If you’re interested in writing a screenplay, you may have come across the slew of books that attempt to teach you how. (Like Save the Cat and its many hydra heads it spews out.) Most of these books propose a sort of formula that, actually, is ancient lore and embedded into our psyches, probably by some Jungian madness, don’t you see. Save the Cat even offers the Ten Movie Genres, that every screenplay must fit into. The formula and genre is followed by every great story, and every story ever can be mapped out with the formula.1
But the amount of truly great, memorable screenplays that have spawned out of reading these books is…how many? I’m not sure that data is readily available, but I’m willing to guess the number is relatively close to zero.
Following a formula makes for bad art. And putting your story into a “category” or “genre” can be a very slippery slope towards Boredom.
Annie Baker offers this advice for young writers:
Be incredibly vulnerable, but not necessarily confessional. Invent your own genre. Don’t try to look smart.
The best screenplays, the best stories, the best art defies categorization. If it can be neatly summed up into a sentence, there’s a good chance it’s not that great. If it can be easily categorized, there’s a good chance it’s overflowing with clichés. The experiences of Annie Baker’s plays cannot really be pinned down: they are their own thing, their own genre (each one!) that she invented. There are certainly influences and similarities to other writers (like Chekhov), but there is no tidy box that the plays can be put in. Each one is a Category of One.
This is a classic “Law of Marketing”, but the truth is it applies across businesses and theater companies and art. How can you invent your own genre, your own category? Because that’s where the good stuff lies.
Don’t follow a formula. Resist easy and lazy “categories”. Instead, make your own.
If it’s not obvious, I’m being sarcastic. It should be no surprise that those who can’t write screenplays write books on how to write screenplays. To be fair, there is a massive market for this kind of thing. All you need is a pithy title (i.e. The Nutshell Technique) and a promise (i.e. this is the secret information 99% of writers don’t know). But it’s important to remember the advice of Derek Sivers, that “if information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs,” and that we should be suspicious of advice from people without skin in the game. ↩