May 22, 2017

Why Screenwriting Rules are a Myth

Hell or High Water
It’s high time to throw out the so-called rules.

The number of so-called screenwriting rules out there is beyond epidemic. These fake rules have become a virus that sweep through social media infecting the unsuspecting, who then spread it to others. 

Take the idea of three-act structure as a formula. It’s not. It’s a malleable “form” that gives shape to the experience of story. Or flashbacks being some kind of screenwriting blasphemy. I recently read a social media thread where a mob attacked the use of flashbacks as a major screenwriting no-no, going so far as to say, and I quote, “If you have to use flashbacks your script is shit.” 

There is no one correct way to execute a screenplay. Whatever works to tell the story works.

Tell that to the writers and directors of classic and highly successful films such as; Rashomon, Memento, Citizen Kane, Usual Suspects, Oldboy, and The Godfather II to name just a few. Each of these used flashbacks as a compelling storytelling technique.

I’m a big believer in the notion that there is no one correct way to execute a screenplay. Whatever works to tell the story works—within reason. During my career I’ve seen far too may aspiring screenwriters get so caught up in rules and formulas that they get locked into a box that they can never think outside. 

One such so-called rule is that you can only write what can be seen or filmed. This is just not true. For example, take the following screenplay excerpt…. 

This is from Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and as you can see he is using prose and editorializing in the script for Schindler’s List.

Or check out the following except… 

A terrific piece of screenwriting from the Oscar-winning screenplay and film, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins.

Or how about these bits from Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or Highwater.

Now, obviously you don’t want to “overdo” this type of writing, but it is a proven screenwriting technique that can be effective in engaging the reader in your story. 

It’s important to realize that a spec writer’s audience is the people who will be reading their screenplay. (Agents, managers, development execs, readers doing coverage on it, etc.) So your screenplay is a story first and a movie second. This means that if enough industry folk love your script, it can then lead to being set up (bought) at a studio, and hopefully produced into a movie. 

How do these so-called rules become so ingrained in our screenwriting culture? There are many, many sources of this problem, but one of the most common is academics who teach screenwriting, yet have never actually worked in the film industry or sold a screenplay. 

To compensate for their lack of practical experience, they turn to screenwriting books. And while there are certainly a handful of really terrific books out there on screenwriting, the vast majority are written by academics who are vying for tenure. Subsequently, their books adhere to a “right way/wrong way” pedagogy, one that perpetuates misinformation that students then regurgitate as gospel. 

Bottom line: screenwriting is an art and not a science. So if you aspire to be a working screenwriter, avoid the so-called rules and live outside the artificially-created box.       

Your Comment

16 Comments

Certainly, there are times when it is appropriate to bend the rules, and even those rare opportunities to completely shatter them, but by in large, they exist for a reason. Moreover, the best creative solutions usually come from working within known boundaries rather than wasting much of your precious energy redefining the box.

I would also argue that each of your examples of writing something that can't be seen or heard are actually examples of writing things that *can* be seen and heard...just not as concretely as some other examples. They all serve as valuable "color" for informing performance or an aspect of production.

May 22, 2017 at 5:09PM

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Joseph Moore
Director
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May 22, 2017 at 5:49PM

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May 22, 2017 at 5:49PM

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Great article that reminds us that the dogmatic application of any rule can kill art in its infancy.
I have indeed seen people get stuck in rules.
And I recognize the discussion on flashbacks or voice-over: both tools that can be used in bo0th an effective and lazy way.

This article inspires me to allow for some liberties when it comes to using prose or even poetic prose to color a scene or emotion is a more captivating way. Although I do understand it should be done in small effective doses, otherwise a script might turn into a book. :P

May 22, 2017 at 6:32PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
9071

The way I look at it is that the rules help you better understand the craft. Over the years artists have learned how different aspects of their craft impact an audience. If you do this, it can have this effect. It's sort of a programming language of sorts. Because of how society operates and communicates, certain things will have a universal effect on people... more or less. This applies to all aspects of art.

In western society we read a story from left to right. So it feels natural to see a character walk from left to right. If they walk right to left then something feels off.. like maybe they are lost. This is a film "rule" that taps into how our minds are conditioned.

Drama is what drives a story. There needs to be something set in motion that grabs our attention. Something we want to see played out. Here's the situation, so what happens next? We enjoy engaging in a story and the characters. We enjoy empathizing with and exploring the mind of someone else.

Many of the rules that I find in screenwriting books are just tips on ways to do that effectively. It's not any different the learning how colors can effect an audience in a certain context. Why the 180 rule gives character interaction continuity and how breaking it can effectively disturb your audience at the right time (i.e. Inglorious Basterds)

Learning the "rules" is about learning how aspects of the craft can effects the audience. Once learned, then the artist can choose how they wield them. Sometimes breaking the rules can be very effective.

That being said, I do agree that people get too caught up in trying to find a perfect formula. A recipe to success. People certainly develop an unhealthy obsession with these "rules".

I think the best way to approach it is to not think of them as rules, but as tools. The 180 is a tool. It can give the audience comfortable continuity and it can be broken to disturb them for a moment and indicate a shift in the scene.

