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How to Tackle an Idea That’s Already Been Done [While Still Making it Unique]

You’re in the middle of working on the best pilot script you’ve ever written. It’s fresh and unique, and you couldn’t be more excited about it. You even did your homework before beginning – you did lots of research to see what similar shows were out there and you were reassured that there was nothing quite like your concept.

Then a new show is announced or (worse) airs, only for you to discover that this is the very same idea you’ve been working on, just with a slightly different twist. You feel gut punched. You’ve heard the saying that there are no new stories out there, but still, what to do now?

Should you just abandon your script and move on?
Is there any way to stay true to your vision and the work you’ve already done while still making it unique? And what’s the point now anyway?

Well, don’t put down the keyboard just yet; a potential sale isn’t completely nixed, and in fact, you may be in luck and not even know it. Here are four reasons not to panic.

1) Why You, Why Now?

How to Tackle an Idea Thats Already Been Done While Still Making it Unique

Before you begin writing you should consider two questions you’ll need to answer in every pitch: Why YOU, and why NOW? Why should you be the one to tell this story? What about your personal background, the things that have happened to you, the work you’ve done in the past or in preparation for writing, make you uniquely qualified to apply your experience to this project?

How does your main character channel your voice? How do your characters give life to your emotional truth? At the risk of sounding cliché, you’re a “special snowflake.”

Only you can tell your story.

Every idea has been done in some way, but your idea hasn’t been told in YOUR way, in YOUR voice. So focus on how you can ensure that your pilot capitalizes on your unique experiences and conveys your point of view on the story you’re trying to tell. See how those aspects help steer your script away from the “competing” pilot.

Is there something that happened to you, that you were perhaps going to omit, that isn’t in the other pilot? Put it in! Does your main character reflect something about your background? Make sure they have a distinctive voice in dialogue – nobody speaks quite like you do. Is there a unique supporting character that’s nothing like anyone in the competing project? Could you elevate or highlight them? Is your story tonally very different? Make sure the tone comes through loud and clear. Is the setting different? Make sure it plays a central role in how the story is told.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are many shows that are close in concept – what distinguishes them is the writer’s unique point of view and way into the story.

The “why now” question refers to why your story is relevant to the world right now. What about it will resonate with today’s audience thematically? What about it is in the zeitgeist now? Why will the audience want to watch it? For that matter, WILL they want to watch it? Hey, I’ve got excellent news! Your answer is yes! If the concept weren’t relevant, nobody else would be doing it. Shows inevitably come in batches of similar concepts, because things are “in the air.”

 

2) Themes Are Timeless

How to Tackle an Idea Thats Already Been Done While Still Making it Unique

People are thinking about themes in the news, on social media, and playing out in our daily lives. Timeless themes gain new life in light of our experiences today. So whatever your concept, if it’s relevant, chances are a dozen different versions are in development at various companies right now.

That doesn’t necessarily mean yours won’t sell – in fact, people like to jump on bandwagons, and execs like to develop what’s “safe.” How many shows about the FBI are on the air? Particularly now, audiences find the inner workings of the FBI endlessly fascinating. So there’s always room for one more show with a new twist, because we know how to do it and we know it sells, so it’s a cinch to market.

Of course, it’s nice to be first on the scene with something totally fresh, but that doesn’t mean second, third and fourth won’t sell. Your job is to make sure your pilot feels of the moment – and of YOUR moment.

What drew you to this concept now? What themes resonate from your life? What have you heard or read or experienced that made you feel like people you know personally are thinking about the world of your script and would want to watch a show about that? Why is this story urgent for you? Make sure your characters experience and express the answers to these questions.

 

3) Time Heals All Pilot Fears

And then there’s this… even if your pilot were to be set up at a production company tomorrow, months will go by before it’s sold to a studio and then a network. Months more before it’s greenlit, and if it goes to pilot before it goes to series, a year or two could easily go by before it premieres.

