It could be said that the most important thing when writing a new screenplay is to be original. However, this notion can also be misunderstood. A lot of screenwriters spend countless hours trying to come up with brand new ideas that have never seen the screen – and sometimes it works! Contrary to tired criticisms that the film world is “out of ideas,” there are plenty of new ones to be had. With that said, however, originality isn’t always about core concept. It can come through in virtually any aspect of a screenplay. As simplistic and cliché as it may sound, the important thing is just to tell a good story, and tell it in a compelling manner.
For that reason, it’s perfectly fine to stick to subjects that have not only been done before, but may have been done time and time again. There are reasons that certain general setups work well in screenplay form, and in some cases they can provide virtually limitless opportunities for new adaptations. If nothing else, writing within an established genre or common scenario can be excellent practice.
With this in mind, these are five subjects that appear to be timeless for screenplays.
There’s almost something inherently vintage about spy drama. We think of past 007 actors checking their fancy watches, for instance, or Robert Redford peering around corners in Three Days Of The Condor. More modern spy films tend to be more about action (with some exceptions, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or even Red Sparrow). However, they’re no less popular. Case in point, the latest Mission: Impossible installment became the highest domestic earner in the franchise. The bottom line is that there’s always an appetite for espionage, and it’s a topic you don’t need genuine expertise to write about. Any spy drama-related screenplay has a chance to keep people engaged.
The truth about wedding movies is that most of them aren’t really about weddings, so much as the romantic entanglements that surround them. Think about a few of the more famous ones over the last few decades. The Wedding Planner concerns a groom falling for his wedding planner; Wedding Crashers makes a joke of the whole situation but is ultimately a dual romance with crashers falling for bridesmaids; even Father Of The Bride is as much about the relationship of the titular bride’s parents as the central marriage (though it’s also a father-daughter story). Screenwriters use weddings because they’re inherently dramatic, getting family and friends together in fancy settings with emotions running high. What you do with that as a base setting can be just about anything.
Casino gaming is always evolving, and film has evolved with it. Echoing an era of casinos associated with mom activity, we got Casino. When poker was a popular back room and basement game, there was Rounders. Thanks in part to that film, poker and casinos became trendy and glamorous again, leading to a film like 21. And then everything migrated to the internet. There are now interactive environments and games with live dealers across the internet, leading to a film like Runner Runner trying to take advantage of the online gaming movement. More recently we’ve seen a vintage buddy road trip movie (Mississippi Grind) and a biopic (Molly’s Game) revolving around casinos. As with weddings, there’s inherent drama in a casino, which makes it a good backdrop for a script in any of these styles or eras.
One might have thought about a year ago that we’d come as far as we could with war movies. But then along came Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was said to offer a new kind of war movie. The film proved that there’s still new ground to cover, not only in the limitless trove of fascinating stories that exist when one digs into the history of our world at war, but also stylistically. There is perhaps no more dramatic setting or background than a battle or war, such that it can effectively supercharge a script with tension. What you do with that tension and how you build characters and relationships around a war saga is what will make yours either a good or bad screenplay. But the building blocks are always there.
Would it be fair to say that Gladiator, Kill Bill, and The Revenant are among the 20 or 30 most striking or memorable films of this century so far? What about to say that Taken and John Wick are among the best action films of the last decade? You may or may not agree, but these are at least fair positions, and all of these films involve revenge. They take place in settings ranging from Ancient Rome to modern America, involve protagonists from slaves to fur traders to trained assassins, and have come out over a span of nearly 20 years. Revenge is a simple concept, but it’s one that can be at the core of an incredible variety of screenplays, often with great success.