Before You Begin
Once you examine the Write What You Live, Learn, and Love trifecta, it’s important to be conscious of three fundamental keys before you begin story development:
Understand the Rules of Your Genre
Write to Audience Expectations
Embrace Your Genre
If you're writing a screenplay, most probably it's because you love movies, but there are few people who love all genres, and that's okay. Really try hard to figure out who you are – action, drama, rom-com – and be that. Don't attempt to become a master in every genre. You will only end up becoming mediocre in them all.
If you’re a sci-fi guy, for example, be that. Be proud. But be the best sci-fi guy possible. And never take a day off. Become a master mechanic of everything sci-fi. Learn about sci-fi characters, stories, and structure. Become familiar with every element specific to the sci-fi genre. But most importantly, you must understand the sci-fi audience.
Understand Your Audience
Understanding your audience is essential. All good writers (reporters, cartoonists, novelists, and the like) craft their work with the audience in mind. Even Shakespeare wrote to an audience—from the poor, illiterate goundlings to the privileged lords and gentlemen of high society—and he used an array of devices to connect and involve that wide audience with his plays.
This is your job as well. And why? Because the audience is your customer, and you must write to that customer—Always! The screenwriter who ignores the audience will struggle to find sellable success. We don’t make movies for one person. We make them for the masses, the many, the mob—sometimes the general universal audience and sometimes a specific one—but ultimately, without the audience, there is nothing: no film, no script, no screenwriter.
When it comes to screenwriting, you don’t necessarily need an original idea to be successful. How many times have we seen Romeo and Juliet? Hundreds? Thousands? James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) is really just Romeo and Juliet on a boat.
It’s a simple story really. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from opposite sides of the tracks. Families hate each other. But despite everything, they fall in love. Shakespeare takes them to a tragic end, but there’s no rule that you have to. And if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you sure as hell better end happily. The audience demands it.
It’s wonderful if you do have an original idea, a plot we’ve never seen before, but don’t feel as if you must reinvent the wheel.
The trick to writing an original story comes with changing the world while incorporating unforgettable characters: Romeo and Juliet as divorced ex-starship trooper marines working for competing deep sea oil companies on a new mineral rich planet, living within an underwater city at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the known universe.
Take Avatar (2009), for example. It’s just Dances with Wolves (1990) in space, which is Pocahontas (1995) on the Western Frontier.
Same story… different everything else. Your originality comes in “the everything” else.
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.