A lot of water will flow under the bridge before then. Specifically, the show that just started airing that’s so similar to yours will have succeeded or failed by then. If it succeeded, there will be increased demand for similar concepts – hurray for you. If it failed, it will be off the air, and while you may have to do some persuading to explain why your idea will succeed where a similar one failed, at least the competition won’t be there anymore. (People may even have forgotten about it!)

 

4) Remember Your Goal

Finally, if you’re an up-and-coming writer, let’s be honest, your real goal isn’t a sale, It’s to get representation and get staffed.

Agents and managers love to sell projects, but what they love even more is collecting commissions on salaries. Their #1 goal is to sign writers who can get staffed. They need you to have samples that are relevant to current or upcoming shows, so they can demonstrate that you can write on those shows.

Showrunners want to read original material so see how you can contribute to their room. But their #1 goal is to hire writers who “get” their show and can easily start working on it. They want to read samples that are in some way relevant to their show. Not the exact same thing, but in the same ballpark in some way (concept, character, tone, setting).

Trying to get a job on a show set in the 70’s music scene? Have a pilot set in the 70’s fashion scene with similar characters and tone? Score! Trying to get a job on a show set among the urban youth of Chicago? Have a pilot about a legal-aid attorney working with inner-city youth in Chicago – because you’re born and raised there? Score!

 

Competition Doesn’t Hurt

So maybe you shouldn’t be “steering away” from the competition, maybe you should be steering right alongside it. Pray the show that was just announced gets picked up, because you can tell a manager that you’ll be perfect for it. Pray the show that just started airing is a hit, because when more episodes are ordered, they may need to bring on more writers, and you’ll be first in line.

And remember what I said about shows coming in batches? If there’s one for which your pilot is a “dead on sample,” chances are there will be more. When people say, “your pilot is so similar to that other show – why would you write that?” You might want to smile, “Oh, I totally meant to do that – it’s the perfect sample to get staffed!”

Of course, your “perfect sample” still has to hit it out of the ballpark to impress a manager, showrunner, producer or executive. I’m happy to help you accomplish that – just check out my consulting page.

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers?

I recently attended a panel discussion on writer’s rooms and wanted to share some of the insights offered by the panelists who are two prominent showrunners from network and cable: A streaming network executive, and a production company executive.

The questions they answered were:
– What do showrunners look for when they hire writers?
– What is the process for hiring?
– How are rooms different in network vs. cable and streaming?
– What if you create a show and the studio wants to bring in an experienced showrunner to work with you?
– What do producers and executives wish writers understood better?
– How can you succeed in an interview with a showrunner for a staff writer position? Here are some tips from the pros.

Showrunners and executives agree that the number one thing they look for in writers is people with different perspectives.

 

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers

Fresh Voices Wanted

New, authentic voices are in high demand both in rooms and as show creators. On network shows , the writer’s rooms are relatively big with several lower-level positions, so there’s room for educating up-and-coming writers. In cable and streaming, the new trend is toward the “mini-room;” a concept where 2 – 3 writers are assembled to break out a season in anticipation of a straight-to-series pickup instead of making a pilot. This type of arrangement works well to create an intimate space where the show creator can prove that there is something in the concept that will work in the long run. Executives prefer this arrangement over pilots, even though among writers it isn’t universally loved, since it results in short-term employment and lower overall pay.

There are also limited opportunities to “break in” unless you have a relationship with the show creator and a clear attachment to the concept. In both cases, however, showrunners are looking for writers who come at the material from a fresh point-of-view, who bring something new to the table.

 

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers


How Opportunities Arise

Of course, it still takes connections to break in. Executives and producers have anticipatory meetings with writers in the weeks or months leading up to assembling a room. In these general meetings they can get a sense of where a writer might best fit in. As they read new talent, they are, of course, also looking for writers with whom they might develop new concepts. Development deals often come out of these meetings. Writers also ask friends and colleagues for recommendations, so every job as a writer offers new opportunities to make connections that open doors to future work. Gather references not only from higher-ups, but also from peers.

