your script FOR?
2) Deadlines. Here’s the thing: an EVENT creates a deadline and deadlines are ALWAYS good for ratcheting up the pace and the jeopardy your characters are in, for whatever reason. This works especially well in genre movies like comedies and Thrillers, but can work in dramas too – i.e. your character needs to get to his in-laws’ Christmas dinner, but there are various pile-ups, both literal and figurative, along the way.
3) Arena-A-Go-Go. Arena does not just refer to the locations in your screenplay, but the WORLD OF THE STORY – and this is often criminally underused by spec screenwriters. Using motifs, symbolism and allusion (for starters) can really persuade a reader of your storytelling ability and has swung the pendulum in many a submission’s favour. And what better way to encapsulate an arena, via an annual event people recognise (even if they don’t personally celebrate it)? One reason HOME ALONE was so great was because it was set at Christmas: the notion of a little boy, isolated and alone, fighting off burglars in the middle of summer… Suddenly we’re wondering where everyone else is and what the likelihood is that everyone has gone on holiday, all at the same time? Similarly, the jeopardy John McClane goes through is all the worse BECAUSE it’s Christmas-time in the first two movies – a time a hero *should* be with his family, yet he’s stuck fighting baddies.
4) Subtext & Theme. Another great thing about occasion screenplays is they lend themselves REALLY well to complicated and adult subtexts and themes. Character motivations are too frequently simplistic and/or unfathomable in spec screenplays, yet by adding an OCCASION to the mix, we can shed new light on what your protagonist wants, and why. Around Christmas it’s common for people to consider the past year and wonder what changes the following year will bring; it’s no accident many Rom Coms are set around the festive period, like THE HOLIDAY. More: All About Theme.
5) Voice. And finally, writing an occasion Screenplay can really showcase your voice. In a spec pile that has waaaaaaay too many vanilla screenplays in it, readers simply don’t need any more. Perfect craft is all well and good, but we want to see YOU, the writer in those words too. An occasion screenplay gives spec screenwriters a real opportunity to put their heart and soul in response to a situation or backdrop. What’s not to like?
So, next time you’re brainstorming your characters and story, consider adding an occasion to the mix. You won’t regret it.
- More Submissions Insanity articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Submissions Insanity #3: Familiar Screenplay Ideas to Avoid
- Improvising Screenplays: Arming Your Characters With a Strong Point of View
- Script Angel: Creativity is Key
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