Reader Question: Are there any script rules that really shouldn’t be broken?

From @CaveDude21:

I know all rules are made to be broken, but are there any Script rules that really shouldn’t?

I don’t think there are any rules for screenwriting. There are important principles, and dozens of tips and techniques. There is also a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’ floating around that gets transmogrified into being perceived as rules, and that is where the problem lies.

Stories are organic. Even in a screenplay, which is heavily structured by virtue of it being the blueprint for producing a movie, the underlying story — that universe, its characters, the events that transpire there — all have to feel alive, spontaneous, and native to that narrative environment.

Enter the plethora of screenwriting approaches, theories, paradigms, models, and formulas. While some of them reflect dynamics that are innate to story itself and what people expect when they read or see a story, once they get codified in the minds of writers, a big problem arises: The writer can write to the formula instead of to the story. Hence all the complaints from moviegoers about formulaic movies. And by the way, the complaint exists within Hollywood script development circles, too, as folks there often lament being forced to read one formulaic script after another.

Besides if you give me a supposed screenwriting rule, I am 99% positive I can come up with a movie that breaks it.

Movies have to be told with a linear narrative. Consider Memento, Pulp Fiction, or Betrayal.

Movies have to have a sympathetic Protagonist. Consider Sideways, As Good As It Gets, and Taxi Driver.

Movies always have to have a happy ending. Consider Citizen Kane, Shakespeare in Love, and Manon des Sources.

Image for post
Image for post

There are scripts where the screenwriter breaks the 4th wall and ‘talks’ to the script reader [The Last Boy Scout by Shane Black]. There are scripts that have sides of dialogue one page long or longer [Network by Paddy Chayefsky]. I remember reading a script by Justin Zackham [The Bucket List] that was in the 2nd person [“You turn on the light. You open the door.”]

Should we let ‘rules’ restrict our creativity? I should think not!

My advice: Learn the conventional wisdom, what is pretty much the standardized approach to screenwriting. It’s not hard to do, you can go virtually anywhere online and pick up the supposed ‘rules’ in a matter of a few months.

Then write. Experiment. Read scripts. Write some more. You are developing your own voice, your own style, gaining confidence in who you are as a writer.

Then if you develop a story that requires you to break a supposed ‘rule,’ absolutely will make for a better read if you go against convention, do it. You have to be smart, you have to be judicious, and you have to know what you’re doing. Most of all, you have to believe in yourself and in your story. But you should have the freedom to make those choices and dismiss the negative nabobs of negativism [homage to Spiro Agnew there].

In all cases, the story rules.

Having said all that, I do confess to having one semi-rule. It pertains to first drafts. And that semi-rule is this: “Finish the damn thing!” I’ve seen far too many writers fade out before hitting… you know… FADE OUT. Even if what you write is certifiable crap, you can always rewrite it. Plus I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your story and characters in the process that you would not have if you quit.

That’s it, my only screenwriting semi-rule. As far as the other ‘rules’ go, you have to figure them out on your own, then become your own writer.

My advice: In all cases, story trumps formula, story trumps ‘rules,’ story trumps all.

What say ye, GITS readers? What’s your take on rules? Feel free to disagree with me. Maybe there are some rules that simply can’t be broken. If so, what would you say they are?

[Originally posted June 6, 2012]

Comment Archive

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store