Nothing appears more appealing to the beginning writer than to break rules. And nothing is more annoying than hearing “Do this; don’t do that!”
Some will say that rules are essential, because without them there is only anarchy. But are there really any hard rules in screenwriting? And if there are, who sets them?
And what is wrong with anarchy?
Screenwriting format grew out of the need for a standardised notation when film production became a repeatable process. It was never codified by law, so you won’t go to prison for writing in Comic Sans – even if we all agree you deserve to.
We’re all free to write what we want, and how we want. Thank god! But conventions started to emerge as people voluntarily copied what worked. All those conventions together, you may call a screenwriting standard, and this standard – or code – is observed in order to achieve the best results.
The standard is never prescriptive, but descriptive. It is a set of observations rather than a rule book. Even The Screenwriter’s Bible is only a record of David Trottier’s observations from studying successful scripts; it’s not Trottier’s Law.
Even if there are strictly no rules, breaking the code will lead to penalties. Those who read scripts are seeking a particular experience. If your writing format or style stands in the way of this experience, you will suffer a penalty.
At film school, if you don’t abide by the rules, you will lose marks – even if your story is Oscar material.
Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Robert McKee differentiates between rules and principles: rules say “Do this!”, and principles tell you “This works.” If it doesn’t work, your script will be rejected, or you won’t be hired. For most writers this threat suffices to stick to the principles.
Because Robert McKee is an authority – whether deserved or not – some gatekeepers expect you heed his advice. In other words: ignore his principles at your peril.
Even a descriptive work like The Screenwriter’s Bible may achieve prescriptive status when readers use it as a reason to reject scripts. What was merely a principle has become a hard rule.
Before you truly understand what works and what doesn’t, I believe you need to get your work made, and see it on a screen. Therefore, I have previously said: “prove that you master the rules, then bend them.”
Hard v Soft Rules
To achieve the strongest identification, you must tell your story from a single first-person POV. Despite the must, this is a soft principle. It works, but it can be broken easily, and successfully. If you know what you’re doing, you’ll often ignore soft rules – deliberately.
Scripts are written in Courier 12. This is a much harder rule. You break this one at the peril of being considered an amateur, and some may not even read your script. You will get away with this one only if your surname is Gilroy or Coen.
Loglines count 25 words or less. A production company asks you to submit a 25-word logline. You believe your story needs more to do it justice, and you ignore the 25-word rule. Great! Now the production company has a really easy way of eliminating your work. [The reality is that they may not count words, but if the length of your line visually stands out, it may be enough to trigger a rejection]
Different rules [for different fools]
When you break rules, you’re being punished, while others get away with it. That hardly seems fair! Unfortunately, there is no fair in film. It’s a business.
When you’re writing on spec, your style will be scrutinised more than that of an established studio writer. Conversely, when reading scripts you need to understand what type of script you are reading, before drawing any conclusions.
Those you believe ‘get away’ observe more restrictions than you are even aware of. With experience comes a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. As a result, the pro writer will set themselves more stringent rules.
When asked how he learned screenwriting, Taylor Sheridan explained that he simply avoids the mistakes he saw in scripts when he was an actor. In other words, he turned those observations into his own set of rules.
Yet, Sicario brutally annihilates the POV principle: In the third act, we leave the main character to experience the movie’s finale through the POV of Alejandro. Why it works? Sheridan is meticulous in making sure everything else fits perfectly: tension and stakes are sky-high, and the storytelling is clean and linear.
Also, Sheridan had to break rules. This particular story simply cannot be told any other way.
What You Need To Break Rules? One Word.
Rules are not what matters. What is critical is the governing principles.
Any rule can – and must – be broken, under the right circumstances. One word will help you understand whether a rule applies to your situation, and your script: “WHY?”
If you don’t understand why certain things are allowed and others aren’t, these ‘rules’ mean nothing.
Why do certain things work and others don’t?
Breaking rules without good reason may not be smart, but blindly following them is even dumber.
The best books and courses don’t impose rules; they illuminate the inner workings of drama. They show you the underlying emotional logic, so you can deduct your own rules.
Don’t worry about rules. Study everything that has lead people to observe them.
Then write in freedom and with confidence.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.