One of the biggest pipelines for writers into a room is agents and managers. Many showrunners take recommendations first from their own agents. Some take calls from other agents and managers as well, while others prefer that reps pitch their clients to producers instead. Both showrunners and producers tend to trust agents and managers who submit only clients who are really right for the project, rather than a long list of candidates. So don’t ask or expect your rep to pitch you for everything – it’s actually counter-productive. If you’re frequently pitched for assignments for which you are not suited, your rep will eventually not be taken seriously.

Through all these pipelines, piles of scripts accumulate on showrunners’ desks as they are staffing. They can’t possibly read every sample all the way through. The first few scenes, perhaps 10 pages, tell them pretty much everything they need to know. Once in a while they can’t stop reading and finish a script – a really, really good sign! Usually the sentiment is, “I wish I had written this!”

Showrunners say they barely look at cover pages because they don’t decipher anything like gender or ethnicity. It’s all about the writing, so make that first act really sing!

 

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers


Other Ways into a Writer’s Room

Another way into rooms is by being a writer’s or showrunner’s assistant. Showrunners value a great assistant highly (especially first-time showrunners), and are generally open to giving assistants who prove themselves a shot at a script and then at being promoted to staff. Even if you don’t get promoted on the first show you work on, the showrunner is likely to consider you for their next project.

Since there is a big push for more inclusive writers’ rooms now that include female writers and people of color, diversity programs, like those run by Disney and Warner Bros, are another great way into the business. When graduates of these programs are staffed, showrunners effectively get a “free” writer since the studio covers the writer’s salary. But then that writer has to actually do good work in order to succeed, just like everyone else.

In a room with a first-time showrunner, there is a greater need for seasoned, upper-level writers, each of who bring something to the project. Producers and executives want to surround promising new talent with a support network. Showrunners coming from successful feature careers (another common avenue for breaking into TV), have to get used to working with other writers collaboratively vs. working alone and feeling more competitive with other writers who might be brought in to replace them.

When the show creator has never run a show before, producers want to bring in an experienced showrunner to work with them. Of course, they want to make sure the creator is comfortable with the match! They describe it as a bit like dating. If you are in this position as a show creator, it’s important that you make it clear to your producers that you understand the need for someone with experience to mentor you. Open up and have a frank discussion about what you feel you are good at, and where you feel you need help.

Also, make it clear if you are interested in growing into the role in subsequent seasons vs. more of an interest in going on to develop other projects and letting them go once they are green-lit. You have to understand that your showrunner has come in with the commitment to spend all of his or her time and energy to help make your show better, not to steal it. As you work with your producers, the studio, and the network, there has to be a middle ground between you trusting them with your vision and them wanting to sell the show. As long as everyone is on the same page about what the show really is, things should run smoothly.

 

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers


What Showrunners Look For

When showrunners interview writers, they look at several factors. Some of the process is different between network and cable/streaming, but much is the same. In network TV, there is a focus on hiring writers who are both good in a room and can deliver a strong draft. The timeline for scripts is so tight that everyone has to contribute in both ways. In cable and streaming, the time frame is somewhat greater, so there is more of a focus on writers who have a strong vision and can help break the season and refine it in a small room. They don’t necessarily have to deliver a finished draft, but they do need to contribute valuable ideas. The showrunner will be writing or rewriting the scripts anyway.

Many other factors apply to all types of shows. Showrunners look for someone who brings a different world-view, set of experiences, background, expertise, etc. to the room from their own. They don’t want a carbon copy of themselves – they already know what they do well and need people who can bring something more to the table. The showrunner has to have a vision and give direction to the writers so they can give back what is needed for the show. So they need to know what each writer can bring to the process. Network showrunners, who deal with brutally fast-paced production schedules, are particularly interested in writers who are flexible and might have set experience or could be put in an editing room. They wonder what producing skills you might bring or what you could be good at if given the chance.

