Earlier today on Twitter I began soliciting screenwriting questions for THE BROKEN PROJECTOR’s new and blithely awesome Vomit Draft podcast companion (enjoy the utter subliminality of that shameless plug). And in doing so it occurred to me that, while I’ve been as clear as possible that I believe that There Are No Rules When It Comes To Screenwriting, I haven’t been entirely clear about the scope and parameters of what “there are no Rules when it comes to screenwriting” means.
Let’s back up for a second, define it a little better, and then examine why there are, indeed, some “Rules” that matter.
When we (professional/experienced screenwriters like myself and others who taught and/or agree with me) talk about there being No Rules in screenwriting, this is more of a philosophical statement that applies to how you should think about storytelling in the screenwriting medium. It’s a testament to the freedom you should feel to tell the tales you want to tell in exactly the way you want to tell them. To not feel as though you should have to compromise your art because of what you might believe The Rules are. It’s easy to track script sales and see three movies a weekend and read the screenplays that wind up on The Black List and talk yourself into the notion that there is a set of standards you should follow and a certain way you should compose your own work. And while that might be comforting in some ways, it’s also very dangerous in other ways. And at the end of the day, it’s total bullshit.
Wait! No, I’m doing it again. It’s not total bullshit. I mean, it is! Almost always. But in one way. And not in another way. For the most part.
Fuck me, this is complicated.
OK. Here’s exactly what I mean when I say the idea of The Rules is bullshit:
I mean that you do NOT have to write in cookie-cutter Three Act Structure – and, in fact, I mean that it almost never makes sense to do so. I mean that you DON’T have to have a certain thing happen on page three, on page ten, on page fifteen, on page thirty. I mean that you DON’T have to save the cat. I mean that yes, if you’re passionate about your Antebellum-period alien invasion Dogme 95 musical, then you should write the absolute shit out of it and foist it upon the world. I mean that you should write a zombie movie even if you think the Whole Zombie Thing is played out if you think your zombie movie kicks the ass of every zombie movie written or to be written. I mean that you shouldn’t write a superhero movie if you don’t want to write a superhero movie but you’re convinced that’s what studios want to write.
I mean that if you write what you love and care about and put your entire heart into it and make sure that it’s interesting and compelling and that it forces the reader to turn the page and keeps them entertained in one way or another to the very end, then it almost literally doesn’t matter how the hell you manage to do it. Just do it. Because that will be the best you can possibly write.
Notice that “almost” though? Well…here’s where we get into the idea that there ARE some Rules. And yes, those Rules are often a matter of degrees rather than anything that’s fixed and nailed down eternally, but they exist nonetheless. To illustrate, I’m going to answer two questions I got on Twitter today. They’re both good questions, and both worth asking. And there are a billion questions like them that exist under the same umbrella, and that means they’re covered by the same answer I’m going to give you today. Actually, we answered one of these questions for the upcoming Episode of THE BROKEN PROJECTOR. And I felt that answer both complete and not quite enough, hence this entire blog entry.
I’m a man of multitudinous wonder.
And the quick answer is:
First of all, I’m not convinced there’s a “trend” towards this. I think it’s a stylistic choice that a few writers are using, most to their own unintended detriment. Second of all…I wouldn’t eschew sluglines. I can’t speak intelligently about GREAT FALLS, but in the case of NIGHTCRAWLER it’s pretty simple: Dan Gilroy is one of the best screenwriters to ever walk by a computer, and he’s established and respected and at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (and I’m using the royal “You”, not singling out Clint here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.
And the quick answer is:
Not in any way I can think of. This might sound familiar, but Tarantino is an established, respected writer who’s at the very top of his craft, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. You (still on the royal usage here) are not, and therefore you probably shouldn’t. But if you do, your script had better be SO FUCKING GOOD that the reader is willing to ignore the odd choice that you’ve made. Tough bar to clear when you’re still trying to get sold and/or noticed.