May 22, 2017 at 10:24PM

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Good read. I remember reading a screenwriting book and afterward, I began to write a new script. At first, the process was fun and exciting and then it hit me. I began to feel like my creativity was being smothered because I had to write within the confines of the rules that I've been implementing in my script. So I bend it a bit and grabbed my old notes and started to insert them into my script and then I felt free. Rules and formats are useful and of course, they have their place. But, I don't like to feel like I'm boxed in while I'm writing. Still, I followed the rules but I also didn't cast away my creativity. Follow the correct format but don't kill your creativity.

May 23, 2017 at 2:43AM

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Darrell E. Hines
Filmmaker, Writer
81

I've always viewed rules for screenwriting as the fundamentals. I believe beginning writers should learn them and be able to employ them in their first few screenplays. This is because once someone learns the fundamentals of the art, they can intuitively know how to effectively manipulate them and know how and when to disregard them.

May 23, 2017 at 9:57AM, Edited May 23, 9:57AM

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I can totally relate to the academic preaching what they see as the gospel when they've actually got no experience to speak of. There are loads of Uni nerds that put themselves forward as the vanguards of art and what is the 'Professional' way to do things and what is not, fucking bollocks talkers. Do your own thing and stay away from the negative 'would be elite' that want to promote the idea that they're more knowledgeable, more skillful and more worthy than you when their real agenda is simply to elevate and promote their individual status; and install themselves as some kind of judge and jury for people that are actually doing rather than just sitting back and observing. It's easier to sit back rather than risk actually put yourself out there.

May 23, 2017 at 2:40PM

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John Stockton
Film maker, Editor, Photographer.
378

There's different kinds of rules.

"You must do so and so by page 10" is silly.

"You must give your character actions and words that fit their worldview, make it believable that they'd make such and such a choice" is not.

If Don Corleone decided to suddenly leave the mafioso and go work long hours at a hot dog stand, it would be bad writing - not because it's boring (that would actually be fascinating to watch if it the problems were fixed - which is kinda why Breaking Bad did wonders with even the mundane scenes), but because it breaks a rule of good writing. Unless it's a parody (or the problems are fixed) - it just makes him into an unbelievable character and the magic of storytelling is broken.

Additionally, I think smart actors and directors would turn down a script that breaks rules of good character development and things like that, because ultimately they need the suspension of disbelief to keep the audience engaged, and if that magic is broken- the story becomes boring, no matter how artistic the cinematography

May 24, 2017 at 4:18AM, Edited May 24, 4:23AM

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I was just talking about this the other day with a friend from film school. You can't be taught much more than the basics. Definitions of plot, character, etc. If there was a formula, everybody and their mothers would be screenwriters. Much more useful it is to watch as much movie and TV as you can get your hands on and absorb what works and what doesn't for you, and build some style from there.

May 25, 2017 at 12:35AM

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Luan Oliveira
film student in Rio
152

Thank you! "Story" and "Storytelling" are thrown around so much as buzzwords that it seems like people interpret them rigidly and focus only on the concrete details of plot and screenwriting dogma.

I've always questioned why scripts shouldn't take more poetic license if they are supposed to translate to films with a distinct tone. Figurative language is what guides us to creating images that evoke the mood of the world, the characters' headspace, or the overall themes you're exploring.

May 25, 2017 at 3:27PM

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Joe Lalonde
Poser / Fraud / Hack
1

Are you suggesting to have a copy to 'lure' them in and then conform it later for filming? I think a lot of the rules lend themselves to when you break it down for scheduling and budgeting, no?

June 21, 2017 at 3:50PM, Edited June 21, 3:50PM

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By citing to examples where it's done correctly the article gives the impression that writing unfilmables is almost never a bad idea. "Just don't overdo it."

The problem is that far too often inexperienced writers will put into their scene descriptions information that is critical to the scene and the narrative as a whole but which if shot and presented would not be understood by the audience. They are confusing the general form of the novel with screenwriting. If it's written in there somewhere, it exists in the story.

This just isn't the case with screenwriting. If it isn't presented visually, dramatically within the scene it doesn't exist in the story. The descriptions in the sample scenes don't contain information important to those scenes.

July 7, 2017 at 12:34AM

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Screenplay are blueprints - but just like blueprints for new buildings they need to inspire (the reader). What's interesting about the selections chosen is that they all alow us inside a characters head, to feel their feelings. This is incredibly valuable for the actor reading it and later to give that character an internal life on screen: it puts the viewer inside their brain. The examples also actually do contain some action for the character, a physical manifestation of the "thought". Action revealing character is one of the bedrock principles of screenwriting.

August 20, 2017 at 9:05AM

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John G. Young
Director
1

without flashbacks a movie i) will not be entirely sensible ii) will be long

September 21, 2017 at 8:58AM

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Budi
Writer - Director
85

This article is so spot on and resonates wildly with me from my experience at The University of Sunderland. We had a lecturer that taught us to write in a certain way. Never use 'pros' always keep the action what you can see show don't tell all of that. NEVER use flashback as it's a sign of a bad or inexperienced writer. All of these things were then as this article suggests then regurgitated as gospel by other and often on social media quite viciously. Now I just write the way I write and if others don't like it, that's their problem. You just can't write in such a limited way and entertain the reader. If the opening few pages grip the reader straight away no one will care. What they read your script thinks the stories amazing but then tell you to go away because the formattings not right. I don't think so.

September 21, 2017 at 9:10AM

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John Stockton
Film maker, Editor, Photographer.
378