5. Abide the Rules
I crave order, but I don't like rules. That's not true. I like rules . . . that make sense to me. If they seem arbitrary and lack sound reasoning they can go straight to hell. Of course one must factor in the consequences of going against any particular rule. As for screenwriting, my thoughts on rules are well documented. There are many books that tell us what to write on what page by dissecting great movies and shoehorning them into a mold. Great movies don't fit into molds. They make their own. These books are destructive in two major ways:
1. They make writers who are NOT storytellers imagine they can follow a template and poof a great script into existence.
2. They arm studio executives, who are also NOT storytellers, with information to make them think that they know something about storytelling. While these rules might help them to weed out the dreck, they also serve to help them destroy anything special.
No, my character doesn't need to save a cat on page 12, and she certainly doesn't need to time travel on page 30. What makes the siren song of these books so powerful is that they are based on a lot of sound examples. They are arguments that can be defended and rationalized. While I deride their use I also can acknowledge their usefulness if mined properly.
So are there any rules to writing a screenplay? If you are a storyteller then you will naturally be able to understand the ebb and flow of your story. You will feel how your characters should change or resist all efforts to do so. After thinking some time on this I've come to the conclusion that there are indeed some rules to screenwriting. These items are things I think you cannot overlook when writing. And if you don't at least consider them, you risk producing something pedestrian.
Rule #1 - Convey to the viewer/reader the unique and interesting qualities of your story AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. In the first syllable of the first word if possible. You've got to hook your audience quickly. You have to give them a reason to root for your story. If you are writing a superhero story, you've got to tell them why it is different than every other superhero story ever made (in a good way). If it's a legal drama, I need to know why it isn't Law and Order. If you are writing on spec you've got to do it with definitive action and dialogue. If you are writing something that will be filmed then you can do it with less action as long as your environment is foreign and intriguing. When I read an unfamiliar script I'm always looking for that reason to keep reading. I need to be compelled. And it could be the smallest thing. It has to be something that sparks your imagination, that begs you to begin to fill in the blanks for parts yet to come. Recently I watched the movie 500 Days of Summer. Going in I was expecting some sort of romantic comedy. I wasn't too excited. Preceding the start of the movie was a black screen with white text:
"Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely accidental ... Especially you, Jenny Beckman ... Bitch."
Before frame one. Before the story even started I smiled. I instantly liked this movie. All it had to do from that point forward was keep the promise it had just made to me. It did. When I first saw Field of Dreams I heard it was good and knew it had something to do with baseball, but I was otherwise ambivalent and half-expecting to leave with a shrug and a sigh. In the first scene the cornfield spoke. Instantly I knew I was where I wanted to be, and to my delight the movie delivered on the promise it made in that Iowa cornfield. Star Wars opens up with a huge space ship chasing a smaller ship. Then we see a firefight followed by a mysterious and malevolent black armored figure. The imagination sparked in those minutes would sustain me over six movies (three of them horrendous).
So please, please, please know why your story is unique and compelling and find a way to bring that out as quickly as possible. If you don't clearly know why your story is a breath of fresh air in a crowded genre then why are you writing it at all?
Rule #2 - Take the path less followed. During story creation the vast majority of us will think in terms of all the movies we have seen and in doing so we will invariably craft familiar feeling scenes and sequences even if our overall story is inventive. So our task as screenwriters is to go over our story sequence by sequence, scene by scene and ask ourselves an important question: How do these situations typically resolve themselves in an average movie? Unless you are thinking outside the box 24/7 you are going to run into a fair amount of situations that resolve themselves in a predictable way. You need to evaluate each and every one of these situations with a critical eye and in situations where the expected outcome isn't completely and utterly necessary (which is most of the time) you need to think of a solution that will make the audience both surprised and delighted. They might be forced to rewrite the story that is unfolding in their heads while watching, but it is a welcome, subconscious rewrite. That is a round and about way of saying that you need to keep the audience guessing and asking questions that aren't WTF?.
Rule #3 - I wanted at least three rules because three rules are like badass, but you know what. I can't think of another. Anything else just seems like a pep talk (be true to yourself) or reiterating stuff from #2 (be your harshest critic and accept only excellence). So that's it. Two rules. Anything more would just be story theory and there's plenty of that excrement already flying around. Told you I wasn't much for rules.
And so that concludes my screenwriting manifesto: Know your audience. Be a storyteller, Keep it interesting, Character starts with the animal. Abide the rules. These are the five pillars of screenwriting. And what gives me the authority to make these reckless proclamations? What makes me different from some guy shouting through a bullhorn atop a milk crate? Nothing. I'm just some schmuck with an opinion. An opinion that may or may not survive the test of time. I hope to reflect on this list when I am wiser and better traveled. I don't know if this is the answer or if there even is an answer, but for now these talking points seem like common sense. Your mileage may vary.