As aspiring screenwriters, we tend to look for tips, tricks, or shortcuts to improve our screenwriting, but inevitably we have to do the hard work of writing the story. Moreover, we want our unique voices to pop off the page, engaging and surprising our readers, and someone else's rules for screenwriting (beyond the basics of story structure and screenplay format) may mute our unique voices. So, with this in mind, screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report, The Lookout) shared his rules for screenwriting during his recent BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture. Note: these rules only pertain to Scott Frank, not to you.
You can listen Scott Frank's BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture below (or read a transcript):
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If you listen to Frank's BAFTA lecture, you will quickly learn that he has nothing to teach you about screenwriting - at least, he doesn't think he does. Remember, these are Scott Frank's rules, not your rules. These rules may not apply to you. In fact, these rules most likely don't apply to you, so don't apply them. Instead, perhaps these rules will shed some light on what your own rules for screenwriting are.
Now, without further ado, Scott Frank's rules for screenwriting courtesy of the BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture series (again, they don't pertain to you):
1. "It's OK to write something for the money, it's OK to write something just because you want to."
Frank explains that his favorite screenplay of all that he has written is Out of Sight. He also originally took the job to write Out of Sight so his three children who were all sharing one bedroom could move into a bigger house. He had no idea that the process of writing that screenplay for hire would be the best screenwriting journey of his career.
On the flip side, writers should write the stories that they want to tell without worrying so much about the market's preconceived notions. Frank expands on this idea:
The writing process is hard enough without the added burden of having to locate your movie ahead of time in some arbitrary historical context. So please go ahead and write your robot movie; or the superhero movie. Or whatever movie you want to. Just don't write it because you think I or anyone else is waiting for you to do it.
2. "Never begin a screenplay with set design."
Frank summarizes this rule the best when he remarks, "I want story! I want to get hooked! Or, at the very least, interested. And no one has ever hooked me with a description of furniture."
3. "Invariably, the second draft will be worse than the first draft."
See, this is why these rules aren't for you, they are for Scott Frank. Your second draft may be infinitely better than your first draft - especially if your first draft was a pile of pages (you thought I was gonna say something scatological, didn't you and your filthy mind?). For Frank, however, this is never the case because he is always try to please everyone who has given him notes and cram all of those notes into the second draft. When that second draft obviously doesn't work, he creates his draft.
For me, one of the most important yet most difficult parts of the writing process is receiving and interpreting notes on my screenplays. Some notes are good, some notes are bad, and some notes simply make no sense. As writers, it is our job to determine which notes to incorporate into the next draft of the screenplay and how to make the screenplay better as a result. It certainly doesn't always happen this way, but that's still our job. Or it would be our job if we got paid for it.
4. "Whenever possible, be the dumbest guy in the room."
I'll let Scott Frank own this one entirely. Listen to the lecture for his reasoning, though. Then you can decide if you were in a room alone with Scott Frank whether or not you could outdumb him.
5. "The process is everything."
Frank explains in his lecture that working with people who challenge our writing in good ways makes the process better, and a better process leads to a better screenplay. As aspiring screenwriters, I think one of our difficulties can be finding people who understand telling stories in the form of a screenplay who can challenge our writing in good ways. If you find one of those people, consider yourself lucky and invest in that relationship.
6. "Always be reading something."
This sounds obvious, but Frank doesn't mean reading screenplays. He means reading stories -- any stories -- that excite and motivate you. We all want to get better at storytelling via words on the page. Sure, screenwriting is a unique, economical style of writing, but reading good stories outside of the screenplay format will certainly inform and enlighten a screenwriter who is open to discovering new ways to engage the audience on the page.
Now we know you aren't going to apply these rules to your own screenwriting, so why not share some of your own rules for screenwriting in the Comments. Nobody will use them. Just you.