There are No Rules in Screenwriting
If your script is amazing
Okay, what I’m about to say sounds obvious. But this is a note I have to give all the time to my coaching clients and students. YOU ARE WRITING A MOVIE (OR A TELEVISION SHOW). Not a novel, short story, essay, poem, theme paper, Haiku…you get the idea. And when you are writing for film or TV, you are always writing what is actually on the screen. What you see or hear on the damn screen. Not the unheard voice in a character’s head, or her secret thoughts. Or what happened ten years ago or what might happen next week. Or some running commentary by you the writer. Just what’s happening in this scene, this moment, right now. That is the medium you are working with. Sound, music, picture, dialogue, subtext, action, tone, pace, style, your personal voice, those are the colors in your pallet. All those elements tell the reader, or the audience, what people are thinking or feeling.
What your characters do, reveal who they are and what they want.
So, I repeat, with emphasis, you are writing what can be seen or heard on the screen. That’s the craft, that’s what we do. Break this rule at your own peril, and if you do…nail it.
There are no rules in screenwriting, or for any art form, if the art in question is freaking amazing. That means it is so good that it is undeniable, no matter if the work is riddled with mistakes, poor spelling, bad grammar, weird formatting, and all the various things screenwriters argue about in Facebook groups, seminars, and coffee shops.
In 1994, my agent at ICM sent me an early draft of Pulp Fiction. It was unreadable. Tarantino broke all the rules: Improper formatting, hand scrawled notes, large blocks of description, endless monologues and exposition, I could go on and on. I thought to myself, this shit is going nowhere. I attended the premiere at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It was fantastic! A bonafide hit. What the man had was vision, his own personal style, and the ability to communicate what he wanted to do with his story. In short, he had an original voice. If he was just starting today and he put his script up on one of his favorite Facebook screenwriting group pages, he would have been destroyed, trolled by arm chair experts and probably run out of the business before he even started. He’d still be working at that video store in Manhattan Beach making $200 a week.
Somebody saw his talent through all the bad formatting and the broken rules.
A year earlier I had written the first draft of my first script, KISSED ON THE LIPS, about life and love at an AIDS hospice, based on my experience making a documentary about a facility about a very special place in Santa Barbara. I had no clue what I was doing, other than reading a few unsold screenplays my friends had written, and breezing over a copy of Syd Field’s how-to book, SCREENPLAY. What I did have was an amazing true story to tell, and alot of heart. I gave it to a friend to read, who then gave it a friend of his. That friend was a top agent at ICM. That 1st draft got me signed to a major agency who sent it out to every major studio and most top production companies. I got dozens of meetings with almost every studio and many top producers, even met Spielberg at Amblin on the Universal lot. The Los Angeles Times did a Sunday Calendar story on me and my script. E News Daily came and interviewed me at my shitty Hollywood apartment for a segment on their network. You could call it a frenzy. I thought to myself, this shit is happening. I was huge. I was on a roll.
But nobody bought it.
It was heartbreaking. The first of many heartbreaks in this business. That said, it led to getting my first paid screenwriting gig, which led to directing my first feature film. Sometimes the things that don’t sell can lead to opportunities unimagined.
What rules did I break?
Alot of experts says your first script should be put in a drawer and never see the light of day, like it’s some sort of practice piece that is inherently bad because it’s your first. The same people who say first drafts are vomit, garbage, unreadable, etc. My script had long thick chunks of scene description and exposition, death to proper pacing and good storytelling. It had long monologues, which of course are a terrible idea. It even started with a seventeen page flashback, a huge no-no. Too many exclamation marks!!! Ellipses… and (parentheticals), dozens of words inadvertently left ___ in haste (a habit I have to this day), grammatical errors; and bad sprelling. It was 124 pages long, but read like 150.
My vomit draft got me a major agent, meetings all over town, and a writing job.
The same people say agents are just heat seeking missiles who don’t give a shit about you and your passion project. My agent worked his ass off for a small little indie script that he believed in. My first screenplay became my calling card in many ways, and I’m now developing it as a limited series.
Now don’t get me wrong, I read alot of shitty scripts that need alot of work. Rewriting is everything. It might be the most important thing. My personal record is 23 drafts. That script went out on a Friday and was sold Monday morning at 10am. Not bragging, that was alot of work, and in that case it paid off. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s important to note that more times than not great scripts don’t sell or even get the time of day. It’s a numbers game, but doing the work is all you can really control.
I mention Tarantino and myself in the same rant for a reason. He’s a legend and a household name. I’m an unknown working screenwriter and filmmaker. I’m also a teacher and coach, with hundreds of students and clients. Breaking rules are a big part of being in this business, no matter where you are on the food chain. The rules of screenwriting exist for a reason, and for the most part, are very useful. They are accepted norms, what readers and producers are accustomed to, and create a baseline expectation of what screenplays should look like. Honoring these rules show you’ve done your homework.
This book is about those rules, why they exist, how they help you as a writer, where they go too far, and when to break them. What is far more important is finding your voice, using the rules where they work, and destroying them when it serves your story. I know this won’t settle all of the raging arguments about the rules I see on the many screenwriting groups I follow online, but it might make it simpler for those who just want to write a script that’s a good read.
My advice: Write something amazing.