 

What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers


Prepare Your Meeting With a Showrunner

So how do you prep for a meeting with a showrunner? Obviously you will have read the pilot and/or pitch. Come in with thoughtful ideas about show. Be constructive about what’s gone into the pilot. Be ready to speak articulately, dissecting what you’ve read. In a bad meeting, the showrunner feels like they need to re-pitch or explain the show to you. They are looking for someone who “got” the show, but could make a contribution in the room to make it better.

Then there is the big question of,“Do I want to spend 16 hours a day with this person?” Writer’s rooms are like a family. Showrunners have to consider whether you will fit in and get along with others. They look for writers who are collaborative more than competitive, who won’t fight with others, and whose interest is not in simply hearing themselves talk. So be prepared to have a real conversation.

Personal experience relevant to the topic of the show is, of course, a big plus. Some showrunners also like to hire consultants who are experts in the subject of the show, and that can certainly be a way into writing for TV. But consultants also need to be creative. Good consultants don’t simply veto story ideas, they find a way to get the story from point A to point B within the constraints of realism. They are not bound by the tried-and-true patterns of storytelling and have a different way of solving story problems.

I hope these insights prompt you to look at your own potential to be on the staff of a show and help in you to succeed in getting there. You saw above that a great script is the way to be considered by an executive or showrunner for a staffing job. I’m happy to help you get there with your script!

 

Advice from the “D-Girl” – Introductions

I have been working with several up-and-coming writers lately, and noticing some common problems in their scripts that detract from otherwise great concepts. In real estate it’s location, location, location; in writing for television it’s character, character, character. Strong, unique characters can sell a script with a well-worn concept, such as yet another family soap or buddy cop show. Generic, underdeveloped characters make even an intriguing concept feel like it lacks sufficiently deft execution to be marketable. Yet, many writers make some basic mistakes when it comes to writing their characters.

First, a script is not a play – paragraph-long character descriptions on page 1 aren’t going to cut it. In fact, most executives will just skim those chunks of text. If the writer wants to indicate what characters look like, that’s fine (even references to “dream cast” are ok), since the eventual audience will know the look of the characters from promos even before they decide whether or not to tune in. But they will not be provided a nifty sheet with character descriptions, or a chart outlining the characters’ relationships, so all that better come through what’s on the page in terms of action and especially dialogue. A fifty year old Irish mobster from Brooklyn ought to talk differently from a Latina Millenial in East LA, and I should be able to discern who they are by “listening” to them. In fact, even if ALL the characters are Latina Millenials, they are NOT the same people. A shy woman talks differently from an outgoing one, a corporate workaholic differently from the owner of a biker bar. In really good scripts, I don’t need to read the dialogue headings that identify which character is speaking which lines. I know I am impressed with the quality of the writing when I stop reading those altogether, because if I just hear the lines spoken in my head, I can tell who is speaking. That’s what we are going for.

That said – if this is not already obvious – NAME characters. Even the more minor ones. I am shocked by the number of scripts in which “Father,” “Man in Dark Suit,” and “Mob boss” make regular, multi-scene appearances. OK, if someone has one line, “hotel maid” or “waiter” are perfectly ok to identify characters. “Goons” with no lines whatever who get gunned down right after they appear are likewise fine to go unnamed. Occasionally, “Man in Dark Suit” does work, even if we see the guy sprinkled through the script, if the whole point is that we don’t know who this person is. But the lead’s father ought to have a name besides “Father,” especially if  in a scene they have an argument. “Mob boss” should also have a name, if he turns out to be the main antagonist – if only in one closing scene. In general, any recurring character MUST have a name, unless they are specifically a mystery person to be revealed later. In part, when a character doesn’t have a name, I suspect – usually correctly – that the writer hasn’t developed a unique personality for them either. So they aren’t really a character – they’re just a placeholder. And of course, characters must be named in dialogue, or the viewer – who doesn’t have the benefit of having read the scrip – won’t know who they are. I always read from the point of view of the audience, so anything in the script the audience couldn’t possibly know, I pretend not to know.

