In the handful of times I’ve helped out as co-writer or script polisher on somebody else’s project, there have been variations on the following conversation:
ME: And then THIS happens!
THEM: Oh, we can’t do that. ACTUAL MOVIE did the same thing.
ME: Not exactly. ACTUAL MOVIE did THIS, and what I’m suggesting is maybe at the very foundation the same concept, but if we did it THIS WAY so THIS HAPPENS, it would be entirely different.
THEM: But won’t people think we’re just ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE?
ME: First of all, ACTUAL MOVIE has been out for a while, and you’re at least a year away from having this thing done, so I highly doubt the first thing anyone’s going to think is we’re ripping off ACTUAL MOVIE. Second, this is exactly why I think THIS is how it should happen. True, both use the basic concept, but we’re putting our own spin on it so it doesn’t resemble ACTUAL MOVIE at all. They’re similar, if you could even call it that, but still different.
THEM: (thinks it over). Well, okay. We’ll give it a try.
I’ve read about this in articles and seen it firsthand while reading scripts, both times usually associated with newer writers. Somebody really likes how something happens in a film or a script, so then they go and have the EXACT SAME THING happen in theirs. I get that you liked that original, but why, oh why would you want to use it practically verbatim in yours?
Doing the screenwriting equivalent of a “copy, cut, and paste” will do you no good because it’ll be painfully obvious that’s what you did. You’re trying to tell an original story, and THIS is what you do?
If anything, people will definitely think you ripped off that original thing and berate you for your total lack of originality. Was that your goal? Probably not.
Time to get analytical. What was it about that particular something that really got to you? Why do you feel the need to have the same thing happen in your script? That’s the angle from which to approach it.
But this is also where the challenge begins. Once you identify that core detail, it’s up to you, the writer, to figure out a new way to use it in such a way that not only does it serve the purpose you need, but also pays homage to what inspired it in the first place.
You know where things are going, or at least where you want them to go, but now you need to tweak how they get there. Work those muscles of creativeness! Try something new! Don’t hesitate to jump off the beaten path into new territory! If anything, you might come up with an entirely new idea that accomplishes exactly what you needed, but just a totally different way.
Sure, there’s a very slight chance it could potentially remind somebody of ACTUAL MOVIE, but they’ll definitely remember that it came from yours.