What’s In the Spec Pile
Don’t know what to write? It can be difficult to understand what the industry wants, so sometimes it’s easier to work out what they DON’T want!
When human beings prize novelty, standing out from the rest can be half the battle for writers … Equally, so can utilising a tried-and-tested trope or character in a unique way. But what IS unique? I rounded up 20 Industry Pros I know and asked them:
What types of stories, tropes, characters, genres, story worlds (etc) feel stale, cliched or overused to you at the moment?
The Industry Pros below include agents, publishers, producers, script readers and script editors, proof readers, copy editors, writing contests, coverage and other writing service providers. They read our spec screenplays and unpublished novels every day. This means they’re in a good place to see what the spec pile looks like, plus they know what feels samey, cheesy, tired and old.
What Writers Can Learn
Whenever I post anything like this, some writers get irate and say, ‘Don’t tell us what to do!!’ But this is the thing: no one is doing that. You can literally write whatever you want. If you want it published or produced however … That’s a wholly different thing. Then it’s not just for you!
The Industry Pros below have some great pointers on what makes ‘good’ writing in 2019 … Note how many of them say similar things, especially when it comes to diversity and genre. Several also make the point you shouldn’t write stuff that emulates popular works, too.
Remember, it’s NOT about writing *to the market*, or ‘selling out’, but SELLING. It’s what professional writers do … ie. write stuff people actually WANT, in a way that showcases your talent and writer’s voice. Like anything, it doesn’t have to be ‘either/or’ … So, here we go:
1) ‘Strong women who don’t do much’ – Kate Leys
Hmm. Apart from all the obvious clichés and stereotypes, the characters I’m almost done with are ‘strong women’ who are so busy being strong women, and bonding, and marching bravely forwards, that they forget to have a sense of humour or enough to actually do in the plot. I don’t think I’m fed up with any genre now that the romcom has remembered to shut up and keep quiet for a few years. Tropes: I’ve definitely had enough caravans, and I have long since banned the overhead shot of a woman lying underwater in the bath.
BIO: Kate Leys is a story editor (this year Pin cushion, American Animals and Benjamin), and can be found at www.kateleys.co.uk
2) ‘Old-fashioned genre’ – Annabel Wigoder
Old-fashioned horror scripts are ten a penny – it isn’t enough just to write a story set in a haunted house. I also read a lot of sci-fi scripts where the main child either turns out to be a cyborg or holds the key to saving the world.
BIO: Annabel Wigoder is Head of Development for Salon Pictures, working across film and TV. She has projects in development with Channel 4 and the BFI, and just produced her first feature documentary.
3) ‘Thinly-sketched female characters’ – Hattie Grunewald
I see so many submissions that are coming of age stories from young white men, in the Catcher In The Ryemould, with little discernible plot and thinly sketched female characters – those will never be for me. In women’s fiction, I’m tired of young women inheriting fortunes or property in the countryside from unknown relatives. In crime, I’m really over the women only featuring as corpses or victims of assault while intelligent men solve the mystery.
BIO: Hattie is an agent at Blake Friedmann agency, representing women’s fiction, crime and thriller, YA and Middle grade, and non-fiction. Read more about what she’s looking for, HERE.
4) ‘Political thriller screenplays feel passé’ – Justine Owens
The POTUS/Washington political action thriller has got to be on this list. Whether it is the moral crusader (Designated Survivor) or dysfunctional insider (Homeland), this world seems saturated and repetitive now.
BIO: Justine Owens is the Director of Contests at Shore Scripts. For six years, Shore Scripts has been working to open industry doors for a greater number of screenwriters; developing their writing skills, providing professional consultation, and most importantly, connecting them with industry professionals. In that time, we’ve helped 50+ writers gain representation, sell, and have their screenplays produced. You can follow Shore Scripts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
5) ‘Zombies & dystopian without relatable characters’ – Erick Kwashie
I would say the zombie and dystopian future stories/worlds/genres are definitely starting to feel stale and overused. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still entertaining when done well with relatable characters. At the moment it feels like if you’ve seen one then you’ve seen them all. Recently the appeal of horror has broadened because the lead characters and their circumstances have been diversified (with proper attention to detail and relevant storylines).
