"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Writing an Original Screenplay

Jay Fernandez of The Hollywood Reporter asks, “Who’s to blame for the lack of original movie projects being submitted to film studios these days?” He points to vertical integration and a bottom-line reliance on pre-branded franchises, plus diminished film slates, producer deals, and writing jobs. Indeed, in early 2011, spec submissions were down by more than half.

Given the increased competition and the pressure of the studios, writers and agents “looking to maintain careers and commissions” have been “abandoning original screenplays to deliver template-fitting material.” As one lit agent said, “It’s the system that’s at fault, not the writer.” Of course, it could also be argued that studios have been going for known commodities, such as in multiple sequals, because the writers have run out of material. According to one studio head, writers “can’t get themselves up to write something original.”

I must admit I have looked at all the formulaic films and wondered whether narrative itself had been exhausted. The rigidity of a screenplay’s structure and format, for instance, must surely narrow the sort of narrative that can come through the pipeline.

For example, having an inciting event 10 to 12 pages in and a critical event about 10 pages from the end means that the narrative’s tension runs from 10-12 pages in until 10 pages from the end. Having a regularity akin to Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero, a screenplay’s protagonist is bound to be seeking to restore equilibrium from 10-12 pages in until 10 pages from the end. Would it kill a narrative if the protagonist is seen in his or her new world for more than ten pages? Might the viewers enjoy seeing the protagonist in his or her original world for more than 10-12 pages? Furthermore, how might film narratives differ if the instigating event were to happen up front?

As tempting as it might be to loosen up the screenplay format (assuming it is arbitrary from the standpoint of what makes good narrative), it is worth asking whether original narratives are still possible even within the screenplay box. If they are possible, it is worth investigating how writers can come up with original plots. I suspect the answer lies in the writer becoming aware of the assumptions in his or her extant stories so as to be able to relax or change paradigms or frameworks so as to come up with novel narratives.

Also, a writer could do worse than study classic myth so as to get a deeper sense of basic themes that could be woven into new fabric for today. By this I do not mean that modern writers should simply pour old wine into new bottles; rather, the ancient ingredients—once known—can be interwoven in new ways to create new plot structures.  Simply engaging in thought-experiments in coming up with innovative short stories can be like weight-lifting for the writer interested in going out and playing in game of screenwriting. 

Of course, context matters, and studios having allowed themselves to be more dependent on remakes and reinventions has translated into “creative stagnation,” according to Fernandez. Working within the confines of prefab projects, writers are given the house in order to decorate it. As one writer observed, “You can’t build your own house, and you can’t change the house.” That is hardly the sort of context in which the narratives that can generate real interest in cinema are likely to be purchased, let alone written.

As the field of writers narrows and the studios become increasingly risk-averse as the costs of producing a film increase, creativity must be reckoned as collateral damage.Yet even in this eye of the needle, even just those few writers who have gained entry can think outside the box and make alliances with the talent to lobby producers for relatively small-budget projects. More ideally, actors and even producers could use the social media and explore blogs in order to look beyond the usual suspects if only to get an inkling of the alternative stories out there in small electronic ponds called blogs (perhaps one all-too-imaginative writer will write a screenplay on the blog-pond monster that eats up the radiation in Japan and saves the day--the antithesis of Godzilla).

In short, there are indeed fruitful alternatives to deconstruction (e.g., the New Wave, Neo-Realism). We need not eclipse narrative, as if the human race has outlived story-telling. We need not give up on the possibility of rich, new stories that have not hitherto been thought and told.


Jay A. Fernandez, “Crisis at the Movies: No New Ideas,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 20, 2011, pp. 8-9.