“There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.” I heard that a lot in college, and like many young writers, argued against the concept. But there’s truth in those words. Stories have been an intrinsic part of the human experience for so long that, at this point, just about everything is a trope. That’s not to excuse Hollywood from remaking the same movies over and over again, but as our guest writer for today, the pitch master herself, Lindsey Hughes, shows us there are ways to borrow elements from and be inspired by familiar stories to create new works of art.
Until next time,
You want to write something – the next billion-dollar movie, hit TV show, or bestselling comic. Maybe a story so stellar it becomes all three. But you don’t have an idea. And staring at that blinking cursor isn’t helping inspiration strike. The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch. You can build upon the thousands of stories that have been told before you ever sat down at your computer. Picking one of your favorite yarns to use as a template for your own project is a time-honored Hollywood tradition. Writers often use templates both as jumping-off points and as a road map. The old adage that “there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them” is true. You can borrow concepts, character dynamics, or plot structure. If you put your own spin on a template, it’s not stealing; it’s inspiration. Where do you find this inspiration? Everywhere! All kinds of stories work as templates. Here are some of my favorites.
Fairy Tales, Myths, & Legends
Fairy tales, myths, & legends are the oldest stories. Many of them were told around campfires before people were reading and writing. They are a wonderful resource for writers. For instance, in Cold Mountain (2003), instead of Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War in the Odyssey, we follow the struggle of a Civil War soldier to return to his true love. Fairy tale parody Shrek (2001) borrows liberally from the Arthurian legend Tristen & Isolde. Like Tristen, Shrek falls in love with the princess he is supposed to be escorting to her fiancé. Even old movies used fairy tale plots. In Ball of Fire (1941), stripper Barbara Stanwyck hides out with seven professors, who are standing in for the Seven Dwarves. TV series also raid fairy tales for ideas. “Exile,” an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (2003), is a version of Beauty & the Beast with a female crew member gradually falling in love with her alien captor.
Putting an updated spin on a classic fairy tale is in vogue right now. In Snow White & the Huntsman (2012), Snow White teams-up with the Huntsman to take down the evil queen. She becomes an action hero instead of a victim lying lifeless in a glass coffin, rescued by Prince Charming. Similarly, in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), the children have grown up and use their experience to save others from evil witches.
There are thousands of fairy tales, myths, & legends from cultures all over the world. Here is a list of Western fairy tales to get you started: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fairy_tales
All of those books you read in English class are a great place to go hunting for ideas. Most of them are in the public domain so you can write a straight adaption without having to pay for an option. These books get made into movies and TV series again and again because they are wonderfully cinematic stories. Adding to the long list of literary projects, this year we have a new version of Tarzan – The Legend of Tarzan (Warner Brothers) – and a mini-series based upon War & Peace (Lifetime, BBC).
In addition to straight adaptations, classic literature inspires many other kinds of projects. The mother of all classic literature templates is Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, which continues to birth a steady stream of versions. So far this year we have Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Sony), and the Hallmark Channel movie Unleashing Mr. Darcy set in the dog training world. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bride & Prejudice (2004) are modern retellings of everyone’s favorite romantic comedy. Sleepy Hollow (1999) turned the classic ghost story the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into a supernatural murder mystery. Steven Moffat has made modern versions of literature into two TV series, Robert Louis Stevenson’s thriller Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde became Jekyll (2007) and super sleuth Sherlock Holmes returned in Sherlock (2010 -2016).
Here is a list of classic books to get you started: http://pd.sparknotes.com/lit/
While Shakespeare is considered classic literature, with 37 plays to his name, he is in a category all by himself. His plays run from comedy to tragedy to history. There are lots of juicy stories and characters to mine. Shakespeare’s plays have inspired projects across genres. Two beloved high school comedies are retellings of Shakespearean works: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) is The Taming of the Shrew, and She’s the Man (2006) is Twelfth Night. West Side Story (1961) is a musical Romeo & Juliet set amidst gang wars in 1950s New York. The science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956) is The Tempest reimagined on a distant planet with the magician Prospero as a mysterious scientist. And House of Cards (2013-16) borrows liberally from the power-mad MacBeth.
Here is a list of Shakespeare plays by genre:http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/plays.php
If you want to create entertainment – movies, TV, & comics, you need to be well-versed in movie history. The stories that we are creating today build on what came before. The people you will be working for and with – the executives, producers, and writers – will often reference other movies and you need to know what they are talking about. Even more important, for your writing to really shine, you need movies in your template toolbox.
A lot of people don’t like to hear that they need to watch older films. They don’t want to watch actors they have never heard of in stories that feel old-fashioned. And if a film is in black and white, forget it. But these movies are considered classics for a reason; they’re good! Years ago a friend of mine got her big break and sold a freelance pitch to a TV show. In her first meeting the showrunner kept talking about how her episode was a version of The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957). She had no idea what he was talking about and had to fake it. Trust me, movie templates come up in every story meeting.
Classic movies influence writers across all genres. Animated movies love to use templates. For example, Chicken Run (2000) is The Great Escape (1963) with poultry; instead of Allied soldiers escaping a Nazi POW camp, chickens escape a farm. Sometimes writers use templates but utilize them in a different genre. For example, the action movie Twister (1996) borrowed the dynamic between Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton from the romantic comedy His Girl Friday (1940). In both films, a divorcing couple is forced to work together and rediscover their love. When someone accused writers Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin of stealing his original idea, their successful defense was that they had actually been inspired by His Girl Friday instead! In Nashville (2012-16), the rivalry between country singers Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere was clearly inspired by the competition between Bette Davis and Ann Baxter – both portraying actresses – in All About Eve (1950).
The American Film Institute has lists of classic movies by genre. http://www.afi.com/100years/
Some Ways To Use Templates
So you’ve picked a template – what is your next step? As you can see from the examples above, you can use templates in a variety of ways:
- Put a twist on a familiar story by telling it from a new perspective, such as making the villain the hero – Maleficent (2014)
- A modern retelling – House of Cards (2013-16)
- Borrow a character dynamic – Nashville (2012-16)
- Switch-up the genre – various Sherlock Holmes movies (2009, 2011) made the cerebral Holmes into an action hero
- Set your story in high school a la Clueless (1995) – a reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma. In fact, YA books are brilliant at this. There are YA versions of The Great Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, and even the movie The Women (1939)
Finally, templates can make your project that much easier to pitch. If you can say that your animated movie is Ocean’s 11 with squirrels (The Nut Job (2014)) or that your TV show is MacBeth in the American political system (House of Cards (2013-16)), executives can immediately grasp your story’s throughline and want to hear more. Referencing a template can give the executive whom you are pitching to something they can communicate to their bosses easily. Even better, you now have a shorthand that is both memorable and repeatable – two qualities that are highly valuable as your project moves up the executive ladder for consideration.
And to think, at one time you didn’t even have an idea.
About the Author
In her wide ranging career as a development executive, Lindsey has worked in everything from feature films to television movies, TV series to live action and animation. Now Lindsey teaches creative people how to sell themselves and their projects as they grow their careers. For help with storytelling and networking you can find her at www.thepitchmaster.com and on Twitter @thepitchmaster.