How To Elevate a Too-Familiar Movie Concept

So people will actually read your screenplay


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenplay concepts, screenwriting

Here’s something you might not have realized about getting your spec script read:

The more attractive your concept, the more time and attention it’ll get from busy readers (producers, execs, managers, agents i.e. people who aren’t being paid to read the script).

In other words, if they can’t tell from the concept that it’s a movie they want to make, or that they can sell to someone who does want to make it, or that shows you understand what kinds of movies the industry wants to make… there isn’t really a reason for them to read it.

You can have a great, well-structured, well-written screenplay, but if it’s based on a concept that no one wants to see as a movie, then its potential to get read (and ultimately do something for your career) is limited.

What does your movie idea bring to the table?

There are a few different ways that concepts can be weak, but a very common concept-level problem for newer writers is the too-familiar movie idea. That’s when a screenplay concept doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s too similar to others we’ve seen. A concept that’s been done before, and better.

When a writer is just starting out, they likely want to write and make movies like the ones that inspired them. That make them feel the way those movies did. And so they come up with their version of “Reservoir Dogs,” or “Inception,” or “Babadook,” or whatever it is that brought them to movies in the first place.

The problem is when the writer’s idea is so similar to the other movies they’ve seen and loved that it raises the question of why we need this version too.

In other words, “What does this movie add to the genre / category / conversation?”

Doesn’t good writing trump everything else?

If a screenplay has a mediocre concept but great writing, it could still be used as a writing sample. But even if you get someone to read it, if the concept (and therefore the project overall) doesn’t excite readers, then they’re not likely to take action on your behalf.

And, remember: you’ll still have that initial battle of getting them to read the script in the first place. An attractive concept buys you the time and attention to follow up with great writing. If you’re working with a concept that doesn’t grab attention and interest right away, you’re closing a lot of doors before you even get a chance to show what you can do on the page.

Look at it from the reader’s perspective: even if the writing itself is good, if the story is nothing but a re-hash of other movies without a fresh element of its own, the script will ultimately be harder to sell. A script that’s hard to sell isn’t a good investment for those looking to sell movies, whether that’s the producer trying to sell it to a studio, or a studio trying to sell it to an audience.

So think of your own investment: if you’re going to spend 6 months or a year or more working on a spec screenplay, don’t you want it to be a screenplay that has a chance of getting read to begin with?

Before you pour all of your time and energy into writing the script, evaluate your screenplay idea using the same question that industry readers will ask:

Are there enough original elements in this movie idea, and will this movie stand out against other similar movies that have come before?

Factor in the freshness

Okay, so you’ve taken a hard look at your screenplay idea and you’ve determined that the concept is too familiar, too similar to what we’ve seen before.

Maybe it relies on clichés or genre tropes. Maybe it’s retreading ground in a world that once felt new and surprising, but is no longer novel. Maybe it’s navigating a topic that others have already explored, but it’s not expanding or adding to the conversation in any new way. Whatever the case, it’s just not fresh enough.

What can you do? I have four angles you can try attacking this problem from. There’s some overlap between them but I hope that when taken all together they give you a robust way to think about how to strengthen your screenplay concept.

1. Swap in a fresh element choice.

Find some element of the story where you can swap in a version that differentiates and/or elevates your script from what we’ve already seen. This might be swapping gender, age, or phase-of-life of characters, or setting a familiar story in a unique location, time period, or story world. Or maybe telling the story from an unexpected point of view, like the script that topped this year’s Black List – Bad Boy, by Travis Braun: “A rescue dog suspects his loving new owner is a serial killer.”

2. Strengthen the hook.

Again, there’s overlap for sure, but this gives you another way to brainstorm. What is a hook, exactly? This explanation from screenwriter James Simpson is my favorite:

“A hook is the unique and interesting dramatic element that gives rise to your story and everything in it. Every character, every location, every obstacle and reversal is created from the hook and is in service of advancing and expanding the hook.

A cop in pursuit of a killer is a generic story. Giving your cop-hunting-a-killer story some form of hook might be:

The hero is unable to form memories and therefore has to hunt the killer based on faulty recall and easily misinterpreted evidence (Memento).

[or] The cop kills someone and the killer knows about it so the cop can’t arrest the killer without exposing his own crime. (Insomnia).

The hook does more than entice us into the story, it creates the conditions for a unique and entertaining story.”

3. Go for irony.

A bit of irony almost always helps a concept. If you’re stumped about where to start with it, think about the essential foundation pieces of the story (protagonist, goal, antagonist, and stakes) and see if you can create a gap between expectation and concept in one or more of those areas.

For example, there’s irony in a character being the person who is least prepared or totally unsuited to take on a situation. So, if you’re starting with a situation, think about who is the least likely person to find there? If you’re starting with a character, what is your character least suited to do? What would be the last situation she’d ever want to get herself into?

Or, in story stakes: Who would be the last person to care about a particular consequence? Coming at it from the opposite direction, what would be the consequence your character would be least likely to try to stop (and then how can you make him care enough to try to stop it)?

4. Relevance

Another way to bring some freshness to a concept is to think about what makes it relevant. Why tell this story now? What makes it relevant today? Can you tweak any of the elements to make it more relevant? You might also ask what makes you the right person to tell this story, and can that be brought into the concept even more.

How can you tweak the concept to make it feel like right here, right now, is the time to tell this story?

Why does someone want to read your screenplay?

What it really comes down to is making sure you have an answer to this question:

What is the script giving us that we haven’t seen countless times before?

Because that’s the question that industry readers will ask. If the answer is clear in your screenplay’s concept, you just might get that read.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.