The One Unbreakable Rule Of Screenwriting

Computer for blog

Quick Note: I was going to blog this week about the plagiarism allegations against “True Detective.” But quite frankly, the allegations are so baseless, so ridiculous and so without merit, I did not want to give said accusers and their site even one more hit. I will explore the topic of idea “borrowing” at a later date.  Besides Mr Paul J Garth repudiates the allegations thoroughly here:  http://www.weeklyweirdmonthly.com/the-human-thresher-davis-padgett-pizzolatto-and-plagiarism-by-paul-j-garth/

On and off over the next few weeks, months and dare I say years, I’d like to visit some of the “rules” of screenwriting. Many an aspiring screenwriter has an inbox filled with material from various websites, webinars and publications promising the secret to “writing a feature script in 10 weeks” or “the most important elements of a TV pilot.”  Some of this material is very useful and worthwhile.  Some of this material, quite frankly, is snake-oil, especially when people talk about the r-word: rules.

It’s not really accurate to say the film and TV writing has no rules. Act lengths are established in TV by commercial sales so that of course influences the shape and flow of the drama. Movies, while commercial free, are given a set time limit to maximize number of screenings and not exhaust the human attention span. So yes, there are rules, formats, structures and limitations the writer finds themselves facing in the media arts.

But there’s much debate over the rules of screenwriting. You’ll find many a list of rules on the internet. Head over to our pals at google and type in “Rules Of Screenwriting” and you’ll find several credible websites listing very sensible and worthwhile “rules” of screenwriting. Your local bookstore, should you be so lucky to still have one of those, will be happy to sell you any number of books on screenwriting rules from a wide variety of well-established sources.

But the fact is, many screenwriting rules are often up for debate. Some rules I quite like, as they’re not really rules but mileposts to guide a writer along the natural flow of a story. There’s reasons why movies and TV shows flow in a certain order, the most important of which is the viewer likes it that way. Some rules I don’t buy into at all, such as “start late, leave early.” I’ve seen way too many great scenes in movies that start early and leave late. Recently, the screenwriting internet world was cleft in twain by the vociferous debate about whether or not it’s acceptable to type in “We See” in a screenplay. (For the record, I’m in the “it’s OK to use We See” camp.)

So really, when someone says “these are the hard-and-fast rules of screenwriting” I suggest to any screenwriter to take them with a grain of salt.

I’ve had many a meeting with professional writers, directors and independent film producers. Like, real, proper meetings about the development of projects and making a movie or TV show. Rules very rarely come-up. Format? Sure. Structure? Absolutely. But no one credible has ever said, “don’t do this, do do that.”  (I have heard that from uncredible sources. Yes, I know that’s not a word, but I’m a screenwriter, I can just make shit up. It’s awesome.)

Speaking of credibility, I’m not a repped screenwriter so why should you listen to me? I placed in several festivals last year, including being a twice second rounder in the Austin Film Festival. This year, I continue to place and recently won the Chicago Screenplay Contest in the TV Drama Pilot category. I’ve been producing television for 11 years and I’m currently attached to several independent producers. Those are my bona fides and whether or not they’re enough to make you listen to me is completely up to you. If you stop reading now and never visit my blog again, no hard feelings, enjoy the rest of the internet.

But that’s the point of this, really. A lot of information and advice and rules that are bombarding many of today’s aspiring screenwriters can be dismissed as so much ephemera. The most important things screenwriters need to listen to is whatever will help them finish their script. The rest goes on the compost heap. Including my own blog. If the words I write are helpful, great! If what I’m writing isn’t helpful to you, my apologies and I wish you well on your writing adventures. For reals.

I will argue that, formatting and structure aside, there’s a whole world of valuable information out there but only one unbreakable rule. Ready? Here it is:

You have to actually write a screenplay.

You have to write it down. Write the thing down. On paper and everything. At least 85/90 pages.

Any mistakes you make are nothing to fear. Get the structure wrong? Head to your local pharmacy and pick up a pack of index cards for a few bucks. Get the format wrong? Lots of guides online to help you realign the plot points and act breaks. And there’s always that stack of books about “rules” on your nightstand to help you because those rules are mostly about structure and not really how to tell a story that will move millions of people.

Or the worst possible scenario: the thing totally sucks. Look, a lot if not ALL first drafts totally suck. We screenwriters will sometimes think that first draft is objectively brilliant since it was the culmination of many years of research and hard work, but the reader doesn’t care about that. If it’s “meh” they will tell you “meh.” (Or to put it another way, when was the last time you walked out of the movie theatre after watching a movie you absolutely hated and said “Yeah, but the crew worked real hard.” Because they did. The worst movie you ever saw had a crew that busted their collective ass. But the viewer doesn’t care if the movie doesn’t entertain or move them.)

Now, yes, you will hear stories of pitches, concepts and ideas selling in the room. In fact, the idea and the pitch are vital. So if you don’t have a script but sell an idea to Paramount for 80 million, good for you – you still have write the script (or else, Paramount’s gonna renege on that 80 million. Or just buy the idea and split the 80 million amongst other writers who will be able to brag at the rooftop bars “Yeah, I wrote that. It was hard.”)

And in this day and age, when Hollywood is being bombarded by more aspiring screenwriters than ever before (especially if one goes by the increased submissions in prestigious festivals such as Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Film Festival) do you really want to take a chance on having JUST a brilliant idea? 

Especially, because here’s another bit of buzz-kill.

