Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: What to Write and Not to Write [P. 76]:
Every photoplay writer goes through approximately the same stages in apprenticeship, dreaming the same fancies that thousands have dreamed before, and falling on the same ancient ideas in the delusion that they are brand new discoveries. Nearly half the stories that come to any office are rejected because they are “old stuff.” Sometimes this is because the writer unconsciously is repeating what he has seen or read in the past; but more often it is because the same solution to the problems of life occur to all of us.
It takes hard work to create a new plot, so beware of the one which comes too easily. By way of helping you we will try to pass on to you the most valuable attribute of any scenarist–namely, the knowledge of what has already been overworked.
This goes to the heart of Hollywood’s longstanding criterion when it comes to acquiring and developing scripted projects: “similar but different.” Too similar, it comes across as “old stuff.” Different, then it’s a variation on a theme and something a movie studio can market.
Takeaway: You need to pay attention not only to what movies are being released currently into theaters, but also what the buyers are buying.
If only there was a free online service that provided this information…
Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.
If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.