Screenwriting Basics: Subject Matter

For me as a reader, when I am evaluating projects – and especially in evaluating another writer – subject matter is very important. Quality of writing aside, the choice of what that writer has decided to invest a year’s time (or thereabout) into can tell me a lot about that individual – and whether or not I am going to fight for that writer’s cause. Even if the quality of prose is outstanding, if the subject matter is bizarre or fundamentally not commercially viable, I won’t recommend it. There probably are some readers who will – but, for me, at the end of the day, we’re trying to write films. Movies. Movies that will be seen, hopefully, by millions of people. Bizarre, obscure subject matter doesn’t generally translate into millions of viewers. So, I would then wonder if the small, obscure subject matter wouldn’t be better served in another format – story, novel, play. And, then, that decision would reflect upon my opinion of the writer: why wasn’t this writer aware enough to know that he was really writing a play or a novel and not a film?

So, it begs the question, what’s worth writing about?

“Cinematic”
What makes one story fundamentally cinematic and another not? Another way of looking at this is: what makes a story worthy of the big screen, millions of viewers and millions of dollars? Sometimes I will read a script that, in terms of subject matter, might seem that it would be movie-worthy, but it is not executed as such – while I’ll read another project that wouldn’t seem cinematic in the least, but yet it leaps off the page in a larger-than-life way. There is a bit of a gray zone in terms of cinematic appeal.

“Cinematic” contains two unmistakable elements that work together hand in hand: the vessel of story illuminates the human experience in a way that’s larger than life. The “larger than life” component for me is key to filmmaking because a theatrical screening of a film is literally physically larger than life, the actors themselves are somehow superhuman (which is why we call them “stars”), the production takes large sums of money to put together and an army of people working behind the scenes to create, produce, and deliver this content to the public. Movies are larger than life. And all good stories on some level illuminate the human experience. They touch us in ways we’ve never been touched before. They make us feel the best and worst parts of ourselves. They make us laugh, they make us cry – they make us feel. In a way that is emotionally resonant and connecting, they remind us what it is to be human.

“High Concept”
“High concept” is an expression that basically means pitchable in ten seconds or less. We were given a glowing example of this in film school when a male manager swaggered in and instructed us that the ultimate high-concept, pitchable project was, “Chick grows a cock.” And he laughed. My friend and I looked at each other and mouthed, “gross.” But, that’s an idea that has a built-in audience of frat boys. A lot of broad comedies fall into this category. Political thrillers tend not to.

If you can sum up the whole spirit, genre, tone and idea of something in a few words, or a title, then it is very likely the project is extremely high concept. The industry likes high-concept projects because they can get on the phone and rally people in ten seconds. High concept pieces tend to be easier to sell and easier to market.

I tend to love high concept scripts – so long as there’s good writing to support them.

Mass Communication
Films are for the masses. It’s a mass-communication medium. Big crews, big dollars, big rewards. Communication to the masses is more successful when it deals with universal themes that affect and touch the lives of every human being. Or, a writer can take something relatively obscure and unique and treat it in a way that is very universal so that it becomes relatable to the masses. Do not assume that if you write the most random and non-sequitur story on the planet, you will win points. You won’t – because that doesn’t shout “masses” from the rooftops.

I read a script not too long ago wherein at page 80 the female protagonist *poof* disappeared – and a male protagonist reappeared. I read for about 10 pages before I flipped back and was very confused about what had happened to the woman. I liked the female protagonist, she was interesting, I was invested in her. I did not like it, on page 60, there was seemingly a completely new protagonist, a man about whom I knew absolutely nothing and had no investment. This new character appeared to be her brother. So, I flipped forward, and my female protagonist never returned. I was hopelessly confused. Miffed, I kept reading. It was only well after page 100 that I finally understood that the protagonist had had a sex change, took on a male identity (that of her own “brother”), and was now living as a man. However, since this wasn’t explained clearly on the page, I was lost. And, also, thought, “What the hell?” There was absolutely nothing in the previous 60 pages that motivated or established the protagonist to need a sex change. The story itself didn’t really require her to have a sex change. So I felt as though I had been evacuated into another movie. I just felt that this subject matter was so incredibly obscure and bizarre – to what end? I didn’t get it at all, and I didn’t feel this type of material would have any broad appeal. Despite the fact that the writing was relatively good, I didn’t recommend this project because of the incredibly bizarre, contrived and unrelatable subject matter that hadn’t been properly established enough in order to motivate those extraordinary circumstances.

Work To Win Over the Reader
A high-concept script that makes me laugh just from the title or the first page will quickly get my respect. This is because it’s difficult to come up with really funny concepts that are easily communicated. Even if this script starts to fizzle on page 20, the writer has already won my respect – and the project would be a good candidate for a rewrite. Conversely, if a project is meandering at page 20 (i.e., by page 20, I’m not sure yet what the story is) and without any sort of pitchable concept, that writer won’t have won me over and the script will likely be a resounding pass.

Some writers have an intuitive, innate sense of what makes a compelling story. Some writers do not. If you are a writer that does not have an innate sense of externalized dramatic conflict with life-or-death stakes, then study up. Teach yourself by studying other films. Learn how to compensate for your weaknesses. Pitch ideas to your writing colleagues and get feedback. It makes me very sad when I read a project that a writer has obviously worked very hard on only to think, “What the hell?” I would just love to ask them why. Why did they spend so much time writing something that isn’t going to help them or their career? I can only assume it’s because they don’t yet know what will help them. But, don’t despair – you can learn!

