How to Create a New Screenplay with Old Elements

By January 23, 2015Screenwriting 101
Everything under the sun has been done. It doesn't matter if the Bible says it or a seasoned screenwriter says it, it still holds true. There aren't any new story concepts, but there can be new and different ways of tackling them. Whether it's the 'boy-meets-girl' story, the 'vengeful warrior' story, or the 'we have to save the world because no one else can!' story, every tried and true story type can be made fresh and new if the writer using them puts their own creative spin on them.
Some helpful things to remember when attempting to create your own fresh screenplay with a familiar story-type:
Experience It or Research It Thoroughly
The reason there are so many familiar stories that keep getting screenplay treatments is that they are relatable story types that people can identify with. Lots of people have had unrequited loves and buddy adventures and they can put themselves in the shoes of characters they see in a screenplay or on a movie screen that experience the same things. The differentiating factor of every film that gets produced is the writer and the director's take on the story they're exploring. But many times, the writers and directors have lived or researched the stories they intend to convey through a film. 
It gives legitimacy to the writer's romantic comedy, for example, when they can say that they've experienced a situation that lends itself well to the plot of a rom-com. The same is true for writers who research topics and characters similar to the ones they intend to portray in their movie. When Tony Kushner adapted Doris Kearns Goodwin's book to pen Lincoln, both writers researched our sixteenth president extensively. According to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, research drives inspiration. The events chronicled in history books, news articles and interviews lend themselves well to helping a writer come up with scene ideas for their own screenplays. Life experiences and experiences of other people gathered from research can help set your script apart from anyone in the deadly arena of script optioning.
Put A New Spin On It
Writer Simon Rich, who has worked mostly in print publications and television, likes to tackle mundane story situations with different elements and perspectives. In his book of short stories The Last Girlfriend on Earth, Rich tells the familiar tale of a boy trying to lose his virginity. There are several American Pie movies, let alone stand alone movies, with that same premise. But Rich makes the old story interesting by telling it from the perspective of the condom in the young man's wallet.
When creating your personal or thoroughly researched story ideas, come at them from your own fresh perspective. Come up with ideas that might feel mismatched to your story idea and do something you believe is cool and interesting with them. The originality starts with the fact that you are the one writing it. No one has ever written your screenplay with your stories before. So be the first.
Write It For Its Time and Setting
It's important to effectively write the screenplay so that it reads and feels like the time and space it's supposed to be set in. This step is actually putting your learned knowledge and/or experiences to practice in writing your screenplay. Give the characters unique voices and write them the way you imagine they sound, not so much like you think other people would expect them to sound. That way, they are original to you and are realistic representations of familiar characters that you're conveying to be in a certain time and place. 
Give Nods to Similar Screenplays 
It's ok to be a fan of tropes, genres, character types and situations. But it's very noticeable when people copy their favorite things from older movies. So to include your favorite things from other screenplays without copying them, give nods to them. Pay homage. Do similar things without doing the same things as your favorites. Of course, this is if you want to give credit to these other stories.
Simon Rich heads the team that develops the show Man Seeking Woman. It can be called a romantic sit-com, but it has fantastical elements from Science Fiction. He is influenced by some of his favorite shows like The Twilight Zone, but also shows like Seinfeld, and mixes elements of both to create his own unique series. The Simpsons mixed comedy and Sci-Fi all the time. There's a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock's The Birds where an old man fruitlessly tries to deal with the onslaught of birds from inside a telephone booth. That scene wasn't word-for-word or shot-for-shot in The Birds, but it was clearly using elements from it to enhance it. Don't be afraid to use elements from your favorite familiar things to do something new in your screenplay. 
Who knows? Your new screenplay with old elements might become someone else's favorite one day.