Screenwriting is an art form that blends storytelling, dialogue, and visual elements to create compelling narratives.

Whether you're an aspiring screenwriter or a seasoned professional, understanding the core principles of the craft is essential.

These principles, often encapsulated in succinct maxims, serve as guidelines to help writers craft engaging, coherent, and impactful stories. Below, we explore some of the most influential screenwriting maxims, offering insights into their meanings.

Let's dive in together.

Screenwriting Maxims and Their Definitions

Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell teaching in a clasroom in 'Freedom Writers'Freedom Writers'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Creating an exhaustive list of screenwriting maxims and their definitions can be quite extensive, but I'll highlight some of the most recognized and influential ones.

And I even added hyperlinks to deeper dives on the subject.

  1. Show, Don't Tell: This maxim urges screenwriters to convey their story through visual actions and behaviors rather than exposition or dialogue. It's about letting the audience see the story unfold rather than being told what's happening.
  2. Start Late, Leave Early:A principle that advises writers to enter a scene as late as possible and exit as early as possible, focusing only on the essential parts of the scene to maintain pacing and interest.
  3. Three-Act Structure: A widely used narrative model in screenwriting. The first act sets up the story, introducing characters and conflicts. The second act develops these conflicts, and the third act resolves them.
  4. Character Arc: The transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of the story. A well-defined character arc is crucial for creating depth and relatability in characters.
  5. Conflict is Key:This maxim highlights the importance of conflict in driving a story. Every scene should have some form of conflict to maintain tension and propel the narrative forward.
  6. Save The Cat: A term popularized by screenwriter Blake Snyder, it refers to the idea of making your protagonist likable early in the script, often through an admirable or relatable action.
  7. Kill Your Darlings: This encourages writers to be willing to cut beloved scenes, lines, or characters if they do not serve the overall story.
  8. Every Scene Must Serve a Purpose: Each scene in the screenplay should advance the plot, reveal something about a character, or otherwise contribute to the overall story.
  9. Subtext is Essential:The idea that what’s happening beneath the surface of the dialogue and action is just as important as what is on the surface. It's about the implied meanings and emotions that are not explicitly stated.
  10. The Inciting Incident:The event that sets the main story into motion. It occurs early in the script and disrupts the life or world of the protagonist.
  11. Plant and Payoff: A technique where an element is introduced early in the story (planted) and then later used in a significant way (paid off).
  12. Write What You Know:Encourages writers to draw from their own experiences and emotions to bring authenticity to their work.
  13. Dialogue Should Be Distinctive and Purposeful: Each character should have a unique voice, and their dialogue should serve the story in a meaningful way.
  14. The Hero's Journey:A common narrative archetype described by Joseph Campbell, involving a hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, and returns home transformed.
  15. Pacing is Critical: The rhythm of the story must be carefully managed to keep the audience engaged, balancing quieter, reflective moments with high-tension scenes.
  16. Less is More: Encourages brevity and simplicity in writing. Avoid over-explaining and let the visuals and context convey the story.
  17. The Rule of Three: A principle that suggests ideas or events presented in threes are more satisfying and effective in storytelling. This can apply to character development, plot points, or even dialogue.
  18. Chekhov's Gun:A dramatic principle that states that every element introduced in a story must be necessary and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements introduced should come into play later, creating a sense of payoff for the audience.
  19. Enter Late, Exit Early: Similar to "Start Late, Leave Early," this maxim advises writers to jump into scenes as late as possible and exit them as soon as they can, to keep the story moving at a brisk pace.
  20. The Magic of Reversals:The idea that to keep a story engaging, it should constantly surprise the audience with twists and turns, challenging their expectations.
  21. Obligatory Scene:Refers to a scene that the audience expects to see, given the genre or the narrative setup. Fulfilling this expectation can be crucial for audience satisfaction.
  22. Emotional Truth: Even if a story is fantastical, the emotions and reactions of characters should be genuine and relatable, creating a connection with the audience.
  23. Suspension of Disbelief:The need for a screenplay to create a world where the audience can suspend their disbelief and accept the unfolding events, no matter how fantastical.
