Screenwriting Tip #93: Write What You Love


Xander Bennet

image by: Everywhereisimagined

Screenwriting Tip #93: Write scripts in the same genres you watch, love, quote, and buy the Criterion DVDs of. If you don’t love horror movies or romantic comedies, why are you trying to write one?

It might not be the Criterion discs. Maybe you buy the iTunes downloads instead. Perhaps you loved that one movie so much you went back to the cinema to see it seven more times. Or maybe you constantly evangelize to your friends about that show you’re obsessed with, lending the full DVD set out to anyone who wants it.

However you happen to express your love, the fact remains that you enjoy some genres more than others. You make space on your DVR and time out of your schedule to see shows and films in your favorite genres. Conversely, there are some genres that you can’t stand. You’ll watch them if you have to, but they’d never be your first choice.

So why would anyone be crazy enough to write a screenplay in a genre they don’t like?

There are plenty of reasons, most of them stupid. Writers sometimes get weird notions in their head, like “Hollywood is only buying comedies right now, so I have to write a comedy to have a chance on the spec market” or “Horror is cheap to produce, so there’s a chance a small production company will buy my script if they think they can shoot it for nothing.”

Here’s why that makes no sense:

It’s a waste of time. At least a month to develop the idea, the characters, and the outline. Probably at least two months to write the first draft. Let’s be generous and say two months of rewrite work to get the script up to a decent standard. That is five freaking months. Do you really want to be living and breathing a project you don’t like for five months? That’s five months of forcing yourself to be funny when you don’t feel funny, or forcing suspense when you’d rather just kick back and write a romance.

I don’t know about you, but that would drive me insane. And at the end of it, all you have to show for your efforts is a script you don’t love.

You can’t chase the market. Not only is the feature film spec script market incredibly small – around a hundred sales a year at the very most – it’s also a moving target. You’d have to be a lunatic or a genius (or Lex Luthor, lunatic genius) to believe that you could accurately predict what the next “hot” genre will be. If you just go by what’s popular now, you’ll fail spectacularly.

For example, early 2011 saw a boom in Twilight-style supernatural teen thrillers, such as Red Riding Hood, I Am Number Four, and The Hunger Games. The problem is that those scripts were bought at least a year before the films were made. Then you take into account release dates and marketing building up to a movie’s release, and you realize that by writing a teen thriller spec right now, you’d be aiming at a window that probably closed a year and a half ago. It’s pointless to look at the market. Go with your heart instead.

That’s films, though; television’s a little different. You can actually chase the market in television, to some degree. For instance, the fashion this season might be for male-driven procedurals about cops with special abilities who deal with weekly stories, plus a light serial component (just kidding – those are always in fashion!). If you knew the networks were buying pilots like these, you might have time to dust off an already written script, give it a polish, and send it out.

But here’s the thing: you’d be competing with the legions of showrunners and staffed writers who do this dance twice a year. As an unknown writer, what hope do you have against them? It’s much better to write something unique and different. Go against the flow of what’s popular this season, and you stand a chance of getting noticed amidst a sea of private practicing mentalist criminal investigators.

Ignorance will get you nowhere. If you don’t know your genre, you’re going to make all the obvious mistakes. There’s a story about a young writer who comes in to a general meeting with a network executive. He pitches a TV pilot, and it’s just terrible – a bad idea, littered with clichés, and just not a good fit for the network. The exec stops him and says, “I can’t really picture this show. What’s it like? What other shows would you compare it to?” The writer replies, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t watch television. In fact, I don’t even own a TV.” The executive’s response isn’t recorded, but I’m guessing it was, “Get the hell out of my office.”

If you write genres you don’t watch, you won’t have the necessary background knowledge to know what’s been done, what works, and what doesn’t.

You will be branded with it. It’s a sad fact, but if you ever have any success in the industry, you will be pigeonholed by that success. The genre you break in with is the genre you’ll be expected to continue writing. Everybody will remember the last thing you did, and attempts to deviate from that last thing will be met with confusion or indifference. The best-case scenario is that you write exactly what you think they want, and you finally reach that shining plateau of moderate success … only to find out that you’ve just made a name for yourself as “the action girl” or “the comedy guy” or whatever your least-favorite genre happens to be. So choose the genre of that first spec script wisely.

There you go – four compelling reasons to not write screenplays in genres you don’t love. Anyway, there are more important things in life than outcome and reward. Wouldn’t you rather follow your bliss?

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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