The Living Story
I read a script a couple of days ago for a competition, and it hung with me. I hadn’t yet submitted the score, and when I did, I realized that the script had touched me very deeply – and so I gave it a strong recommend, and actually wrote in the notes that the script was an emphatic “recommend” and that I “loved it.” I said that I would fight for this project and writer, and hoped to see him/her in the quarterfinals. This project was about elderly women who go on a road trip. This subject matter isn’t an immediate sparkle.

However, it was really well written: I laughed, I cried (twice), and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – after that, I saw Oscars for this writer. With the right nurturance, that project could be a very funny but moving drama that could win awards. A road trip movie doesn’t automatically have huge dramatic stakes – but the writer of this project was able to create those stakes through the characters and in making specific choices. With my very positive notes on this project, I would be surprised if this project doesn’t get to the quarterfinals (I’ll let you know).

It is an odd thing to read a script that takes on a life of its own. These characters hang about me like ghosts in a dense fog. I carry them with me. They feel like long lost friends. It is very rare to read something that comes to life in such a way. It is very rare to read something that is so touching, so emotionally compelling, or that sparks so vividly. This is what every reader seeks out: a script we can fight for. Something to believe in. Something that gives us hope – both for our own writing and the creative process overall.

Watch Out for “Slice of Life”
It’s very hard for stories that are “slice of life” – and only that – to be cinematically viable. Stories that reflect the daily grind – and only that – are hard, because they’re in life, about life – they leave out the “larger than” component. There is very little about the average person’s real daily experience that would warrant a film made about it. I think slice of life stories can be told and still be cinematic, but then there needs to be elements of the character that are larger than life. And there still need to be life and death dramatic stakes involved, or something that the characters feel life-or-death passion about. Because, if you don’t have dramatic conflict in the story, nor in the characters, likely you don’t have enough content to make your story cinema-ready.

Do Not Wrap a Stage Play in a Bow and Call It a Film
I personally tend to really not like scripts that could be stage plays. I don’t like those movies when I see them, and I don’t like the scripts when I read them. I love the theatre, and if a writer wants to write a play, they should do that. Don’t try to shove your chatty play into a movie structure. They are two different mediums, and they do not overlap in most cases. It is very difficult to set a film in one location and build enough dramatic stakes to fuel an interesting movie.

Part of that larger than life quality comes from the fact that the camera moves. We want to see the camera move because we want to be taken to places that we probably wouldn’t go in our daily life. If your story takes place at one bar and one apartment, that sounds to me like a stage play. Write it as a play. Conversely, if within the first 10 pages of your story, your character is in Siberia, China, and Monte Carlo (such as James Bond might be), then it’s not a play. It’s a movie. This is also why TV comedies are moving away from the multi-camera format and toward the single camera. It’s hard to just have people talking on one set and keep that interesting. In the modern world, we tend to get around more than just the living room, and our stories should reflect that.

I once read a project that was set in New York at a bar, and most of the story (like 80%) took place at the bar. People were talking at a bar. There was some light chit-chat, some light flirtation – but absolutely nothing that resembled a movie in any regard. I was really baffled why that person even thought their idea was cinematic. Frankly, my own daily life is much more interesting to me than that story was.

Do Your Research: Don’t Write Something That’s Already Been Produced
Study up. Know your genre. Know what’s been produced in the field. Read the trades to see what’s selling. There is absolutely no point in writing a spec script that is a worse version of something that’s in theatres or on TV right now. That is a complete waste of everyone’s time. For more detailed information on this, read my post on “The Logical World.”

It’s Not “New” – It’s “Fresh”
We’re not recreating the wheel. There is that adage that no story is new. I believe this, because most (if not all) elements of the human experience have been experienced already. I’m not inventing love – but I can write about the experience of love from my own personal experience. My experience and perceptions about love might very well be completely different than yours, and in that, there would be an illumination there about that universal experience. We’re looking for stories that illuminate the universal condition of humanity, but illuminate in a unique way that we haven’t necessarily seen before.

We’re not working to write something new. We’re working to illuminate the human experience in a way that is fresh, feels new, and is unique to us, to our experience, to our voice.

I personally don’t want to read old material (something I’ve seen or read before) that is written in an old way. I absolutely need the writer to bring something new, fresh or unique to the table. The newness could be in terms of subject matter, character, plotting, device, tone. Yet, something about the project has to have some sparkle.

There is no shame in writing a reinterpretation of something that’s been made already. In fact, now that I’ve seen more movies, I’ve come to believe that most movies are actually remakes. Most new releases are actually reinterpretations of classic films from generations gone by. Just as many books are reinterpretations of other stories. But, if you’re going to do a reinterpretation, then personalize it, make it fresh and current and relevant to today’s audiences.

My biggest complaint in this area is seeing a retelling of a story we’ve seen a million times over. I read a lot of scripts that very easily fall into the “Law and Order” field. There is some type of detective story, and we get an investigation, but it never rises above the bar set by “Law and Order,” which has been on the air now for 20 years. If you’re going to write an investigative thriller that involves the police or district attorneys, it has to offer more on the character side and also on the investigative side than we already get free on the TV every week.

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