BIO:Erick Kwashie is a script reader and recent NFTS graduate with a background in film and TV production. He is aiming for a future in script editing and development.
6) ‘Stereotypical characters and language’ – Michelle Goode
My personal bugbear is age representation. Time and time again I see ‘old’ characters that are weak, decrepit or stuck in assisted living homes. Furthermore, ‘old’ and ‘grey’ start as young as 50. WTF?! Then there’s therapist scenes used as easy exposition for psychological issues. Corrupt cops and politicians (yawn). In general, I see a lot of outdated-seeming content that does not challenge viewpoints. Old-school cop mentality, funeral parlours (whatever happened to simply being cremated?) and good old ‘mental asylums’.
BIO: Michelle (@Sofluid) offers help with feedback, development, proofreading and editing via her Writesofluid website, which you can find HERE.
7) ‘Non-differentiated storyworlds’ – Tom Chucas
I would say I’m tired of medieval settings, or at least ones that don’t do much to differentiate themselves. With speculative fiction I also notice a lot of characters, mainly main characters, who are more defined by *what* they are as opposed to WHO they are. You understand their purpose and place within the story world but don’t have much characterisation.
BIO:Tom Chucas is a graduate of Bournemouth University’s Scriptwriting for Film and Television course. Currently working in script reading and copywriting.
8) ‘Supposedly ‘Gripping’ twists’ – Betsy Reavley
The word ‘gripping’ is bandied about far too often, but it still manages to grab the attention of readers … Crime and Thriller fiction, which is what I write and publish, often uses ‘clichés’ within the body of stories but, in my opinion, that is part of the charm of the genre: the overworked policeman; the fragile young woman; the dog walker who discovers a body. These are all things we have come to expect. The question is are such clichés always a bad thing? In my opinion the answer is no, NOT when the writer puts their own unique twist on those expectations.
BIO: Betsy Reavley is an author of eight novels, two collections of poetry and is the publishing director and co-founder of Bloodhound Books. She lives in Cambridge where she works side by side with her husband doing what she loves best bringing stories to market, while trying to juggle being a mother.
9) ‘Outdated angles’ – Annelie Widholm
I think there’s a slight danger that you’ll stifle your own creativity if you think too much about what not to write. I think most of everything has been done already, but narratives can have a premise that feels familiar and still have sincere freshness and originality within it – usually through the character journeys chosen, because though they may be put in a familiar setting, if the characters feel convincingly human, they’ll pull the audience in. Beware of using completely outdated angles, however. We live in a world that’s broadening its views in many ways and representation of every kind needs to be done thoughtfully. Write what you love, but if it’s something you don’t already know: do your research!
BIO:Annelie Widholm has earned her reader stripes working with well-established production companies in London, where she also lives and writes on her own screenplays, usually with a cup of coffee nearby. And woolly socks on her feet. And sometimes there’s chocolate. (there’s almost always chocolate)
10) ‘LGBTQ stories = downbeat? No thanks!’ – Katie McCullough
So tired of negative LGBTQ narratives – they add nothing to the world and are lazy. Complex 3-dimensional characters come in all shapes, sizes, colours & genders; sexuality doesn’t have to mean downbeat or leading definition.
BIO: Katie McCullough is founder of Festival Formula, a consultancy company that helps filmmakers navigate the worldwide festival circuit. She’s a graduate of Bournemouth Media School and Royal Court London.
11) ‘Samey stories’ – Alizée Musson
- Post-apocalyptic story worlds: I’ve found that most of these worlds come with very similar types of storylines and I’ve read so many of the same throughout this year that they feel unoriginal. I’ve also read many with steampunk settings.
- Street gang stories, especially when the main character is a kid: Most of the stories that I’ve read in this category end up in two distinct ways. The kid either becomes a boss ruling over the crime world or makes it out of the environment that he (it’s rarely a she) grew up in. There is usually a best friend or close relative that dies along the way.
- Family dramas, especially when the main goal of the story is living “The American Dream”: I’ve come across a lot of household family dramas this year where the goal towards happiness is always the same: having a nice house, a well-off family with a mum, a dad, healthy children, and, if they’re lucky, a dog. We now live in a world where the traditional family structure is no longer the norm, it would be nice to see more stories where different family structures are showcased. For example, split and recomposed families, families with LGBT parents or children characters, and families of multicultural backgrounds.