Now: notice that “quick”, though? Now we’re back into the idea that there ARE some Rules. But these are different Rules than the ones to (almost never) consider when it comes to the focus and deployment of your story. For lack of a better term, we’re at this very moment going to split Screenwriting Rules, now and forever, into two different categories: Storytelling and Mechanical/Technical.
Storytelling Rules – forcing your story into a strict structure, writing for trends, Saving the Cat, etc. – are almost totally nonexistent and disappear completely the more varied those stories are in terms of tone, scope, genre and other considerations.
Mechanical/Technical Rules aren’t what I would call “rigid”, but should more often than not be followed because they give you the best chance of presenting your story in a way that is going to appeal to the people who are in a position to pay you money to acquire it.
With that in mind, an analogy I’ve just now become confident in:
Think of your script like a gift you’re going to give to someone on Xmas. You want the box and the wrapping to reflect something about your personality – you might use brightly colored wrapping paper, or maybe newspaper, or a small bow and a bit of ribbon, of a gigantic ribbon and no bow – but you want your intent to be obvious: this is a gift. And a box, wrapping paper and some kind of flourish represents that. It’s clear, it’s understandable, and it’s universal iconography. It makes it easy for the recipient to recognize it as exactly what it is.
The box, the wrapping and the flourish are your Mechanical/Technical Rules.
The gift inside the box? That’s your Storytelling Rules.
IT CAN BE LITERALLY ANYTHING YOU WANT TO GIVE THEM. It can be TOTAL CHAOS. You want to give them a new sweater? Awesome! It could be a wool sweater. It could be a sweater branded with the logo of their favorite sports team. It could be a cardigan or a mock turtleneck. Fuck, it could be a shitload of yarn and some needles and a book that’ll teach them how to knit their own goddamned sweater! THERE ARE SO MANY OPTIONS. Now, whether or not they actually *like* their present in the form you chose is not something that you have much control over. But if you really put a lot of thought into it and worked to find something you believed in and have presented it in a way that shows you really, really care, you’ve given yourself the best shot possible that they’re going to love it.
Of course, there are some decisions you could make that could change the outcome here.
Like, let’s say you didn’t give a shit about the gift and just threw some old beat-up, secondhand sweater from your closet into the box. Or maybe you picked out the most expensive sweater in the store, but you know deep down it’s not what you wanted to give them, and you know they’re going to hate it, and you kind of hate it yourself. Well, I’ve got news for you – no matter how expertly and beautifully you wrap up that box, the gift itself sucks, so you’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
On the other hand, maybe you got them the most perfect ass-kicking sweater ever. If that’s the case, you probably don’t want to wrap it in tin foil, dip it in kerosene and hold a lighter to it before you present it to them alongside a fire extinguisher. Sure, you’ve…you know, “done something different” and “made a statement”, but who the fuck wants to have to put out a blaze just to get to a sweater, no matter how awesome it is? Even if they manage to, they’re probably going to be pissed you made them do it, and even if they end up extracting the sweater, it’s probably charred and useless now.
(Listen, I’m sure you can poke all kinds of holes in this analogy, but just fuck off. See it for what it is and don’t complain. I didn’t charge you anything to read this. It was your choice.)
When I’m giving script advice, I’m almost always offering it to those of you who love screenwriting and want to at least take a shot at selling your first script. And that usually means selling a script to a studio or an independent producer or, at the very least, having something you can stake your burgeoning reputation on as a representation of your ability as a writer. And in the pursuit of that, my advice often comes down to this: without compromising your artistic principles – and hell, even sometimes DEFINITELY compromising your artistic principles – you have GOT to be willing to give yourself every chance to succeed, and far more often than not that means you have to PUT YOURSELF in the very best POSITION to succeed.
If that’s not why you’re interested in screenwriting or that’s not the road you want to go down with your work? I say this with no snark, no sarcasm, and zero ill will: no problem. Do whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, and vaya con dios.
