Let’s take a fresh look at writing “fresh” subject matter.
Subject matter is key, because there is a tremendous amount of material out there that doesn’t bring something that feels new or unique to the table. There is no fresh take on the material.
Hollywood doesn’t really want something totally new. This is for a couple of reasons. The main one, in my opinion, is that movies are supposed to be for the masses. The masses means your story taps into some archetypal aspect of the human experience and millions of people all over the planet will hopefully want to see your story and find resonance within it. If you’re writing a script about a green alien who comes to the earth to turn the sky pink, then that’s not a fresh take on a universal story and won’t be likely to appeal to those millions of viewers. However, if you’re thinking about writing a story about aliens trapped here on earth who just want to go home and wanted to be treated humanely and not like monsters, as in District 9, then that is something that every human can relate to – even though it’s an alien story.
On an emotional level, and this taps in again to the archetypal experience of being human, we want to feel some resonance and thus comfort within the story world. Even if we go to see a horror, there is something familiar and thus comfortable about the psycho with the knife. We know that the baddie is out there but we also know that within the horror world, the scantily clad girl with the big boobs usually wins. Thus, to my mind, familiarity and audience expectation is a critical component of the “fresh” factor. This is why writing within the genre is critical in screenwriting, because the audience’s subconscious expectations are set immediately when they recognize the genre.
The critical component to writing a screenplay with relevant subject matter and emotional resonance is that the author brings something personal to that story. The writer is telling a universal story expressly from their personal experience of the world. This is why, once we can hone our universal theme, then we can leverage that to bring a fresh and unique perspective to our stories – perhaps a perspective that hasn’t been seen before.
Julie & Julia is a great example of a timeless experience told from a unique and intimate perspective. Within that world, there wasn’t really enough story there on either side for a standalone movie – neither about Julie nor Julia. However, juxtaposing the two women searching for deeper meaning in their lives and marriages beyond simply being a wife and having family brought great relevance and made the Julia story current, relevant and fresh. That project succeeded in its personal, intimate look into the lives of two women.
Simply writing a story because you think it’s cool might not be enough to float a movie. The more you can connect in with the experiences of the characters and personalize it, the better off you’ll be, because that will inherently be unique. However, if you think vampires are cool now so you’ll write a story about vampires, then that might not have the freshness or uniqueness that a great project would demand.
Think carefully and long about what your passions are. What do you dream about? What would you like to experience in life? What are you terrified you’ll never experience? It is our core passions and fears that will drive us to tell great stories. Don’t be afraid to bleed on the page. That will fuel a great character who undergoes a great journey.