The bane of many producers, agents and managers is that many expertly crafted screenplays lack a fresh spin on familiar genres. All stories have been told at least once. The job of a screenwriter is to tell their story in a fresh way. Josh Miller discusses how to make your screenplay stand out.
In my book Stuck! Learn to Love your Screenplay Again, there’s a chapter about conventions vs. clichés and what screenwriters can do to avoid them. Conventions can be defined as certain actions, plots, archetypes, or other story elements that are intrinsic to particular genres. They’re important to identify because they’ve evolved over time and, for creative reasons, they work well for their individual genres.
All of this means that conventions are good things to know, as they can streamline the creative process so screenwriters don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Of course, nothing decrees that screenwriters must utilize genre conventions, but awareness of them can be really useful.
The downside of conventions is that they can easily become clichés if they are over-used. Our challenge, therefore, is to try and find a fresh take or angle that hasn’t been done before. Should we neglect to do so and audiences recognize a convention as a cliché, it pulls them out of the story and worse, can evoke snickers or bad laughs. If there are too many of these moments in our movie, we’re sunk.
Speaking of sunk, I happen to love submarine movies. These stories slot into the war sub-genre of the action genre (I know, sub-genre). My modus operandi is if I’m going to write a certain type of movie, I like to become familiar with the canon (rules of the genre). So for me, classification is job one.
The two films I will discuss are Hunter Killer and The Hunt for Red October.
Let’s survey some submarine movie conventions:
- The crew is given an impossible mission and it’s made clear up front that the odds of their survival are low.
- The stakes are always enormous. In submarine movies, if the team fails in its mission, given their arsenal, the consequence is invariably nuclear Armageddon, or worse.
- The captain is an “untried quantity” in that he hasn’t yet been battle-tested and/or he’s newly assigned to the vessel and the crew don’t trust him. He must prove himself.
- In order to achieve the mission, the captain has to toss out the rulebook and follow his/her instincts. There’s always someone onboard who challenges his orders, undermines, and threatens to report them.
- When cruising underwater, it’s amazing how close submarines come to the underside of icebergs and rocky crags, only to somehow navigate past them unscathed.
- At some point, the sub will be pummeled by depth charges or other explosions, causing high-pressure steam jets and hull breaches and at least one onboard fire.
- Temporarily crippled, the sub will have to rest silently on the bottom, where we hear the creaks and groans of metal fatigue punctuated by the tattoo of rivets popping.
- During an engagement, the sub is so violently rocked that the crew gets tossed around and smack their heads on metal fixtures, causing blood to stream down their faces.
- Something heavy, usually a torpedo, falls on a crewmate who’s either crushed to death or left to drown as the others have to evacuate and secure the compartment.
- At some point, the sub has to run “silent” and invariably a clumsy crewman drops a wrench or some other heavy metal object, betraying their location to enemy sonar.
- This next one is common to almost every war movie. Either before the engagement or during a lull in the battle, one of the crew talks about how he’s going to marry his sweetheart and settle on a ranch in Wyoming. You can pretty much bet the farm that he’ll be one of the first combatants to buy the farm in the next battle sequence.
I could keep going, but you get the idea. So, the challenge is: how can we write one of these movies, seek to abide by some or all the conventions and avoid the clichés? And once again bear in mind that I love these movies, so any critique I may offer here is meant to be constructive.
Hunter Killer starts out with the protagonist crossbow hunting alone somewhere up North. He has a buck lined up in his sights, but then stands down when he sees its family grazing nearby. This is a “Save The Cat” moment, eponymous of a more famous screenwriting book than mine.
The convention that the hero is a craggy, loner survivalist with a soft heart is so transparent that we almost have to summon all our strength to suppress our LOL reflex. Thus this convention has become a cliché. Subtler means should be sought for the hero to garner audience sympathy.
In the ensuing movie, a rogue Russian Defense Minister has engineered a coup d’état and kidnapped the Russian president, intending to trigger WWIII from a naval base in a remote Russian port. The mission of the Americans– comprised of a sub crew and a special ops squad– is to infiltrate the base and rescue the Russian president so he can stand down his military.
The movie delivers all the requisites in terms of conventions of the submarine genre. In fact, it hits just about every one of the conventions listed above. Good, right? Not so much. The issue is that it never attacks them in a fresh way. Given this, all the conventions utilized in the screenplay simply don’t rise above clichés. The movie has some terrific attributes, in particular, the way it showcases dazzling new naval technology, but it’s undermined by this deficit in the craft.
Conversely, The Hunt For Red October takes the submarine movie and turns it on its head. First of all, the story is about a Soviet submarine commander seeking to defect and deliver a Russian Typhoon Class submarine equipped with a secret propulsion system to the Americans.
From there, a cat and mouse narrative unfolds where the Americans and the Russians search for the sub in a race to save/destroy it. CIA operative Jack Ryan must convince his superiors that the Soviet captain intends to defect and won’t launch his missiles at U.S. coastal cities.
Both movies contain obstacles, among them bad weather, equipment breakdowns, saboteurs, potentially mutinous crews and formidable adversaries. Of note is the dogmatic Information Officer in The Hunt for Red October who’s killed by the Russian captain in the opening ten minutes of the film. Why is this notable? The officer’s last name is Putin!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s actually a scene with a different Soviet officer who dreams about someday settling in Wyoming, whereupon a few scenes later he’s shot in the chest and dies. Not the film’s finest moment in terms of avoiding clichés.
Both movies have a timelock, which is a fancy screenwriting word for a plot deadline, which puts pressure on their plots, amping up the tension as they race headlong to their conclusion. Both movies feature intense action sequences and heroic individual deeds by the central characters.
And both explore the ideals of personal sacrifice, duty, and honor. The big difference is that one of these two movies not only manages to avoid most of the clichés, it also promotes the merits of a specific virtue. The Hunt For Red October has an overarching message about trust.
Lacking trust, the movie is saying, the outcome would have been catastrophic. Were the two submarine captains unable to overcome decades of mutual suspicion and instead opt to work together, their mission would have failed disastrously. The screenwriters used the vehicle of an action movie set in the submarine sub-sub-genre to express a timely message about cooperation.
So what does this message have to do with conventions and clichés? Nothing and everything. Movies that don’t move beyond clichés and lack a point of view represent lazy screenwriting. Laziness means 1) settling for the first idea and 2) not seeking deeper meaning in your story.
In my book, I contend that stories with a point of view are not only a richer experience, but they’re also commercial, given that audiences are starved for stories with substance. Taking the extra time to seek fresh angles on genre conventions and making an effort to write a story that not only tastes good, but is also nourishing are what separates the good from the great.