I recently met a guy from London who had just left a lucrative job in advertising to pursue a screenwriting career here in L.A. (brave lad – tried to talk him out of it, but no go), and he asked a question that had a familiar ring.
By Billy Mernit
“Should I try to write something personal, do you think, or should I go after a commercial, thing-that’s-gonna-sell kind of screenplay?”
It’s a question I often hear from pre-pros of all kinds, and my immediate response comes in the form of a counter-query: When someone reads the first page of a screenplay, what is the last thing this reader wants to see?
As a professional reader and a writer, nothing deadens my soul, puts my hope and imagination to sleep faster, than the sense that I’m being told One of Those Stories in the Same Old Way. People think that studios are looking for “commercial” projects, i.e. stories deemed to be familiar, acessible, sellable. But in truth, the studio ideal is a story that’s the same, only different.
As a professional reader and a writer, nothing puts my hope and imagination to sleep faster than the sense that I’m being told One of Those Stories in the Same Old Way
So what makes the difference?
Here’s the thing about a conventional script that’s meant to be commercial (i.e. a workman-like version of what’s already been done and what’s done all the time to fill programmer slots on a studio slate). There are tons of established pros doing exactly that, and chances are, they’re already better at it than you are.
Sure, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you ought to know and understand how such standard genre fare is done. But while writing a formulaic, by-the-books script might give you a grip on what works and what doesn’t, that one doesn’t have to be the spec script you go out with. In fact, that’s not a script the industry needs.
What makes a script stand out from the crowd is the difference.
What makes the difference? You.
What’s the difference between personal and who cares? Personal doesn’t mean “autobiographical.” The nightmare version of “a personal project” is the script written by a struggling widget salesman from Akron that’s all about a struggling widget salesman from Akron and widgets, widgets, widgets. It’s the equivalent of the guy with the shopping cart on Venice Boulevard getting messages from the Planet Zygon. I call these OPI specs: they come from someone’s Own Private Idaho.
Someone who understands screenwriting craft and how to keep an audience involved could make even a widget story interesting — the problem with OPI scripts is that their writers, who often aren’t really writers, aren’t really interested in creating a good movie. They’ve just got a lot to get off their chest about widgets.
The problem with OPI scripts is that their writers, who often aren’t really writers, aren’t really interested in creating a good movie
You, on the other hand, want to tell a good story that people will respond to, and tell it well. And how do you know that your deeply personal take on a story, told well, has a shot at getting a response from the industry?
Say you’re with some people at a restaurant. Guy on your left wants to tell you a story about how he met his wife. Woman on your right, when asked about her last relationship, blushes a bit and says there’s nothing to say. When pressed, she says it’s a story, all right, but it’s not the kind of story she really can repeat. Which story do you want to hear?
I want the unrepeatable.
What the audience wants is the secrets – the inside dope, the hidden scars, the don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry truths about what it feels like to be human. We want to know the thing about you that’s as outrageous as the things we know about ourselves.
So instead of writing what you think is the thing that sells, try taking the risk of really owning what’s different – what’s unique – about your world and your world view. Show us the difference. Surprise us with your weirdness.
Personal means repeating what’s supposedly unrepeatable. And of course the more you’re really yourself on the page when you write, the more honest you are about your point of view… the more universal your story gets.
Ultimately we’re all walking mysteries, and we’re eternally unable to be one another. What a great movie does is give us the sensation of piercing that veil. An unrepeatable story acknowledges how shockingly familiar our secrets and emotions are. Your personal, passionate feelings and point of view, honestly expressed, are what’s most likely to say hello to the rest of us.
What the audience wants is the secrets – the inside dope, the hidden scars, the don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry truths about what it feels like to be human.
The mystery of what makes a person strive and thrive is one of the most primal fascinations in storytelling. I’ll wager that the movies you love are the ones that remind you of both what you know, and reveal what you hadn’t yet comprehended, about being inside another person’s experience.
Seems to me those are the movies you’d want to write. They’re surely the ones we really want to see.
Billy Mernit, screenwriter, novelist, story analyst for Universal Pictures and private script consultant, is the author of Writing the Romantic Comedy and the novel Imagine Me and You.
A recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program’s Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting, he teaches at schools and conferences at home in the US and abroad, and runs the popular screenwriting blog, Living the Romantic Comedy.