In a recent post entitled Story Vault: Spec Notes, Danny Stack sums up some story characteristics which can turn an otherwise generic “genre” script into a purple cow*.
Danny’s summary is helpful if you have a story but you feel it’s missing something which will set it apart. Changing one key element in an otherwise inconspicuous story can often be sufficient to seriously jazz it up. Change the location, the era, the gender of a main character, etc.
Of course, studying the list and letting your thoughts wander is also an excellent way of generating story ideas from scratch. Be sure to have a notepad handy though.
Here are Danny’s main suggestions:
Biopics. Recount the life, or significant period, of a famous figure (that preferably hasn’t been done before) or tell the story of a historic character that shows what impact and significance his/her life had for his time, or for us in the present.
Political Backdrop stories. Look at an interesting period in any nation’s history, and create a story within that context, using the backdrop to provide subtext, drama and theme.
Period Drama. See biopics/political backdrop stories, or simply create a new romance/comedy/whatever set around a defining or visual period.
Modern Adaptations. A modern and clever take on well known stories, such as Shakespeare etc, can be effective, and you don’t need to pay for the privilege too because many of the stories are out of copyright.
Unfamiliar Locations. A lot of specs are set in anonymous modern cities. Setting can play a large part in a story, especially with regard to the above areas, so think about a story set in Ontario, or Cape Town, or Cairns, or Wellington, or Berlin, or Moscow, or whatever, and bring it to life on screen.
Specific Area of Research. Get to know an unfamiliar topic or subject better than anyone else on this Earth. And then write a script about it. Not it per se, but a story around that world.
Quirky Premise/Offbeat Story. A quirky premise will always be fun, but the offbeat story that follows should be carefully crafted in terms of character and story. Don’t try to be funny for the sake of it; tell a story that’s funny. A lot of comedy specs in America are sold because of their offbeat and quirky charms, and consequently attract interest from actors and directors.
I would add that a combination of more than one of these topics significantly raises the chances of your spec script being read. A biopic which is a period drama. A modern adaptation set in an unfamiliar location. You get the idea.
Of course, nothing will help you if you don’t manage to make the first five to ten pages of your script riveting reading. But more on that some other time.
*For the uninitiated: “Purple cow” is a phrase coined by Seth Godin some years ago to describe a product which is presented in a way that makes it stand out from all other similar products. A purple cow in a mass of black and white cows.