Content Creation Recipe Book: Don’t Change the Recipe, Just the Ingredients

April 10, 2017 Keith MacKenzie

content creation

It’s all on you: you’re the go-to guy to write gripping stories, complete with the dynamic protagonist (knight in armor, working-class hero, suited-up crusader for justice in NYC’s mean streets) battling l’objet de resistance (fearsome dragon, social perceptions, evil money-minded bureaucrats) en route to the object of desire (damsel in distress, your dream job, draining the so-called swamp).

But there’s a problem in your content creation: that of cliché. As a consumer of story, you’ve heard all too often the tales of the dashing knight, the furrowed-brow determination of the common man, the ethically motivated businessman’s drive to bring respectability back to the company boardroom. These clichés are kind of boring, and you’re in danger of losing your audience.

So, how do you freshen things up and catch their eye again? Let’s start from the beginning.

Everything Old Is New Again

Let’s quickly glance at the movies. Put your hand up if it feels like everything on the big screen is a reboot, remake, or sequel. Spider-Man is now being rebooted for a third time in 15 years; first Tobey Maguire, then Andrew Garfield, now Tom Holland. Ben Affleck is the fourth actor to play Batman since Michael Keaton suited up as the Caped Crusader in 1989.

Remakes? Total Recall, The Fly, True Grit, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Clash of the Titans, The Karate Kid, Conan the Barbarian, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Poltergeist, the list goes on; all have seen remakes of some kind or another. A new Jumanji is coming up starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, same for Flatliners, Commando, Death Wish (with Bruce Willis in Charles Bronson’s role), and even Scarface, Videodrome, and Weird Science. Scarface, in fact, is a remake of a remake. The latest version of The Thing was a remake of a remake, as well.

And they seem to be making sequels to everything: 2017 alone will see Trainspotting 2, American Pie 5, Bad Boys 4, Chucky 7, Dodgeball 2, Flash Gordon 2, Gremlins 3, Goonies 2. The Fast and the Furious franchise now has an eighth installment, sans Paul Walker.

So, what’s going on? At their heart, these reboots, remakes, and sequels are an attempt to re-tap into the power of a great story. After all, if a specific recipe for a delicious cake works, you’d use that same recipe again in the future, right? But, sometimes, these new films can’t seem to recreate the essence of the original, no matter how hard they try. Gus Van Sant’s infamous shot-for-shot recreation of Psycho in 1998 continues to be a headline example of why it does not work. “Inevitably, the experiment failed,” wrote Cameron Johnson on a film website, “and Psycho 1998 remains one of the most fascinating—and important—failures in the history of cinema.”

As Johnson adds, “Psycho 1998 is a bad remake because it totally disregards the element of surprise that made the original great, and brings nothing new to the table [emphasis mine].”

Echoing Johnson, i09 writer Rob Bricken noted about Marc Webb’s version of Spider-Man, “[I]t just failed to make a compelling argument for why anyone should see it instead of just renting the original.”

Clearly, simply replicating something that was successful before does not always work. So what’s missing, then, especially in a world that seems saturated with story? Let’s think about storytelling guru Robert McKee’s analysis of the story craft: what’s needed in any content creation, regardless of whether it follows formula or not, is a surprise. Something that makes you sit up and say, “Whoa, this has my interest.”

A Violation of Expectation

“I warn everybody when they take my seminar that it’s not a formula,” McKee said in a 2015 interview. “I show all of the variations and violations of the classic form.” So, it’s not about the recipe. It’s about adding a new ingredient to create a fresh flavor, to violate the original expectation.

Let’s look at three basic approaches to that in the storytelling pop culture.

Make an Important Character Expendable

Now a standard feature (thanks to The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones), killing off regular characters was a powerful tactic at one time. The Sopranos, a groundbreaking show that put HBO on the map at the turn of the millennium, saw no fewer than 92 character deaths sprinkled over its six seasons, making for a wild and unpredictable ride for its many fans.

The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Boston-based crime thriller from 2006, is noted for its very Shakespearean approach in killing off nearly all characters by the end of the movie. One surprising death featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in an elevator. We’re so attuned to the idea that the protagonist—in this case, DiCaprio’s character—should come out on top that we’re caught off guard by his sudden and violent death.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens utilized surprising character death in its story elements, as well. One of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars universe is surprisingly dispatched in a surprising turn of events. Director J.J. Abrams is well-regarded for utilizing this tactic, with sudden and unexpected deaths in his Lost TV series and reversing the roles of the famous Spock death sequence in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan by having Captain Kirk die instead of Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness.

But care must be taken with these death scenes. The Walking Dead was lambasted for trying too hard for shock effect, as one critic noted, “[T]he death scene in ‘No Way Out’ feels like a scene that exists solely to upset viewers, as if to proclaim, ‘Betcha didn’t think we’d do that, huh?!’ It feels crass and exploitative, which is somehow not something I’ve felt even in TWD‘s most insane moments.”

The Force Awakens death scene was likewise criticized by Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek. “The direction and editing of this scene tells us a lot about modern mainstream movies and the way big dramatic moments have become a kind of currency, a chip to be cashed in for some brief emotional rush.”

Shake Up the Traditional Narrative

One of the iconic movies of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction, really turned Hollywood on its head and, some say, saved the industry from demise. Its borderline offensive, unorthodox approach to storytelling—complete with often-funny, colorful dialogue, not-quite-shining-armor characters, and unexpected plot turns—left an indelible impression on cinema. One of its most effective strategies was its non-linear approach to storytelling.

