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Screenwriting Rules – UGH!

October 1, 2013

I use this blog primarily as an extension of my business card.  Sharing in a kinda snarky, somewhat entertaining, pseudo intellectual way, what’s going on with my writing.  And my love of bewbs, because they are soft and awesome and I’m all about things that are awesome.

But today, it serves a therapeutic purpose.  I need to vent.

Broken Rules Falls to Chaos Anarchy Pieces

And the topic of said venting is the ‘rules’ of screenwriting. The subject of endless debate among (primarily amateur) screenwriters.

I say primarily because I do see some gurus, consultants, mentors and of course, any dude who — took a writing class — went to a McKee seminar — skimmed a screenwriting book at Borders (that was a thing once, like rolling up your pants leg & dueling with pistols) — having some specific rule or another about what you can and cannot do in a screenplay.

What are some of the rules, you ask?  Hmm, off the top of my head…

NEVER Bold. Underline. Italicize. Use ellipses… more than one hyphen – –
Only write what you can see.
Only use day/night for time.
Don’t put action in character parens. 
      (What are you doing using character parens anyway?)

IT DRIVES ME F*CKING NUTS!!!

It makes me cry and poop my pants a little.

It makes me cry and poop my pants a little.

Recently, I’ve seen the debate carried on in a private online screenwriting group I belong to, that I’ll just call Write Club, since I can’t talk about it.  It started with a nice, simple question.  “I’ve seen more and more scripts bolding their sluglines, is that something you do?”.  Holy shit, you’d think someone had asked if it’s okay to put babies on spikes, or worse, opined on Obamacare. The rule mongers came out in force, swarming the thread like… stuff that swarms.  Sorry, I can’t think straight, a rage stroke has affected my parietal lobe.

I had to unfollow the post, sip a nice saucer of warm milk, and put on Ru Paul’s Drag Race to calm my nerves… don’t judge me.

Let me tell you something.  Go pick up any professional script and you’ll see every one one of these and other rules broken.  Oh, but you say, that’s only for the pros.  Once you break in, you can do what you want.  Until then, follow the rules!  Always. Without exception. Or die.

UGH!

Name one successful artist who said, I got to where I am today by following the rules.  Can you?  What, Emily Post?  Fine, you got me.  

Listen, of course it’s important to understand the rules.  But I only consider them using the wisdom of the great sage Morpheus.

 “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

Do you understand that?  You do, great.  Can you explain it to me?  I got totally confused by the third Matrix movie.

Anyway, back to rules.  Okay, so you like rules.  Or maybe you need boundaries, because your parents had the bowling alley put up those bumpers so your ball didn’t go in the gutter.  Whatever.  I’ve got you covered.

Here are the three rules I follow, and they’re pretty simple.  Ready?

one

BE CLEAR

two

BE ENTERTAINING

three

DON’T SCREW WITH THE MARGINS/FONT

That’s it.

The first two, obvious.  Make sure the reader understands the story you’re trying to tell.  And do it in an interesting way.

The third one, that’s the only real ‘rule’.  There are industry standard templates for screenwriting, with very specific margin settings and font/size.  So that when anyone picks up a script, they know about one page equals one minute of footage.  It’s like that Unbreakable Vow between Snape and Malfoy’s mom, or keeping quiet about what happens in the champagne room.  You just don’t do it.  Or you die.

So, I’m done.  Vent spewed.

Now, back to bewbs!

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From → Screenwriting

9 Comments
  1. Completely on the same page as you. I wound up doing a three-part series on rules because I got so sick of seeing these rules repeated. Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Thanks N.G. I think you’ll agree, there comes this point in your writing when you just get it. You’ve found your voice/style and now it’s ‘just’ a matter of developing and executing a marketable script.

      Nice blog, btw, started following.

      • Thanks for the follow!

        And yeah. After a while, you just get a feel for it. There’s always opportunity to learn, of course, but once the training wheels are off, it’s all about using your voice to write the best script with the best concept you can.

  2. Very funny (and useful) post! I love the doomsayers: “If you break the RULES OF SCREENWRITING the reader will burn your script and piss on the ashes. Then you will be forced to wear a scarlet RB (Rulebreaker) and you will never get read again!” The rules are a good set of guidelines, but it’s okay to break them.

  3. Great post! Wholeheartedly agree. Like that rule “Avoid on-the-nose dialogue.” No one will understand what’s happening unless my characters explicitly explain it. Am I right?

    And, literally, never use “literally”.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike (who I know, btw).

      If you think about it, sometimes you can’t avoid OTN dialogue. Sometimes, explicit exposition is necessary. This is especially true of any movie with ‘world building’. In the Matrix (clearly, I’m obsessed with that flick), Neo learns of the truth of the world by Morpheus just blatantly explaining it to him. But the techniques they used – using the blue/red pill, flashing to images of the real world, sitting in that weird room, etc. – kept it from being boring. Save The Cat described that technique as the Pope In The Pool (http://howtowriteshop.loridevoti.com/2012/04/putting-the-pope-in-the-pool-adding-fun-to-boring-information/).

      But I get your point. There are really great guidelines (that’s how I prefer to think of them) that increase the probability of creating great work. I think as long as you, the writer, know that you’re breaking that guideline, and you have a really good, well thought-out reason for why you’re doing it, it will be okay.

  4. btw, you can find N.G.’s post about the ‘rules’ here – this is part 1 of 3 – http://sprintingtofadeout.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/made-to-be-broken-the-cynics-guide-to-screenwriting-law-part-i/

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