In reality, there are only a few basic ideas every story follows. If you believe author Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he spent thirty years analyzing stories and their psychological meaning, and discovered there are only seven basic plots. The late screenwriter Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies takes the idea to another extreme and breaks film stories into ten basic genres: Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized, and Superhero. Your project might be associated with an age-old story of a particular genre and the basic idea is not new, but it’s really about how you make it your own. As a writer, you need to execute a fresh take on the story, one that’s uniquely yours from your point of view. Add a fresh twist to an age-old story and your script will get noticed.
If you’re in the screenwriting game long enough, you’ll experience the bitter sting of disappointment when you discover similar ideas competing for a home. I’ve experienced this phenomenon many few times over the years and it never gets easier to learn of a competing story. Years ago, my then writing partner and I wrote a spec about the real D.B. Cooper who hijacked a Boeing 727 in the air between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971. He extorted $200,000 in ransom and parachuted to an uncertain fate. He was never found.
We knew of a few movies already produced on this subject, but we crafted a script where Cooper survived and was living quietly in his hometown. Our manager sent out the script to dozens of companies and it didn’t sell, but we took meetings. During the process, we learned an “A List” actor had always wanted to play Cooper and had his own script in development. That production company requested to read our competing script and eventually passed on it. The reality was the “A List” actor’s script was in already in development and more likely to move into production first before a mediocre script with no attachments from two unknown writers. If we knew there was a high-profile script with a similar story in development, we wouldn’t have wasted the months to write ours. We just couldn’t compete.
Similar stories float around Hollywood and it’s not because someone stole your idea—that’s the fear of an amateur. If you consider the tens of thousands of writers in Hollywood and beyond, it’s inevitable similar basic stories will be eventually created by others as well. Hell, approximately 50,000 ideas/scripts are registered every year with the WGAw. It’s never a pleasant situation when you learn your hard work may end up as just a writing sample. This is why information is currency in Hollywood. If you don’t have an agent or manager who knows what’s selling, read Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline Hollywood, sellascript.com, DoneDeal Pro, any publication or website that will give you information on recent script sales. If a particular story is already in development, has sold or is in production, strongly consider writing another idea.
This just happened again to me a few weeks ago. I was out pitching a new, one-hour episodic action series idea, something I developed from a feature film idea, and I really wanted to write it as a spec. One morning at breakfast, I read online about the recent sale of series to a major network that was basically my premise. Sure, my basic idea was not completely original, but I put an updated spin on the genre and made it a character-driven show with action. I basically saw my pitch disappear into a puff of smoke — like what happens on a Mac when you drag an icon from your doc to the desktop—poof! It didn’t matter how much I dressed it up, I was too late to the dance by about three months.
My only consolation was their idea comes from a series of adventure novels and not just an original pitch. It’s okay. I keep getting closer and at least I’m creating ideas others are selling. As a writer in the game for the long haul, you have to suck it up and move on to your next idea. Here’s the good news, a pitch is a lot easier to craft than if I actually took the time to write the pilot on spec and then found out a similar idea just sold.
I’ve been close so many times with similar ideas I’ve lost track, but it’s a numbers game, so to keep playing you’ll need to generate new pitches and ideas. I’ve also been blessed to be paid for nearly a dozen screenwriting assignments that have resulted in six films (one spec sale), so you have to keep with the entire process to find any level of success. Eventually your day will come when they buy YOUR idea, then some other writers will read about your sale and grouse, “hey, that was our idea!” Of course it was… now get back to work.
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“The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.” – Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him. He is prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can. He understands the field alters every day. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily as he can.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”