Updated for 2017

1

Cliches + Stereotypes = BORING

When I started script reading, everyone was writing very “worthy”, very personal psychological dramas where generally everybody died or was at least miserable as Hell and in the grip of addiction, terrible family situations and/or contemplating suicide.

Some were well written; some were not … But look into any spec pile and that’s what you’d see rising to the top. And many years on now, you’ll still find a good number of them – it’s one of those things that never goes away, it seems.

You see, great drama is not ‘depressing’, but DEVASTATING – that’s how it pushes boundaries and expectations, as I mention in my Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays book. There’s a key difference between what you find in the spec pile, versus what you see produced.

Whilst I love produced dramas like Sweet Sixteen and Harsh Times, it’s rare that I see a spec drama that measures up. Instead, spec drama will be highly clichéd and familiar, bringing forth images that don’t feel relevant anymore. They *feel* like “movies of movies”, not authentic, truthful, “real life”.

Low Budget

LOTS of writers are under the mistaken belief that a low budget drama is a good bet in terms of getting something produced. It’s not.

So whilst drama might seem like a good bet because it’s low budget, chances are, even the best written drama spec will not get a look-in, never mind one that is familiar.It’s just as hard to get noticed writing spec depressing drama NOW as it was back then – if anything, it’s more difficult, since distributors are interested in genre film these days.

So my advice would be: Make the drama feature yourself, by all means. Do the festival circuit, win all the awards. Be my guest!!! But to do that, make sure you have a really, really REALLY authentic concept, with a script that is full of emotional truth and resonance, that will appeal to the best actors available. (In other words, NOT something cheesy, stale or familiar!).

Otherwise, think very carefully before investing your time in writing a drama as a sample screenplay, because there’s every chance readers will have overload.

2

Same-Old, Same-Old

And whilst we’re on the subject of overload, here’s the current genres that make me groan as soon as I soon as I get them: Science Fiction & Fantasy. Not because I don’t like them, but because I simply see it, over and over and over and over again, usually like this:

  • 60 minute TV Pilots, plus series bible
  • Sci Fi or Fantasy for an adult audience (post watershed, 9PM, weeknight on a “main” channel)
  • Rehashed Story I’ve seen a gazillion times before (supernatural detectives like X Files or Afterlife; Evolved superbeings like X Men; Dr Who-style Time Travellers; or an underground team tasked with sorting out phenomena and/or invasions etc like Torchwood)

Switch it up

I hear SF fans frequently complaining it’s hard to get taken seriously: *if* it is, it’s not because they’re writing Science Fiction … Because EVERYONE seems to be writing Science Fiction!

And they’re all writing it in the same way (TV pilots); FOR the same audience (post-watershed, 9PM weeknights); about the SAME THINGS (rehashed stories).

What’s wrong with feature scripts?

Or a different audience, say children or young adults, on a different channel?

AND WHY THE HELL ARE READERS READING THE SAME STORIES ABOUT THE SAME CHARACTERS DOING THE SAME THINGS??? ‘Cos we are.

Get noticed like this …

Writers complain to me all the time they feel they’re getting nowhere. They work hard, they say; why shouldn’t they see the fruits of their labours? And they’re absolutely right. If you were doing any other job for this many hours and seeing no results, you’d be nuts to not take a look at why. So here is why:

You need to stand out.

There’s no reason a a truly brilliant, devastating drama feature or derivative Sci Fi or Fantasy TV script *can’t* work (and I’m always ready to be proved wrong), but the odds are against it.

Why?