Along with names, brief descriptions of traits that distinguish even minor characters can go a long way toward drawing the audience into a script. It creates the impression that the show is populated with real people, not “types.” Finally, of course, someone will have to cast this – and interesting tidbits about even minor characters make the reader start to imagine actors playing those parts.

Ensemble dramas are even more popular now that single leads, as serialized (having one continuous plotline rather than closed-arc episodes) have become more the norm than the exception. Short orders – 10 or 13 episodes – are also becoming ever more commonplace, even on network TV. There is one key to making a pilot script for an ensemple show work: introducing characters two or three at a time in scene after scene, linking one character from one situation and group to the next to establish relationships. Have you ever tried to meet 20 or 30 people at once at a party and remember who each of them is and their names? Or sat in a big circle in a writers group or community organizing meeting and had everyone “introduce” themselves (you know, say your name and something interesting about yourself)? We all joke “there will be a quiz at the end,” because if there actually was, we’d all fail. A script is not so different. In one particularly heinous example, the writer literally tried to introduce his entire cast of 24 people in the opening sequence at a party. By the end of the first five pages, I had given up on the whole project.

There is an art to making introductions, of course, which in screenwriting is part of what we call exposition. Exposition is hard, because it’s a priori boring. Catch 22: until we come to care about a character we don’t care about the character – apathy is the Peak TV audience’s default position, not, as some mistakenly assume, interest. So the writer has to generate interest, which by default means conveying information to the reader in a form that feels “organic,” meaning it doesn’t feel like a scene exists purely as a device for conveying information to the reader.

Exposition roughly falls into two categories, the aforementioned character introductions, and what is sometimes called “setting the table,” which is shorthand for setting up the place, time and milieu in which the action takes place – but that is the subject of another post. Perhaps the most commonly used device in television for introducing both is the “newcomer,” a person who is coming into the situation of the show for the first time and must meet everyone and see everything from the same point of view as the audience. This works well, because it feels natural for people to introduce themselves to someone they have never met before, and it feels natural for a person to be asking questions about a new situation they have just stepped into. Of course, the writer still has to generate interest in this character! One preferred place for accomplishing this is in a teaser, in which our lead finds himself/herself in a very tense or odd or challenging situation, where they do something highly unusual which grabs the audience’s attention.

What does not work, and I see this all the time even in some produced shows, is having characters convey expository material by having conversations in which both characters are well aware of all the information being said. A couple who divorced years ago don’t have a conversation about why they split up, on what seems to be an average day with nothing unusual happening. Family members don’t start discussing long-held secrets for no apparent reason one morning. People who work together don’t discuss what their company does in general terms as if “updating” one another on what they’d both know. The topic would need some kind of trigger, like some conflict, some revelation, or some change in the status quo.

Another simple problem I notice in scripts – and yes, details count – is attributable to ageism. The is of course ageism in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean we all must perpetuate it to sell a script. I see too many writers who mistakenly believe that all characters must be under 50, and therefore give their characters completely unrealistic ages or don’t imagine their characters aging in real time. A 40-ish spy did not work for the CIA in Eastern Europe in the early 70’s. If in a flashback to three years ago a main character was a 9-year old skateboarder, then he is not now in his 20’s trying to buy a bar. If the lead is a rebellious 18-year old, and her mother is a sexy 32-year old, who was married in a fairy-tale wedding on the family estate just a couple of years before having her baby, the family is pretty damn fucked up. If a character’s family has a curse put on it during the 1850’s Gold Rush, the guy being cursed is not the 30-something character’s grandfather, unless miracles of Biblical proportions are also part of the script. Believe it or not, these are all real examples I have encountered – and they are all attributable to writers wanting to keep their characters in that magical 18 – 49 bracket, come hell or high water.

Even writers who have heard much of this advice sometimes need to be reminded – or have unintended problems pointed out in their early drafts. Particularly when writing a pilot, there is so much to keep in mind, so much to execute, so many masters to serve, that one can easily lose sight of the most important thing: character, character, character.

If you could use an experienced reader to take a look at your script and guide you toward the next step, please Contact Us!