Selling Your Screenplay: A Screenwriter's Guide to Story Types, Genres, and Target Audience
Writers need to be creative and original. Screenwriters who have been around the block a few times, may have learned that 'new' doesn't really mean 'new' when it applies to Hollywood type stories. It may be tough to face up to, but you can pour your heart and soul into a story you absolutely love, something you saw in a dream or a vision, something you feel the world needs to hear about, something vital and life changing---and a large percentage of film producers and companies will hardly look at it. Why? It's complex, socially, but from a business point of view, there's a certain sense to it. Such and such a film worked in the past and made a lot of money---so write me 'the same, but different.' No need to be creative with all your ideas, just imitate success. Because at all levels of the film business, it's the bucks that bounce the brightest.
So, if you're a devoted literary mimic and conformist, you'll do well in those waters. Of course most writers loathe conformity, though they may borrow styles and ideas a lot more than they admit. For this article, then, the main idea is how to recognize and achieve what's needed in marketing some of the film story genres that you might be more likely to work on, while your magnum opus masterwork waits for the right opportunity. A big part of this is not just learning to write a crime, martial arts, horror, or teen comedy story---it's about being skilled enough to do solid work in any of those and about knowing how to propose your original script to the right buyer.
These are film 'genres,' which means they're stories we're familiar with in one form or another---story types we recognize. Whatever script you write on your own, the buyer will ask what genre it is. Unless you are particularly inventive, which again is not always the best for your career at this point, your answer will be that your script is science fiction, drama, comedy, an urban film, a period piece, a war film, a family film, even a western or animation. A common trick is to explain your story as a combination of 'Ghost'-meets-'Swingers,' or 'Star Wars'-meets-'White Men Can't Jump,' and so on. But in every instance, your script is going to be bringing something to the table that the buyer recognizes, because the first goal for them (usually) is how your film will play in the consumer market.
There are some simple things you can do in your search for a buyer. First of all, if you hear about a company searching for a science fiction script (maybe on some message board), don't send them your teen comedy and suggest you can rewrite it to take place on the moon. Also, when you run into a company looking for scripts, check them out, do your research on their background and credits, and find out what kind of script genres they have done in the past. The same applies to directors, producers, and even actors.
You also want to be really familiar with what's being done in your genre. The basic rules of story and plot will apply to most of your scripts, but if you get a 'for hire' job to write a crime story and you produce a script that reads like 'Bambi,' you've got a problem and so will your client. In this sense, many writers will specialize in one particular genre they're good at. They consciously or unconsciously fall into writing action stories, for example, and then have the chance to become known for this type, with a resume to prove it. True, a real professional could be hired for any kind of story and would probably do a good job. But as a beginner, you load the dice your own way by doing really top work at something you are especially good at.
Here are some tips for matching your script to the right buyer:
Selling your script means finding the right situation, with the right company, individual who will read it, price, budget---and the right genre. You'll get more sales by staying 'in genre.'
This isn't about how you write for genre---it's about how you market and sell for genre. There's no shame in solid genre writing, but there are some paychecks for you if you do it well.
MASTERING PLOT, STORY, AND BASIC THREE ACT STRUCTURE
Unless you're an archaeologist from the year 3,033 A.D. who has somehow dug up this manuscript from under a petrified lava flow, you're probably already interested in stories, films, and drama in general. This isn't surprising---in the modern world, most people are exposed to thousands of stories in the powerful forms of TV and movies. So, in writing briefly about how to make sure your film story plot is working at the highest level, the wisdom here is that you already know, deep down, when it's working and when it's not. Improving your story writing is a process of letting go of the egotistical denial you may have about 'when it's not.'
Over the ages, story review has developed to a point where the way a successful story plays out has been thoroughly analyzed. Some would say over analyzed. If you want to be in the screenwriting business, you want to know these guideposts and summary rules, so that your stories are written more easily.
The plot is essentially a series of events. This happens, then that happens, then that happens, and so on. In any story, those events will be specific to what it's all about. Likewise, in any story that's working at an optimum level, those events will have levels of interest (excitement, impact, seriousness, etc.) in a pattern that is known (and which you as the writer can use) to hold the audience's interest. So the only question is---what is this pattern?
Perhaps because a 90 minute feature screenplay is at least long enough to be written this way, (unlike a short story), your simplest and best guide (or 'story pattern') is called the Three Act Structure. There's a lot of debate about different variations on this form, but most writers would agree it's a solid starting point for understanding a story or dramatic presentation of this length, if only for convenience.
We've all read stories we have been fond of or seen favorite movies we love. Although you may not be aware of it, those works we might consider superior almost always take the audience on a fictional journey in which there is a beginning, a conflict or problem of some kind, a middle that features ongoing difficulties or developments, and a concluding portion in which the conflict reaches a high point and is resolved. It's easy if you look at it this way.
Within those parts are the kernels of story truth that make up your three acts. Without dwelling on endless details, here is a brief description of what each act should accomplish:
- How to Create Realistic Dialogue in Your Screenplay
- A Screenwriters Knowledge Database: Markets, Current Trends, and Where Beginners Fit In
- Screenwriting Strategies: How to Write Original Content
- The Awful Truth About Screenwriting - Get the Facts
- How to Develop Believable Characters in a Screenplay
- Humor Writing Strategies: The Importance of Starting and Maintaining Your Comedy Journal
- Determining Appropriate Level of Technical Writing
- Novel Writing Help: Tips for Developing Great Characters
- Do You Have What it Takes to be a Good Technical Writer?
- How to Release and Embrace Your Writer's Personality
- Developing Good Project Management Skills as a Technical Writer
- Novel Writing Help: Choose the Best Method for Writing and Completing Your Manuscript
- How to Write Great and Memorable Settings and Descriptions in Children Short Stories
- How to Develop Great Characters in Your Short Story
- Proofreading Help: How to Use Proofreaders' Marks