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Screenwriting Technique #4 – 10 Story Techniques You Must Use to Sell Your Script
The key question all writers should ask themselves is: how do you write a script that Hollywood wants to buy? Most writers mistakenly think that success is all about connections and star power. Not so. The real trick to writing a script that will sell is to know and use Hollywood’s central marketing strategy. And that can be summed up in one word: genres.
The former president of Universal Pictures, Marc Shmuger, recently said: “There is no doubt that the star system is in transformation. Probably the two biggest stars in the first half of 2009 were Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and Liam Neeson (Taken) … It is a significant change in the meaning of star power and a change to the first that is placed on the concept and the genre.
Shmuger tells any writer who is smart enough to hear the first rule of the entertainment business worldwide: buy and sell genres. Genres are story forms and each has 8-15 special story beats (story events) that make up the form. The reason Hollywood marketing is based on genre is that executives sell to a worldwide audience. People around the world love particular kinds of stories that speak to their deepest desires. I want to tell you 10 story techniques that should be in your script if you want the best chance of selling in a business dominated by genre.
1. Know the 10 most popular genres.
Step 1 to writing a script that Hollywood wants to buy is to know the 10 most popular story forms. If you write a script that is not based on one or more of these genres, your chances of a sale go down. They are Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.
2. Combine 2 or 3 genres.
In the genre-focused entertainment business, the most important story strategy today is to mix genres. 99% of the movies made, not only in Hollywood, but all over the world, are a combination of the ten most popular genres. For what? It all comes back to that old sales rule: give the customer 2 or 3 for the price of 1. This, in a nutshell, is how Hollywood works.
Let me give you some examples. The super-popular Twilight movies are horror + fantasy. The Bourne movies are action + thriller. Knocked Up is comedy + love. Little Miss Sunshine is myth + comedy. Titanic, the most popular movie of all time, is love + disaster movie + myth. The Dark Knight is crime + myth + fantasy. The Harry Potter stories, the most famous books of all time, are fantasy + myth + horror + coming-of-age drama. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are fantasy + action + horror + myth.
3. Find the right genre for the story idea.
The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you develop your premise, or story idea. The decision is: what genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because his original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1 line idea to a 2 hour, 120 page script.
Each genre will take a story idea in radically different directions. So when writers choose the wrong genres to develop their idea, the result is not only a lot of bad scripts, but also the loss of thousands of great story ideas. Since you can use several genres to develop the same idea, the key question is: which are the right ones? The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the idea of the story itself. You need to dig into the premise and find the genres inherent in that idea. Instead of trying to copy a popular movie of the past, you need to find what is original, what is organic to your story. One of the powers of genre is that the right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses.
In my genre classes, I talk a lot about techniques for digging into your premise and finding the best genres for you. One of them is to focus on the line of desire, one of the seven major steps of the structure of the story. It turns out that each gender has a unique, predetermined line of desire. For example, the desire Crime is to catch a criminal. Detective is to find the truth. The horror is to defeat a monster. For love, is to find love. The myth is to go on a journey, ultimately leading to yourself. Find out the purpose of your hero and see if it matches the desire of any of the main genres.
4. Use myth as one of your genres.
Because Hollywood only wants scripts with blockbuster potential, your story must be popular in more than 100 different cultures and nationalities. That’s a lot of communication barriers to cross. Unfortunately, most writers don’t know which genres work well and which don’t. For example, comedy based mainly on funny dialogue will not work. The myth, on the other hand, likes to travel. This is why the myth is found in more blockbusters by far than any other form.
The myth is the oldest of the 10 most popular film genres, and it is surprisingly complex, with 15 special story beats. But the boy is popular. Try to add the box office of these movies based on the myth: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek, Star Wars and The Lion King.
5. Combine the myth with one or two other genres.
While myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it almost never stands alone. It’s not just because Hollywood wants to give people 2 or 3 genres for the price of one. It has to do with the deep weaknesses found in the form itself. The form of myth is thousands of years old. And it has a very episodic structure, so it can grow tired and wane in the middle of the story. The best professional screenwriters know this, which is why they always add 1 or 2 other genres to modernize the myth form and overcome its episodic quality.
6. Make a primary gender.
Screenwriters who are smart enough to study Hollywood as a business know that it’s about combining genres. Where they sometimes go wrong is in execution. It’s one thing to say, “Take 2 or 3 story forms and put them together into a seamless whole.” It’s another thing to do well. Combining genres is more difficult than it seems, because of what it does to the structure of the story under the surface. Each genre has a default hero, antagonist, wish line, thematic focus, etc. This is why most writers who combine genres end up with a structural mess. They have too many heroes, wish lines, adversaries, themes and story beats. Any one of these structural mistakes will kill a script, so imagine what happens if you make them all.
When mixing genres, the key is to make a form the primary. This will give you your hero, a single wish line, a single story line and the most important single story beats. Then put in other genre elements where they fit, thus amplifying the primary form.
7. If you are writing a screenplay for an indie film, write horror, thriller, or romance.
One of the best ways to break in and separate yourself from the thousands of other writers around the world is to write and make your own film. Of course, this needs to keep costs to a minimum. And the cheapest genres to shoot are horror, thriller and romance. These genres require fewer actors, sets and special effects. Of these, horror is the most popular in the world. But the most important determinants of which genres you use for your indie film are which genres are best for your story idea and which genres are best to write.
8. Hit all the genre beats.
Blockbuster movie writers always know their genres so well that they hit every single story beat unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues”. And it is absolutely essential or the audience will feel cheated. Remember, they are here to show the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they want. And that means, knowing how your genre works under the surface, in the structure, where the real story work is done.
9. Be original, transcend the genre.
It may come as a surprise that the biggest reason a reader rejects a script is because it’s “derivative.” It’s a fancy way of saying that the writer beat all the beats of the genre, but nothing else. Readers have read scripts of every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying dues”.
That is why professional writers are not only hitting all the beats of the genre, but making the beats in an original way. This is known as transcending gender. And you simply cannot succeed if you do not transcend the genres in which you are working. Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for how to do this for all genres. The transcendent gender is different for each form. In the 1-day class I teach in each genre, I spend a lot of time on exactly how to do this. Transcending depends on the rhythms of the story that are unique to your form. It is also necessary to study the best films in your form to know what has already been done.
10. Be honest with yourself, and specialize in the forms that are right for you.
Genres are extremely powerful structural tools for a screenwriter, and they are the key to your success in the entertainment business. But they are complex story systems. I don’t know a single professional screenwriter who has mastered more than 2 or 3 of them. That’s why it’s so important that you take an honest look at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Determine which genre highlights your strengths and express the themes you believe in. Then apply with laser-like focus to master these forms. When you let the genres do the hard story work, and focus on writing in an original way, you’ll be amazed at how good, and how successful, your scripts will be.
For more screenwriting techniques, go to http://www.truby.com.
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