How To Decide What To Write
December 7, 2022
Maybe you want to write a screenplay or pilot, but you don’t have any ideas, or you have a few ideas, but you don’t know if they’re any good. Or maybe you have too many ideas and you don’t know which is the best one to focus on. Whether it’s too many ideas or too few, you still have to make a decision: what to write. Writing a screenplay or pilot is a commitment, and it might take you several months to complete a first draft. Most aspiring writers have to work day jobs (and even a few professional ones have to supplement their income between writing assignments). Time is a valuable thing and you don’t want to waste it by writing something that’s off the mark.
Of course there’s the old adage: write what you know. Unfortunately, I think many aspiring writers take this adage too literally, and it sometimes can result in a mundane piece of writing that simply chronicles the individual’s life. For example, going to college in and of itself isn’t a concept (unless something truly unusual or noteworthy happened to you when attending). It’s important to think about an audience when considering what to write. Just because something might be interesting to you, doesn’t mean others will feel the same. That being said, your real-life experiences and interactions with other people can still offer inspiration. This is what I think is truly meant by write what you know; think of it more as use what you know. For example, Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was inspired by his experience as a high school English teacher and watching a girl being the target of bullies. But the novel wasn’t just about this girl getting bullied. King was also reading up on telekinesis and decided to gift his fictionalized version of the teen girl with similar powers. This opened up numerous possibilities for a story: what if a bullied teen girl could move objects with her mind? So King used what he knew, but he also embellished it with a high concept. This is likewise the case with most of his subsequent work.
One of the first questions you should ask yourself when deciding what to write is the following: what movie or TV show would you most like to watch?
This is where personal taste comes into play. Yes, you can always attempt to write a script you think others will like because you chose a popular genre, but if you don’t sincerely love the genre, it’s going to show in the writing. Keep in mind, you’ll be competing with numerous writers who genuinely love the same genre, and chances are — because they genuinely love the genre — their script is going to be a more inspired and thorough piece of writing. Another variation of write what you know should be write what you like or, even better, write what you love. If you love horror films, write a horror script; if you love gritty crime shows, write a gritty crime pilot; etc. Even if you love a genre that’s less popular — like dark and existential dramas — you should write something in that genre. Ultimately your spec script is a writing sample and it has to be a true representation of your personality and taste. The more honest of a reflection your writing is, the more likely a manager will be able to guide you to the type of projects you should be working on. And just because your spec script falls under a specific genre doesn’t mean you’ll be locked in that genre. For example, you can write a dark and existential drama that might not have a great chance of selling but a producer of a dark and existential sci-fi project thinks you have the right sensibility for the job. A writing career is rarely based on one script; it comes from demonstrating a voice and a brand.
Now this doesn’t mean the marketplace shouldn’t be a consideration when deciding what to write. Once you’ve chosen a genre, it’d be wise to pay attention to the type of films and series within that genre that are currently being produced. Thanks to various streaming services, this has never been easier to do; you can even see what’s trending on certain streaming platforms to put your finger on the pulse. Watch new content. Be mindful of the latest narrative and stylistic trends. In addition, you can also go to various industry news sites and tracking boards to see what screenplays and pilots are selling. For example, contained thriller and action screenplays are highly marketable these days because they can be shot on a modest budget and they play well overseas. Therefore, if you’re taking the time to write a thriller or action script, it’d probably be smart to have as few locations as possible. Generally speaking, the lower the production costs, the better received your script will be. This doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t think big, but they should be thinking big story, small budget.
There is a danger, however, in being too focused on the marketplace and industry trends. As with most trends, they’re sometimes gone in a flash. A few years back, there was a period in which a bunch of gimmick mash-up films were getting produced (e.g. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and many people wrote spec scripts which followed suit. After these films bombed at the box-office, the gimmick mash-ups suddenly weren’t such a hot property, and a lot of writers wasted their time hopping on the trend. There also can be oversaturation of the marketplace. For example, a lot of scripts are currently selling in which a couple of young people are stuck in a precarious place for the majority of the story. Sure, you can write a script like that in the hopes of fulfilling the needs of the marketplace, but you’ll also be competing with innumerable scripts involving young stuck people. Ideally, a writer should strike a balance between their creative instincts and marketplace awareness.
In addition to the marketplace and industry trends, a writer also shouldn’t be focusing solely on a concept. Let’s say you thought of something you consider high concept. Well, who’s to say another writer out there hasn’t thought of the exact same concept? And what happens if they finish their script before you do and it’s a big sale? After months of work, your script could suddenly be dead in the water. Obviously if you have a high concept idea, you should give it serious consideration, but do your research before writing: make sure the concept hasn’t been done before and check if there were any recent script sales with the same concept. Again, this is where balance comes into play. If your script is just about the concept, you’re putting it in danger of becoming obsolete if a similar script sells beforehand. Although if your concept is augmented by entertaining characters, memorable dialogue, inventive set pieces, and overall has a distinct voice, it still has a fighting chance, and it can still work as a good writing sample.
So when deciding what to write, you should ask yourself: What kind of films or TV shows do you love? What are the current industry trends pertaining to your favorite genre? Would others be entertained by your concept? Does the concept have the potential to showcase your voice as a writer?
When you can answer all of those questions, you’ll be closer to deciding what to write.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.