Why Screenwriting Rules are a Myth
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.