There are always the same old stories that make multiple appearances in the spec pile, yet are told by different writers. I call them “Zeitgeist” stories from the German Geist (spirit) and Zeit (time), because frequently it will be something like an anniversary , a particular news story, (and most often) a hit TV show or movie that means writers all come up with the same idea, at the same time.
Zeitgeist stories should not be confused with story archetypes/staples like “fish out of water” comedies or “cops n’ docs” precinct dramas, which are frequently actively desired by agents and producers and by their nature, are broad enough for a writer to put their “stamp” on from the offset. In contrast, Zeitgeist stories are usually very specific and familiar, plus their source can be usually pinpointed quite easily, ie. I see and hear countless scripts and pitches in the style of X MEN about “evolved” humans in a Dystopian future or parallel society, very frequently covering themes of racism, responsibility and/or identity. The issue is not that writers want to tell the story of humans’ evolution or change – and indeed, ALPHAS mines this territory too, as does HEROES – but problems occur when the writer does not bring enough of what’s “different” to those three stories that have already been told.
Contest briefs and deadlines may also create Zeitgeist stories too, as I’ve noted in every London Screenwriters Festival competition I’ve spearheaded: check out The LSF Short Script Challenge 2010, which had lots of submissions focusing around a job interview, due to the nature of its specific brief location and character-wise and Stuart Hazeldine’s EXAM, which was out that year and illustrated very well what writers could do in that kind of brief. Or take a look at the nature of the 4 Nights In August entries, even despite Linda Aronson’s excellent advice BEFORE the deadline on how one’s first idea is hardly ever the best.
Also, as Pitch Me enters its final week, I have already noted no less than three Zeitgeists in this script call: comedies featuring a Grim Reaper character (most likely because of that sitcome REAPER a couple of years ago?); frequently gritty, urban Young Adult drama about issues (like Coming Out, drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse, etc) set against a backdrop of towerblocks and “the street” like iLL MANORS and/or ATTACK THE BLOCK; and supernatural mysteries, often set in a university or underground TORCHWOOD-style team and with an X FILES/AFTERLIFE-style dynamic between the two leads: one “believes” in some way (Christianity, The Other Side, spirituality, etc) and the other is a staunch atheist.
In my experience, writers can be very resistant to being challenged over their ideas, but especially over the notion of the Zeitgeist story. As a result, the same stories pop up again and again, usually because of 4 justifications writers make to themselves:
1) It’s execution that counts. Yes, true – if you get as far as the script read, maybe you have a good chance of persuading the person your pitching it to that your version of the Zeitgeist story is somehow different. But it’s concept that sells at the pitching stage – and if your concept is the same as a stack of others the people you’re pitching it to have heard already, the less likely it is they will be excited about your concept. Not impossible. But less likely. When the odds are already against you, why lengthen them even more?
2) My characters/story is *different*. Of course it is. NO writer would ever say, “my story/character is the same as everything done before in this genre”. Every writer has to believe they have the new take on *something*, else they would never start writing it! But it’s not characters or plot construction that sells scripts remember, it’s the concept behind them as already mentioned … And actually, readers ARE reading the same characters and the same plot constructions in the screenplays themselves AS WELL – hence the number of stock characters and cliched scenarios doing the rounds, ie. If I never read the RomCom character who gets fired to go home to find their partner cheating on them, it will not be a moment too soon. And there’s waaaaaaaay more where that came from. If you don’t believe it, check out your nearest spec script pile.
3) I *need* to tell this story. I get it. You’ve seen a movie or piece of television you totally loved and want to “extend” by adding your story to the mix. And if you can do that by bringing something new to it, then fabulous. But 9/10 those scripts that are very obviously influenced by a well-loved story do not do this. Instead, they just rehash it all over again. I’ve read so many scripts that feel like a love letter written to DR WHO. They might have great moments, good writing, fun characters – but end of the day, they’re just DR WHO, all over again. But we’ve already got DR WHO. Why do we need another one? That’s what it comes down to. I’d wager whoever sold the concept of WIZARDS VERSUS ALIENS loved DR WHO (Update: Apparently it was Russell T Davies! There you go … Thanks SiFoulaReel). But WIZARDS VERSUS ALIENS, whilst clearly influenced by the likes of DR WHO, is *not* just “DR WHO, retold”.
4) Zeitgeists just happen and there’s nothing I can do about it. Except there is … check it out, below.
There’s one thing ALL writers need to do, if they want to get the most out of their ideas, never mind avoid Zeitgeist stories (though that is a handy side effect):
Invest more TIME in your ideas.
No secret formula. No magic tricks. Just give it time.
DON’T lock on to one idea, character and/or story blindly and forge ahead with it just because it “feels right” or “speaks to you”. Really think it over and question whether it works as much as you think it does; consider what your intended AUDIENCE might think of it, too. Google the hell out of your idea; see what has gone before and if there’s anything coming out soon in the same vein (and whether this will add to it or not). Think, what’s different about yours? Write a logline or short pitch, send it to your friends and contacts. See what they think. Write a one page pitch doc; send it to friends and contacts again. Rewrite it. Get as many opinions as possible. If there’s problems with it, work out if you can iron them out … And if you can’t GET RID and move on to the next one. Be ruthless.
Make your ideas work hard – and you won’t ever have to work hard to pull your script or novel *back* from the latest Zeitgeist. Instead, it will be the one CREATING that Zeitgeist. Gotta be good.
So invest your time and ask yourself: is there another way of looking at this concept? Or another way to tell this story? Or for this plot to be constructed? Or this character to react, desire his/her goal or simply *be*?
And most important: if anyone asks why your story, character or plot isn’t another way and you find yourself asserting it “can’t” … Ask yourself WHY it can’t.
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