BIO: Alizée Musson is a script reader/editor and translator working in French and English in the film, animation, and web content sectors. She also writes both screenplays and prose fiction and has previously been long-listed for the “Borders” Short Story Competition organised by Penguin Random House. Follow @beyondiimagine.
12) ‘Stories without a unique take’ – Hayley McKenzie
No story, character, genre or world is cliched if you can find your own unique take on it.
BIO: Hayley McKenzie is the founder of Script Angel and an experienced film and television drama executive. You can find Script Angel on Twitter @scriptangel1 and on their blog.
13) ‘Samey internal character conflicts’ – Tim Berry
I don’t have a personal aversion to any particular type of story but I’ve read a lot of screenplays, of all genres, that are very much plot-led; screenplays which wear their genre influences on their sleeves and which faithfully replicate the same, familiar conflicts and story beats.
These stories often have passive protagonists; their external conflict is clear but their journey towards overcoming them is dramatically limited. Often, while the focus of the conflict itself might be unique, the supporting conflicts are well-worn; for example, a grizzled lawyer working on a ground-breaking court case will inevitably be seen drinking whiskey at the bar while he contemplates his deteriorating family life, or a hard-nosed female detective getting the bottom of a complex crime case will also be juggling the demands of being a caring mother to a rebellious teenager and wife to an emotionally abandoned husband.
As a script editor, the screenplays that stand out the most to me are not those with multiple external conflicts which do little to extensively explore character but those stories with characters who have a strong internal conflict, a seemingly unresolvable gulf between what they want and what they actually need. It’s often the protagonist’s reluctance to overcome their inner conflict that is the most engaging and I would personally like to see more of this.
BIO:Tim Berry is a writer and director, who has developed projects for both stage and screen. After spending seven years working in independent film distribution, he trained as a script editor with NFTS and has most recently worked with Shore Scripts, for their short film fund and their TV/feature contests.
14) ‘Don’t keep writing The X Men’ – Abel Diaz
Dear writers of any medium (but with emphasis on YA authors): please stop using psychic teenagers and/or super schools. You are nakedly writing around the X-Men copyright and basically telling the exact same story about misfits with the exact same ‘everyone is different but special’ message I can already get either by walking into Forbidden Planet, or just popping on Gifted, Legion or Runaways. Also, try to make your ‘hunks’ actually interesting and not either just ‘so broody and dark, emo baby’ or ‘ultra-geeky but totes so random’.
BIO: Abel Diaz worked as a reader for Lime Pictures (Hollyoaks) and Big Light (Medici) after securing an MA in Screenwriting from Met Film School. He has also written for the award-winning CBeebies series, Pablo.Follow his Facebook for more updates and news, as well as well as my blog Abel’s Magic Lantern, for all sorts of writing tips and tricks, including my ‘Screenwriting Advice for BA Students… From a Masters Grad’ series.
15) ‘Don’t emulate’ – Karen Sullivan
I would hesitate to say that a genre is over-used, because in capable hands, any genre can become fresh and exciting. It’s frustrating when ‘industry experts’ pronounce a genre or a sub-genre as being ‘dead’ (for example, domestic noir). There is always scope for bringing something new and pushing boundaries.
On the same note, however, there are far too many books that employ the same methods/plotlines/‘twists’ … emulating hugely successful authors who have done it with much more style. The ‘man is a woman’ or the reverse, has been done to death, and the absence of pronouns in even the first chapters is a dead giveaway. What bothers me more than any of this, however, are the samey, generic titles and jackets. I think sometimes publishers underestimate readers.
BIO: Karen Sullivan is founder and publisher of Orenda Books, a small independent publishing company focussing on literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime/thrillers, and about half in translation. She was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016, and Orenda Books has been shortlisted twice for the IPG Best Newcomer Award.
16) ‘More Flaws, please!’ – Jenny Kane
Action/adventures where the lead protagonist just happens to be good at every method of fighting required to get out of peril are feeling so tired. Flaws and a need to build new skills to survive are interesting!
