Thursday, February 07, 2008

Story Vault: Spec Notes

Tax. Eugh. To paraphrase The Royal Tenenbaums: "Tax isn't a word. It's a sentence." Maybe that should be Adam Hart-Davies new slogan, rather than: "Tax doesn't have to be taxing", which is just nonsense. Anyway, despite the typical stress that the end of January usually brings, I haven't done too bad, mainly thanks to having a sooper-doooper accountant who can point out what a doofus I am when it comes to crunching the numbers. So yes, glad that's all taken care of, sweet.

Got a lot on at the moment so while I get bizzy with the jizzy, let's hark back to this time last year, and a post about 'Spec Notes' (a version of which also appeared in Scriptwriter Magazine, ooh). I thought it might be interesting to revisit this particular post, as the type of scripts I talk about usually end up winning script competitions, as witnessed recently with the announcement of the Red Planet Prize. Hmm, interesting...


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 or 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.



sam morrison said...

"bizzy with the jizzy"?

Danny Stack said...

I know, I know, I'm losing it...

Lucy said...

It's still there. Unless you mean you're losing your MIND?

Gave me and my knackered ribs a laugh tho, thanks Danny. And damn you. Ouch!

Danny Stack said...

Hope you're feeling better, Lucy! Sounds like a nasty fall...

Lucy said...

Thanks Danny! I'm fine really. I have ibuprofen cocktails, a hot water bottle and tape to hold me together, along with a big pink Duracell Bunny... Oh no, wait, that *might* be a hallucination. Yeah there's no water bottle.

terraling said...

Re: chosing unfamiliar locatios, I'd say it depends on whether you are writing the spec with the expectation that it might get made or whether it is a calling card to get other work. If you are hoping that it might get made you'd probably best stick to easy locations. The project which I am working on takes place in Africa, the US and UK. Although I really want it to get made (BBC/HBO co-production will do nicely, thanks) I am very conscious of how it limits the marketability of the script. (I vaguely recall it ruled it out of the red planet competition for example.)

martin said...

Consider your self memed!

(and belated congrats on the shortlisting!)