There was a downside, however: Pulp Fiction spawned countless copycats, some good, some not so good. That brings us back the danger of trying to remake/reboot/sequel a film.

Turn a Tired Trope on Its Head

Imagine a horror movie about a group of young, good-looking people in a cabin in the woods. You know how that’ll play out, right? Well, the trope’s been done so many times, that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard turned it on its head in 2011 with the aptly named Cabin in the Woods, which does start out with the too-familiar youngsters-in-cabin scenario. But it surprises you right then by going absolutely, completely meta and post-modern in a dynamic twist on the genre.

Similarly, Wes Craven injected new life into the horror genre with 1996’s Scream, having characters actively talking about famous horror movie tropes throughout, in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a tired space. Essentially, Craven threw comedy and postmodernism into the oft-used horror recipe. The result was a box-office bonanza and a whole new generation of horror movies.

Those are all stories that impacted audiences because of one thing: they took something familiar and tried something a little—or a lot—different with it. But what if you already have a well-written story and can’t quite change it?

Reimagine the Story Elements

Perhaps all you need to do to challenge expectations is change the characters or the settings, not the story itself. Switch out some of the ingredients for new ones in the same recipe. For instance, instead of having a damsel in distress, have a dude in distress. Mad Max: Fury Road impressed moviegoers with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the protagonist, with Mad Max (Tom Hardy) barely hanging on for the ride.

Ridley Scott has been known to shake up the gender roles in movies. For instance, 1991’s Thelma and Louise featured women in the leading roles rather than men, drawing attention for its boldness in smashing female stereotypes in an exciting and violent road-trip movie. Another Scott film, Alien, also featured a woman—Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver—being the lone surviving hero at the end of the movie, challenging late-1970s customs. And a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the leads played by women instead of men in Tuscany, Italy was unsuccessfully challenged by Beckett’s family in court in 2006.

You might even switch up the race of the characters. This should be treaded with caution, however, as seen in the poor box-office results of the recently released Ghost in the Shell, which a Paramount executive admitted was a result of the whitewashing controversy after Scarlett Johansson was cast in the main role instead of a Japanese actor.

But, when done right, it can work. For instance, Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie splatterfest from 1968, not only turned heads for its uncharacteristically gruesome content (for the time), but also surprised many a seasoned moviegoer with its casting of a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead role during a time where such a thing was rare.

Ben giving Barbara her slippers

As the story goes, when George Romero initially wrote the script for the movie, he hadn’t thought about the possibility that the lead role of Ben would be performed by a black actor—it just happened that way. While the movie remains innovative, it may not have had such a memorable impact if the main character was a white guy delivering working-class lines with a rough country accent. Instead, Ben was performed as a middle-class black man, which contrasted with the stereotype at the time and caught people’s interest and attention. “[I]n the original script, white Ben is a stereotype. Via Jones’ interpretation, black Ben is not.”

Additionally, the social commentary of the movie turned heads. “When Jones’ character meets his fateful end after being mistaken as a zombie by the all-white mob that shows up to the farm house, it’s a blistering condemnation of the social class. Civil rights legislation may have been passed, but there was still a large divide based on race in America. Night of the Living Dead used horror as a metaphor for the unjust discrimination a large population of people were still facing daily across the country.” Similarly, recent release Get Out has been called a fresh masterpiece combining horror, comedy, and racial commentary in a likewise-charged narrative. Audiences responded; Get Out recently shattered The Blair Witch Project‘s box office record for highest grossing original debut, with more than $160 million in ticket sales at the time of writing.

The mostly forgotten 1995 John Travolta vehicle White Man’s Burden attempted something bold: it flipped the races so that the black population was the privileged one and the white population was the oppressed, undeserved one. Although this “well-meaning essay on race relations” fell mostly flat, the intent was there: what if we tried this instead of that? What if we put this person in that role instead of that one?

We’re also seeing it happening with historical reimagining: the popular Amazon TV series, Man in the High Castle, plays on the premise of “what if the Japanese and Germans won World War 2?” Although based on of a Philip K. Dick novel, it was still an original concept for TV that drew the crowds in and was recently announced for a third season.

Robin Williams suggested a reimagining of Shakespeare’s iconic characters in Dead Poets’ Society, suggesting Marlon Brando or John Wayne as Hamlet and Macbeth:

We’ve indeed seen quite a few interesting incarnations of the immortal bard’s plays. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki reimagined Hamlet in a corporate environment, complete with suits and an obsession with money rather than melancholia. Eccentric moviemaker Baz Luhrmann moved Romeo and Juliet to modern-day Los Angeles, with guns instead of knives and a thundering soundtrack that appealed immensely to teenagers at the time. As Matthew Saga wrote in the Huffington Post, “[I]t connected with hip audiences by turning Shakespearean verse into a two-hour postmodern music video.”

So, next time you find yourself in a creative funk, all you might need to do to break out of it is to switch things up. As Luhrmann said about his take on the doomed lovers’ saga, “The stories don’t change. It’s about finding a language, whether that be cinematic or theatrical, that can communicate it.”

It’s not only the language, but also the story elements—the ingredients—that can make a tried-and-true recipe fresh and surprising for your audience. Do that, and you may find a very receptive crowd in a crowded, well-worn story space.

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Featured image attribution: Dan Edwards

The post Content Creation Recipe Book: Don’t Change the Recipe, Just the Ingredients appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.

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