BIO: Jenny Kane is the co-manager of Imagine Creative Writing. An experienced writing tutor, Jenny mentors future novelists, short story authors and audio scriptwriters in the South West of England. Follow @imagine_writingand @JennyKaneAuthor.
17) ‘Antiheroes we can’t empathise with’ – Andrew Oldbury
They don’t have to be sympathetic characters, but if we don’t empathise with them then there’s nothing to draw the audience in. If we didn’t first learn to love Walter White as a man, his descent into becoming Heisenberg would never have been so compelling.
BIO: Andrew Oldbury is a Script Editor and BIFA & RTS nominated Producer, whose credits include: Agatha Raisin, Endeavour, Holby City & Coronation Street. He trained at the National Film & Television School. Twitter: @AndrewOldbury.
18) ‘London-centric stories’ – Rosalie Faithfull
Any story which deliberately tries to depict a “Typical middle class” character or family immediately seems clichéd because I don’t think there is such a thing. Pretty much anything in London feels stale as well; we need more regional stories.
BIO: Rosalie Faithfull is a former short film producer, now a freelance script reader and script editor working in both television and film.
19) Genre that hasn’t subverted our expectations’ – Jim Cirile
- SERIAL KILLER/COP MOVIES/CIA THRILLERS – All meh. They’ve just been done to death. Unless the cop movie is an adaptation of a hit book, or the CIA thriller is brilliant. Anything terrorism-related is a very tough sell as well, since that stuff is now the purview of the 24-hour news cycle, as the corrupt corporate media crams war propaganda down our throats to justify the permanent war.
- ZOMBIE/WEREWOLF/VAMPIRE. Just don’t. All tired and there are thousands of them out there. Unless, again, the writer has found some brilliant way to subvert the tropes of the genre. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a great example — playing with all the cliches and expectations and turning it into a “The Real World”-style mockumentary.
- DRAMAS – Always a tough sell, except on the small, DIY or indie-level. Shoot for under $2 mil, limited cast and locations.
BIO: Jim Cirile is the founder and CEO of Coverage Ink, LLC, the screenplay analysis and development experts since 2002. He writes regularly about the biz for The Wrap and is also a writer/producer/musician. His animated horror film To Your Last Death, starring Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise and William Shatner, premieres in 2019.
20) ‘Enough with samey stories and characters’ – Barry Ryan
21) ‘No more ‘grim dark’’ – Juliet Mushens
I see a lot of ‘grim dark’ narratives, in crime and fantasy. I think novels where every character is amoral are just as unrealistic as those where everyone is a hero!
BIO: Juliet Mushens is co-founder of Caskie Mushens Ltd. Her client list includes NYT and Sunday Times bestsellers of fiction and non-fiction. You can find more info at caskiemushens.com.
22) ‘Stuff that doesn’t stand out, doesn’t sell’ – Ashley Scott Meyers
Since I deal mainly in lower budget genre movies, my answer is meant in that context. I hear a lot of the same things from producers year after year. Comedies are hard overseas because comedy often doesn’t translate. Drama is always a tough sell because it relies so heavily on star casting. Horror can work, but it’s always over saturated, so you need something that stands out. There are trends that I hear, too, like found footage is no longer “in” and a lot of producers won’t even look at a found footage screenplay. But of course this can change quickly if a found footage breaks out and makes a lot of money.
BIO: Ashley Scott Meyers is a screenwriter and blogger/podcaster at SellingYourScreenplay.com(He has optioned and sold dozens of spec screenplays and had numerous writing assignments from a large array of producers and can be found on IMDb HERE.
Good luck! Want to know what these guys DO want? CLICK HERE.
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I agree with most of these comments, writers want to sell, so they chase last year’s hit films. And, it’s the inner journey, the internals conflicts wresting with the external goals that make the protagonist real and personal. Look for stories neglected by Hollywood, affecting people and cultures we seldom see.
So true! Humans prize novelty as well. Seth Godin said it best (am paraphrasing), ‘In an overcrowded market, blending in is tantamount to being invisible.’
Will there be a 2023 version (or any version after 2019) of DON’T wants?
Not right now, all of these are pretty broad & still relatable now, especially if you contrast them with THIS 2023 WISH LIST FROM INDUSTRY PROS.