  24. The Inner Journey: Beyond the external plot, focusing on the protagonist's internal transformation or psychological journey, which can be as important as the external events.
  25. Setups and Payoffs: Everything introduced in a story (a character trait, an object, a line of dialogue) should be set up and eventually paid off, providing a satisfying narrative experience.
  26. Foreshadowing: A device used to hint at or indicate a future event in the story, adding layers of depth and suspense.
  27. Write Visually: Encourages the creation of scenes that capitalize on the visual nature of film, conveying stories through imagery as much as through dialogue.
  28. The All Is Lost Moment: A moment usually occurring late in the second act where the protagonist’s situation seems hopeless, heightening the dramatic tension.
  29. Raise the Stakes: Continuously increasing what is at risk for the characters to keep the story escalating and the audience engaged.
  30. Voice of the Character: Each character should have a distinct voice, reflecting their background, personality, and current situation, to create a more believable and diverse narrative landscape.
  31. Catharsis: The emotional release felt by the audience at the end of a successful narrative arc, often the result of a significant change or release for the characters.
  32. Mystery vs. Suspense: Understanding the difference between these two elements and how they can be used to engage the audience. Mystery involves the unknown, suspense involves anticipation of known or partially known events.
  33. The Moral Premise: Suggests that every story should communicate a moral lesson or truth, guiding the narrative and character decisions.
  34. As You Write, Think and Edit: Encourages writers to consider how scenes will transition and flow during the editing process, fostering a more dynamic and coherent film.
  35. Dialogue as Subtext: The principle that dialogue should often convey more than just its literal meaning, revealing deeper truths about characters and situations.
  36. Economy of Characters:Advises against having more characters than necessary, as each additional character complicates the story and divides audience attention.
  37. The Antagonist’s Strength: A strong antagonist often makes for a more compelling story, as they push the protagonist to their limits and create significant conflict.
  38. Character Consistency: While characters should evolve, their basic traits and motivations should remain consistent to maintain believability.
  39. Action Speaks Louder Than Words: Highlights the importance of showing character traits and emotions through actions rather than just dialogue.
  40. The Hook: The opening of the screenplay should 'hook' the viewer's interest and make them want to keep watching.
  41. Scene Transitions: Effective transitions between scenes are essential for maintaining pacing and narrative flow.
  42. Balance of Dialogue and Action: A well-written screenplay should balance dialogue and action, ensuring neither dominates at the expense of the other.
  43. The Lie Your Character Believes: Many stories revolve around a central lie or misconception that the protagonist believes at the beginning and must overcome.
  44. Escalation: Each scene should escalate the situation from where it began, increasing tension and stakes.
  45. Parallel Storylines: Using parallel storylines can enrich the narrative but must converge meaningfully to avoid confusing the audience.
  46. Avoid On-the-Nose Dialogue: Dialogue should sound natural and realistic, avoiding overly direct or expository lines that can feel artificial.
  47. The Midpoint Reversal: A twist around the middle of the screenplay that changes the direction or ups the stakes of the story, reinvigorating the narrative.
  48. Theme Embodied in Characters: The theme of the screenplay should be reflected in the characters’ actions, choices, and growth.
  49. Visual Metaphors: Using visual elements symbolically to represent deeper themes or emotions.
  50. Use of Silence:Understanding when not to have dialogue can be as powerful as the dialogue itself, allowing for moments of reflection or heightened emotion.
  51. Juxtaposition: Placing opposing elements (scenes, characters, themes) near each other to highlight their differences.
  52. The False Victory or Defeat: A moment where it appears the protagonist has won or lost, but it’s a false peak or pit leading to the final climax.
  53. Use of Recurring Motifs: Repeated visual, dialogue, or thematic elements that reinforce the film’s themes or characters’ journeys.

These maxims serve as a compass for screenwriters navigating the complex terrain of storytelling.

While they provide a framework for crafting compelling narratives, it's important to remember that they are not strict rules but guidelines to enhance creativity.

Screenwriting is an evolving art form, and these maxims are just the starting point for telling stories that resonate and captivate audiences.

If there are maxims that we didn't cover, let me know in the comments.

Now, go get back to writing.