There’s too many of them out there. That’s just the way of it. You can fight an uphill struggle and get depressed about it – or you can step sideways and improve your chances by about a million per cent of getting a deal, an agent or a DIY film collaboration from the ground up by writing something else, like:

  • A feature script, 80-100 minutes
  • A Genre piece with a marketable hook – Comedy, Thriller or Horror preferably
  • With great characters (read, not the “usual”)
  • Low Budget & easy to achieve (ie. interiors, one set redressed, 1-2 locations, etc)
  • Audiences – family audience for comedies U – PG, 12A at a push (risque language only and for comedic effect); 15 to 18 for Thrillers and Horrors (some thrilling/scary shit, but not torture porn territory)

That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

No big secret: just don’t do what everyone else is doing and CONGRATULATIONS – you’ve improved your chances *just like that*.

So what are you waiting for?

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13 Responses to Want To Get Noticed? Don’t Write Low Budget Depressing Drama or High Budget Science Fiction/Fantasy Spec Scripts

  1. Very interesting read.. how do I get in contact with the person who wrote it?

  2. Darwin says:

    I like what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and coverage!

    Keep up the superb works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll.

  3. […] Conflict. Remember that notion, “Why this story?” We want to know what’s at STAKE. If we don’t know what’s at stake, we don’t care. It’s as simple as that. And don’t forget, we don’t want simple rehashing of what’s gone before, either. We want conflict that GRABS us and makes us say, “Why didn’t *I* think of that??” Remember: the best ideas are *obvious* – that doesn’t mean it’s not plain sailing getting those great ideas; it shouldn’t be. Road test your concepts and your drafts will flow … Don’t road test them and you may end up with a Zeitgeist story that’s a millstone round your neck. […]

  4. […] … it’s been a week since I posted *that* post about avoiding low budget depressing drama & high budget science fict… spec scripts if you want to stand out from the crowd … And what a week! Some writers have […]

  5. Can’t believe you wrote this article awhile back…you must be from the future where there is still some intelligence left because this is so relevant today. Too many fans of Science Fiction simply try to emulate their favorite shows or characters and aren’t trying anything original. The genre used to be about coming up with the fantastic and unknown, exploration of the human condition, but that has died. Hopefully some poking and proding from articles like yours will wake people up!

  6. Great stuff Lucy Hay.
    And – my PhD research on the top 20 and bottom 20 RoI movies exactly supports your guidelines, here. https://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/

    Simonton’s `Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics ‘(2011) also notes: Dramas (which are, by nature, usually depressing anyway) tend to lose money.

    And also (uncommon) it’s common sense that: the higher the budget the less likely it is to be made. Period films and expensive sci-fi or fantasy genre, etc.
    And when they bomb, they bomb hard. See: the Bottom 20 RoI movies.

    (I’ve been a story analyst for major movie studios for 20 years too, so I also knew this was the case. – I’m also a produced movie screenwriter.)

    Anyway — great post – awesome work – great advice for screenwriters.

    Cheers
    JT

  7. Eric says:

    What about Extant? Wasn’t that a sci fi project by a first timer? I see sci flooding both tv and film. And they’re rarely low budget.

  8. I agree with you, but I think you are quite harsh on abundance of writers trying to original stories in hackneyed genre popular with audiences. I mean EastEnders and Neighbours are two of the mosr depressing unimaginative TV shows in existence, and yet they’ve been going for 30 odd years, with fresh title sequence and music score every 10 years. Similarly, sci-fi in film and television has been around since (you know how long and why), but you’re complaining there’s too much of it, with the new Star Wars and Star Trek movies coming out as we speak, and reboot of both ‘depressing’ sci-fi series like Twin Peaks and X-files. Recently I watched the HBO series Westworld, which was excellent, but somehow utterly derivative of mainstream sci-fi. I could say the exact same thing about Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Could you tell me what would your preference for an original TV or film series that’s neither depressing or sci-fi? I’m guessing it might be a sitcom like Friends/Frasier, a police drama like Line of Duty, a family sitcom or perhaps an adult comedy like Sex&TheCity? I’m just curious about what you think would more an interesting and original show

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      You’re confusing the point of the article; the spec pile is FLOODED with this stuff. If you want to stand out, you need to differentiate from the rest.

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