Choosing your next project, be it a spec screenplay, a TV pilot or a television spec, should not only be a creative decision; it should, in a perfect, business-savvy world, represent a strategic decision as well. This is a choice that my clients contemplate on a regular basis, struggling to balance passion with strategy, prolific creativity with a purposeful plan. While some struggle with staying “in brand” others contemplate how to develop new work that capitalizes on what they’ve done well in the past. As a writer’s job is to write and create new content on a regular, ongoing basis, it’s of utmost importance that you approach your next project with deliberate purpose, time and again.
Becoming an expert in a specific genre – You hear this often, executives and industry folks like myself talking about becoming an expert and defining your brand. I speak to this as well, at length, and believe it’s of utmost importance that once you find your cinematic sweet spot, you stay there. But at which point do you have to fully commit? The reality is that until you have an expertly executed script, one that has received a Consider Coverage, that became a finalist in a highly visible contest, that got any semblance of positive industry feedback, you don’t have a brand. You have attempts. So while you should continue down a particular path once you’ve identified the genre in which you are great, you are not committed to a genre until you’ve identified the one in which you can excel.
- Extending your brand – Once you’ve successfully identified the genre in which you can consistently deliver creative ideas and prolifically excel, your job will become extending your toehold in that world. Extending your brand is not about replicating the same story again and again, interchanging the genders of your protagonist and antagonist or tackling similar stories from different angles; rather, it’s about identifying the ideas, stories, characters and worlds that best put your voice on display. This is where sub-genre and cross-genre utilization can come into play, to help you come up with concepts that develop what you’ve done well in the past, while adding a twist or an element that can keep you excited about the work, exploring new facets of your voice and challenging your skill and your craft.
- Writing the stories you HAVE TO tell – It’s not JUST about writing material that fits in a logical and commercial genre, or that is within brand – it’s also about writing the stories that you HAVE TO tell. While this will not always be the case (some screenplays are written for fun, others for the intellectual exercise of it), when all else fails and you’re not sure which project you should write next, ask yourself: If your next screenplay would be your last, what story would it tell? While we want you to stay in brand, to develop your voice, and strengthen your skills, it is of utmost importance to all of us working in the industry and reading your work that you write material that you are passionate and excited about. When a writer is not passionate and excited about the story they’re trying to tell, it JUMPS off the page in the worse way.
- Never writing to trend – If you write to beat the trend or for the potential commerciality of the work, believe me, you will fail. Your heart has to be in it for the work to come together; You have to be intellectually stimulated in order to make the script come together in the strongest possible way. If you’re writing to satisfy what you think other people want to read or what seems to be getting made out there, you will not be doing any favors for yourself. In all likelihood, by the time you finish writing the script, the trend will pass. And if it’s commerciality you had in mind, if the material is not innate to your story sense, it will not work as you had hoped on the page.
- Don’t write to be like someone else – There is no point writing material to establish yourself as a writer who is “exactly like” somebody else. That somebody else is already established, and can be hired by those who want to work with him or her. While finding similar common ground with other works out there, your voice has to be unique, your own, for you to effectively excel. A successful voice is one that brings something new, that complements the existing cinematic or television landscape. A voice that is exactly like others that came before it and brings nothing new, no new POV, world, take or twist, to the game is one that can at best be brought in for a writing assignment or a script polish, but that will likely never truly break out of the pack.
The job of a writer is to always be writing, always be churning out new ideas and new content that can offer something new to the industry landscape, while deliberately pushing the screenwriter’s career ahead. Consider the projects in your current arsenal, and what would best complement your body of work and extend your voice when moving ahead. A screenwriting career does not happen by chance these days. With luck, your career will be constructed on the shoulders of the informed, deliberate decisions you make.
- More Writers on the Verge with Lee Jessup
- Screenwriting the Dan O’Bannon Way
- Structure and Breaking In: An Interview with Syd Field
- Why You Should Write a Short Film Screenplay
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
Tool to Help:
- Is Your Concept High Enough? On Demand Webinar
- Writing High Concept Screenplays that Sell On Demand Webinar
- High Concept: How to Create, Pitch Sell to Hollywood Audio CD