Thursday, February 01, 2007

Spec Notes

The general consensus about spec scripts seems to be that if you engage the reader on an emotional level, then your talents as a writer are going to be noticed above your genre ambitions to blow up cars and kill aliens. Character-driven stories are what grab the attention of readers, script editors and execs. This isn’t to say that genre scripts are excluded or frowned upon but a lot of these wannabe scripts are vacuous and empty; a shameful rip off or hotchpotch of a hundred genre films before it. If you’ve got a genre script that tells a ‘new’ story and shows off your talents for craft and character, then you’ve really got a spec hit on your hands.

For the most part, however, readers, editors and execs are looking for something fresh and original. They’re tired with the cops, serial killers, bounty hunters, gangsters, guy ‘n girl love affairs or plain stories about nothing in particular. Everyone is writing these scripts, so the spec pile can get a bit boring and predictable. The common perception of readers is that when they pick up a script, ‘they really want to like it, that they really hope that this is the one’. This isn’t entirely true. More often than not, when a reader picks up a script, he just wants to get through it. He hopes that it won’t make him work too hard in figuring out who the characters are and what the story is about. And that it won’t take too long to read so he can get on to the next script.

The consistent humdrum nature of spec scripts generates this ambivalent approach. However, after the first few pages of the script, the reader gets a sense of the writer’s style and talent, and if it’s good, then the reading chore can become an enjoyable and effortless passing of time. The reader zones out of his responsibilities and awareness of the writer, and instead simply gets engrossed in the ‘story’. This is achieved when a spec script provides the reader with something ‘fresh’ and ‘original’, often combining character-driven stories with some required familiar elements to create a new take on the genre.

But are there any specific areas or subject matters that make a good spec script? A lot of new writers ‘write what they know’, which can be hit and miss, so if they took a step outside their own experience and researched some unfamiliar territory of psychology, history or society, then this can provide a spec script with that added spark and interest. Here are a few topics/areas that are worth considering but rarely seen as spec scripts:

Biopics. Recount the life, or significant period, of a famous figure (that preferably hasn’t been done before) or tell the story of a historic character that shows what impact and significance his/her life had for his time, or for us in the present.

Political Backdrop stories. Look at an interesting period in any nation’s history, and create a story within that context, using the backdrop to provide subtext, drama and theme.

Period Drama. See biopics/political backdrop stories, or simply create a new romance/comedy/whatever set around a defining or visual period.

Modern Adaptations. A modern and clever take on well known stories, such as Shakespeare etc, can be effective, and you don’t need to pay for the privilege too because many of the stories are out of copyright.

Unfamiliar Locations. A lot of specs are set in anonymous modern cities. Setting can play a large part in a story, especially with regard to the above areas, so think about a story set in Ontario, or Cape Town, or Cairns, or Wellington, or Berlin, or Moscow, or whatever, and bring it to life on screen.

Specific Area of Research. Get to know an unfamiliar topic or subject better than anyone else on this Earth. And then write a script about it. Not it per se, but a story around that world.

Quirky Premise/Offbeat Story. A quirky premise will always be fun, but the offbeat story that follows should be carefully crafted in terms of character and story. Don’t try to be funny for the sake of it; tell a story that’s funny. A lot of comedy specs in America are sold because of their offbeat and quirky charms, and consequently attract interest from actors and directors.

Most of these areas require research. However, research should inform the story not overwhelm the reader. A lot of scripts with a particular area of research try to show off how much time the writer has spent getting to know every last bit of detail they’ve gleaned from their study. Research helps credibility and authenticity with regard to premise, plot and characters, when the story requires it, so no need to hit us over the hammer with a lot of inconsequential detail, no matter how interesting it may seem.

So, go on. Be different than the rest. Write an original script that doesn’t follow the typical route of most specs. It will get you noticed, get your recommended, help you nab that meeting, win that commission and before you know it, you’re in the trades with news that you’re about to start principal photography. Getting a spec script optioned, sold and made is difficult, no question, but it’s not impossible and if you’re telling the right story, then a lot of people will want to take notice, especially readers.


Phill Barron said...

Out of interest, Danny, have you read any spec scripts which particularly stick in your mind?

Lucy V said...

I absolutely LOVE period drama and hardly ever see them. Ditto that on Biopics, though I read a fake biopic a couple of months ago that was so amazing I was convinced the guy actually did live. But he didn't. Writer was wicked and deserved his commission with super-fat-famous production company.

Danny Stack said...

Not many, Phillip. I read Stranger Than Fiction as a spec, and that was great (quirky premise/offbeat story). And I read an adaptation of Something Happened by Joseph Heller which left me devastated (not sure if it was a spec but it came with another script from the writer, equally as good), oh, and I remember a low-concept UK comedy drama because it was simple, funny and effective, so I recommended that and the writers were called in for a meeting, and then referred to an agent (ICM, I think), so yay, the system works!

Good Dog said...

genre ambitions to blow up cars and kill aliens.

What were the aliens doing in the cars in the first place?

Elspeth said...

great post, lots of ideas - thanks!

Anonymous said...

only 3 or 4 scripts in how long?

Danny Stack said...

Probably more than 3 or 4, but not that many, and it's been eight years.