For the rest of you: there are hundreds and thousands and (probably, I don’t have the exact numbers right here in front of me) millions of you try to accomplish the exact same thing you’re trying to accomplish right now. They all want to sell a script. The way to do that is ALWAYS by telling a great story full of great characters in an entertaining way that holds the reader’s attention.
What almost never works? Changing a screenplay, on a technical level, into something that the reader isn’t used to. It’s not going to make you stand out. It’s going to make you unreadable. Which is the one thing you can never, ever, ever, ever, ever be.
Sure, write novelistic scene descriptions that go deep into character psychology and that tells us things that go layer and layers beyond what we can see on the screen, and do it for PAGES. Totally fucking ignore sluglines. Write right to left instead of left to right. Give all your characters the same name and don’t even bother to explain it. Because maybe, tucked into the corner of a studio mailroom, there’s an intern who just absolutely loves that kind of thing, and his uncle just happens to be Brian Grazer, and Uncle Brian has told him, “Listen, I’m looking for these four off the wall formatting quirks in a script. They have NOTHING to do with the story, but I need them now, and I have a million dollars waiting for the first person who gets them on paper.”
But if you think that might be too narrow a mark to aim for? Everything else being equal, do whatever you can to make the basic technical elements of your script the same as every other script out there. That doesn’t mean you can’t tweak something here or there to give it a unique touch, but less is more. Less is WAY more. Follow the rules, because doing so will give you the best chance of keeping a reader focused on your plot and your characters as opposed to that weird fucking formatting thing you did on page 34.
And then, as you’re crafting your story, remember that there are no rules, so there’s no need to follow any. And that’ll keep your focus on what matters – your plot and your characters. As opposed to that weird formatting thing you did on page 34, which you really should fix when you’re finished, but don’t worry, it’s not a big deal right now.
I puttered around the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting Program from 2002-2004 (having completed the Professional Program in Screenwriting at that school during the 1998-1999 academic year). I did not finish the MFA degree, but I learned a great deal by veering way too far off the traditional (Syd Field style) three-act form by crafting two feature-length documents (for workshops taught by Tim Albaugh and Michael Colleary, respectively) that were bizarre slipstream adaptations of my dream journal. In a 434 taught by Lew Hunter, I wrote a satirical script titled Zombie Gladiator that had a more traditional form. In Hal Ackerman’s 431, I penned the first act of a dramedy that I never circled back to in terms of its story, though I did salvage one key character (and a central location) for a dramedy spec titled Gateway Drugs that I wrote from late 2014-early 2015. Totally different plot from the tale I hatched in Ackerman’s 431. Also at UCLA, I wrote (in a Richard Walter 434) an inchoate horror/adventure script that likely has nothing worth salvaging — but I keep it on hand just in case my inner muse ever returns to that world. On the subject of three-act structure, consider that the late, great Dan O’Bannon was fond of structuring his screenplays with acts of roughly equal length while Lew Hunter posits a paradigm in which act one ends around page 17. Syd Field style essentially is really four acts (each about one quarter of the total story), but Field lumps the middle two quarters together as act two of three. I’ve written some scripts with no particular three-act structure in mind, and I’ve written some that stick close to the Syd Field paradigm (while taking minor liberties with it). I’ve gone through phases of not liking that traditional form (the late, great William Froug was a staunch anti-three-act-structure guy — I dig his books on the craft). I’ve gone through periods of writing decent scripts for which I have act breaks/turning points planned out ahead of time. There’s no upward progression — I’ve produced mixed results both ways. The second feature spec I ever wrote has a traditional structure and has thrice been a Nicholl quarterfinalist (and a more recent draft landed in the top 50 of the 2015 Launch Pad Feature Competition). For many years, while cranking out a lot more material, I perceived that second script as my finest work, a tale I’d never top. I no longer feel that way. Onward. Also, fun trivia pertaining to the three-act structure: Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the critically-acclaimed film Jacob’s Ladder stream-of-consciousness style, constantly surprising himself as he crafted scene after scene.