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Selling Your Screenplay: A Screenwriter's Guide to Story Types, Genres, and Target Audience

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:

1. In any genre, write stories that are 'cutting edge,' without going too far and becoming mindlessly or unrealistically bizarre, infantile, vulgar, bloody, perverse, or contrived.

2. Choose the title of your story very carefully, so that the reader instantly knows some small part of the tale, or some detail that tells him the genre and type of film it is.

3. Look at your budget concerns for the film you are writing before you begin and then write the genre script according to the industry level at which you honestly feel you will sell it.

4. So called 'new' genres come and go all the time---such as the 'teen sex romp,' the 'torture flick,' the 'urban ethnic crime story,' or 'gay and lesbian' films. Don't necessarily try to invent one of these, but cash in on the gold rush by applying time tested story techniques to current sensibilities when opportunity arises. (Some writers won't write 'torture flicks,' but you might write a 'torture flick satire' and do well.)

5. Know the 'rules' of your genre. 'Nuff said there.

6. When dealing with filmmakers and producers who specialize in a certain genre, like martial arts or rap films, let the buyer be the expert in the lifestyle, lingo and subculture aspects. You be the expert in telling a screen story and creating scripts.

7. For new stories in old genres, such as a 'new' zombie film, look for ways to add your own creative touch within the confines of that type of story, so the product seems fresh and inventive to jaded producers and audiences. In other words, do something different with tired, worn out genres, either in the story premise or the execution of elements within the story. This gets sales potential points every time.

8. Keep track in your own thoughts of the level of consumer popularity for each genre you see in current films. Are teen comedies hotter than family films? Are dark, bloody film stories finally losing their audience? Everyone does this anyway, but make a habit of knowing what's selling in general.

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.


Want to learn more? Take an online course in Screenwriting.

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:
Act One: About 30 pages in a 90 page script, this act needs to introduce the premise or situation, introduce the main characters and setting, and establish the protagonist's problem or conflict. So, the audience needs to meet the main character and find out what his problem is---it can be anything from his obsession with a great white whale, to the loss of a lover, etc. In a modern script your first ten pages need to bring some sort of compelling or immediate 'incident,' that starts the ball rolling. By page 30, at the end of this act, you reach a high point at which another event that's more dramatic than what has proceeded changes everything or moves things forward more dramatically to set up act two.
Act Two: This is the middle part, for another 30 pages or so. Some writers find act two the most challenging, because you have to hold the audience's interest and you haven't reached the big finish yet. In this part, the hero has his goal or problem. The other roles, including the 'bad guy,' are interacting and doing their thing and now is your chance to explore character. Basically what the writer needs to do is complicate matters, escalate the conflict, and add layers of complexity that move things forward in an appealing way. There can be minor high points, revelations, and subplots along the way here, but at the end of this act, you pull the same trick you did at the end of the first act and drop a bomb on your story at about page 60---another high-point or more dramatic event that changes things significantly enough that the third act is now something the audience is on the edge of their seats to see.
Act Three: If you've done the other two acts well, events in your third act will flow organically from all that's happened in your story so far. This can be thought of as a 'race to the finish line,' which applies more to action type stories than comedies and romance stories, but still works for most anything. Your hero has been cruising along with his goal for 60 pages. The writer now needs to bring all elements forward toward a conclusive high point. Action, conflict, relationships, and dilemma escalate. Things get worse before they get better. Finally, right about your last ten or 15 pages, the solution is revealed. Obviously this is over simplified, and any story will have different kinds of events happening. But loose ends are resolved, puzzles are solved, the bad guy gets his due, and the hero gets the girl. You've probably seen this a hundred times in films you've enjoyed, so you know what's meant here. The conclusion needs to be satisfying and complete, and the final moments of your story provide opportunity for any character growth or new insights your characters have learned from all this to be shown. Thus, the end.
That's a very brief look at the traditional Three Act Structure for screen stories. We're only talking about plot here, not theme, character development, technique, or more sublime elements. Other story aspects you will want to understand before you start out are the story premise (such as high concept stories), the character driven story, and things like how comedy works, how action works, and so on. But for the beginner, your grasp of the Three Act Structure will be your best friend on your voyage as a writer---if you use it well, your writing will be easier, you'll know if you're on track, you'll be able to clearly see how each part of your script is working, and you'll be able to submit scripts that meet the expectations of experienced producers and studios. Before you even start writing your script, outline each act, event by event, with the Three Act Structure as your guide, and you'll see how easy it is to create your sales winning screen story.
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