Anyone in LA who tells people they work in the movies will be inundated “I’ve got a great idea for a movie!” You have a brilliant idea. Wow. That’s great. Guess what? I’ve got like 50. And I’m on the low end of brilliant ideas compared to some of the writers I know. For every one script a screenwriter sells, he or she may have 20 screenplays, equally brilliant but rejected, collecting dust in a hard drive before they can be taken around town again after the execs who rejected them have been fired. Brilliant ideas are just not enough to differentiate yourself around town, not anymore. (Besides, we’re screenwriters, we CONSTANTLY have brilliant ideas. Telling a screenwriter you have a great idea for a movie is like meeting Tom Brady and saying “hey, I can throw a football in my backyard.”)

I’m a grizzled veteran of a wide spectrum of reality shows. I’ve had to bite my tongue at many a BBQ and dinner party when someone quips, “X and Y are so funny together. They should put them into a reality show.” No, no they really shouldn’t. One little example of cuteness or wit over tapas makes for a fine first date. That’s not quite enough to invest millions of dollars and man-hours into a series that’s designed to build a large, fiercely loyal audience that a network can sell advertising to.

But what if someone really well and truly DOES have a brilliant idea for a movie that can revolutionize the entertainment world?  GREAT! I’m all for it.

You still have to write it down.

If it’s that brilliant, that mind-blowingly-light-up-a-cigarette-orgasmic, if it’s really going to justify a studio head putting a down payment on a Ferrari then writing it down into a script should be a piece of cake, right?

But you see something happens when we put our brilliant ideas on paper. The brilliance somehow disappears. What makes it special becomes more elusive. The old “it sounds so much better in my head” monster rears his head.

And that’s OK. It’s fine when that happens. In fact, it’s normal. “All first drafts are shit” said Hemingway so don’t panic. Keep writing. 

The art of writing is using words to translate and communicate experiences to a reader eliciting an emotional response. It doesn’t happen the first time or even the tenth time. But it can be done. And only if you write it down.

Once you write it down, you can reshape and remold and transform it until the images you see in your head that get you so excited are there on the page in a way that someone who’s never met you will see those very same images when they read it.

I’m repeating an old topic here, but it’s why I bristle whenever I hear “writing is rewriting.” Yes, you can write crap and make it shine in subsequent rewrites but you can’t get to that crucial stage without writing it down first.

I used to think everyone was capable of writing stories since we all expresses ourselves and our stories in one form or another over the course of the day. It feels painfully naive to write that, but after seeing too many empty notebooks, I understand now that nope, not everyone can write.

In fact, not a lot of people can write. The only way to find out if you can or not is in fact to write. And if you can’t, maybe you can learn how and become a great writer, but you have to start by writing.

Before the agony of realizing it’s not that good and needs a ton of reworking. Before the agony of dipping into the reservoir of human misery to pull out jealousy, embarrassment and sins that all contribute to interpersonal conflict. Before the sealing yourself off from the world to spend more time with imaginary people over real ones…before all that, it has to start with putting down one word, then another and another.

Unfortunately, I know many aspiring writers who are actually stopped by much of the material and snake-oil that’s meant to help them. I’ve heard people say “I’m not supposed to start writing yet because of [INSERT SOME BULLSHIT]” or “I haven’t done enough reading so I can’t start writing yet according to [THIS ASSHOLE] I read on a writing forum.”

Sometimes otherwise talented writers will psyche themselves out with “the studio doesn’t make movies like that today” or “why would anyone want to watch a TV show I would write.” This attitude always perplexed me. Yes, the studios may completely pass on your script – just like the pretty girl or boy at the dance said no, but don’t worry they’re not actually in cahoots with studio heads. Studios are CONSTANTLY looking for new writers, new ideas, new scripts because they don’t know that your script that you think no one will like won’t make them a billion dollars.

Aspiring screenwriters go through hell and back to get meetings with executives and production companies. I’m sometimes envious of those people who are so convinced that the answer will be “no.” What are other secrets are they not telling us?

I should amend that statement. Aspiring screenwriters – who truly believe in their work – go through hell and back to get meetings with executives and production companies. Ever watch a movie and think “How in the hell did anyone buy that script?” The writer knew how to sell it. The writer believed in it so much that not selling it wasn’t an option.

If you believe that much in your idea. If you believe that your idea can change Hollywood or entertain millions or even just find an audience and move people, then write it down.

There’s no rule about when or why to start writing. There’s no one way, no one right way or any wrong way to get the words onto the page. If you need to write out of order, do it. If you have to have a long, exhaustive outline before opening your screenplay software the first, time, more power to you. If you have to jog around the block 4 times counterclockwise before you can start writing – get jogging.

If you’ve started the screenplay and are stuck, go back to square one. “The only writing that happens is in your screenplay software, outlining and treatments are not writing.” Another bullshit rule. If you can’t get past page 30 or page 40, something is amiss with your characters and the paths their choosing. Revisit the treatment, draw out their goals and obstacles that are standing in their way. Head back to the index card aisle and buy some notebooks to write out who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. (It’s back to school season so you may luck out on a sale.)

Just write it down. It’s the only rule that if you break, you have no story and no script.

Write your story down. Write down why you were possessed to tell it. Write down how it moved it you action. Write down how it speaks from your soul. Write down good stuff, bad stuff. Good scenes, bad scenes. Strange dialogue, good dialogue, stilted forced dialogue. Write down whatever comes into your head. Are you ready to tackle and reshape the story with open honesty that will bring out the truth of your characters? You’ll only find out if you write it down.

Write it down. Because someone, somewhere, is waiting to read it.

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