When How To Train Your Dragon was released, some people learned to their horror that the film was written following Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. How could such a successful – and critically acclaimed – film be written by the numbers??
Creatives hate screenwriting ‘rules’. So they should. But it is also helpful to understand what rules really are, and what they do.
Observe And Study
All Blake Snyder did (just like Field, McKee, Seger etc.), is study films and look for patterns, then describe the patterns he found in films that were successful.
Many screenwriters find this approach incredibly attractive, because it creates the illusion that you can reproduce success by replicating those patterns.
Of course it isn’t this simple.
If you ask yourself what vehicles are the fastest, you’ll see that a Ferrari is faster than a bus, and a Boeing 747 is faster than a Ferrari. Now you know that if you want to go fast, you pick the 747. Sadly, this knowledge doesn’t buy you the ticket; let alone build the airplane.
Screenwriting rules show you what is fast, not how to make it fast.
Analysis vs. Creation
Screenwriting rules, theories and books are mostly analytical. Intellectually, it can be incredibly gratifying to acquire these insights. But none of this is creative. It doesn’t get you anywhere near having a screenplay that works. What these theories do, is give you an understanding of what you need to be successful. Not how to create it.
Now you know this, you are one step closer to writing a successful screenplay. The next step is to figure out how to use this type of information practically. Let me tell you this: studying these theories by heart to apply it during the writing is not the solution. In fact, this may even hold you back by causing writer’s block.
Most working writers first come up with a concept (or else it is handed to them). Next, they write an outline, and finally they write the script. At any stage of this process, they look back at the work and reflect on it. Does it work? Where could it be improved?
This is the analytical stage.
You need to have something written before you can apply any theory to it.
Screenwriting Rules That Work
So, does it work?
Your answer to this question will initially be subjective. You’ll probably think “yes, it works”.
In your head.
The bad news: as a beginning screenwriter you may safely ignore your subjective assessment, as 99% of the time you’ll be wrong.
The great news is that you have written something. Now you can apply your analytical knowledge to it, and make a prediction based on what has worked previously.
You examine any similarities – and differences – between successful scripts, and yours. (After this, you’ll see that you were indeed wrong.)
In assessing your work, you look at the precedents, and you apply common sense. Much like this:
- If successful screenplays are mostly somewhere between 90 and 130 pages, while yours is 276 pages, perhaps you should consider some cutting.
- If those successful works have a balance of dialogue and description, while yours has 85% description, there’s a clue as to where to cut.
- If you have only one cliffhanger on page 87, and most scripts have a climactic scene every 10-15 pages, you may have to look at your story’s structure again.
You may think these are not hard-and-fast screenwriting rules, but many people that judge screenplays actually do.
Alternatively, you can ignore all the above, and just follow your gut. Because you’re creating art.
I am not being sarcastic here.
If you are independently wealthy, and don’t need to draw an income from writing, why would you pander to any audience? Do your thing. Be bold and crazy. What do you have to lose? Ignore screenwriting rules.
The same goes for those who love the romantic idea of the poor, struggling screenwriter.
But most of you want to get your script read, right?
Trust me, no serious producer will read your 276 pages, your endless blocks of description, your badly formatted genius.
Even if they read, and nothing majorly dramatic hooks them in by page 10, that’s it. They’ll bin it. And your name may go on their blacklist. No hard feelings, they’re just trying to be efficient.
Of course there are exceptions, and if you want to bet on those, go for your life.
It makes perfect sense to try and understand what qualities are present in most successful works.
Whoever blanket-rejects the notion that there exists a set of common sense principles, is an idiot.
Does this mean you need to aim and replicate all of these principles? No. But you may want to be in the ballpark, if you want to be in the industry.
Even in the ballpark, you will need to stand out, and be different somehow. In order to be noticed, you may need to bend some rules.
How To Write
Guess what is the one thing that keeps wannabe writers from breaking through the glass ceiling. Hint: it is not a lack of knowledge of rules or principles.
The only thing that holds you back is the discipline to read scripts and write – every day.
Those who are successful have managed to create a routine that allows them to deliver work, consistently.
No amount of books or courses or gurus is going to help you overcome this challenge.
The tools or programs that will ultimately get you the closest to your goal, are the ones that help you do what you need to do on a regular basis.
The 3-Act Structure
What about the Mother Of All Screenwriting Rules… The 3-Act Structure?
Writers have rejected the 3-act structure based on what I say above: it won’t help you come up with a great story.
What the 3-act structure does help you with, is understanding structure. And structure is one of those criteria where almost every successful film seems to align.
At the end of the 1970’s, Syd Field decided to stay vaguely in the realm of Aristotle, and divide a screen story in three parts.
He gave it a label: the 3-act structure. A paradigm was born.
Can you see that there is no inherent value to this approach?
It is only because professionals need to be able to talk about story, that you need to understand their lingo.
That said, you can perfectly develop your own system, and write amazing scripts. But once you’re pitching – or working with others on development – they’ll all need to know your custom-built system. Imagine every writer did this. Can you see the problem? We need a common framework.
I would argue that it is better to have a bad understanding of the 3-act structure than none at all. At least you can enter into a conversation, and learn from the people you speak with.
Some producers love showing that they understand story structure (even if they don’t), and you can forge a bond by pretending you are on their wavelength by being prepared to speak their lingo.
In essence, the 3-act structure is no more than a tool to communicate about stories.
To summarise, it really doesn’t matter how you get to write your story, and how you make them work. But sooner or later you will need to talk about them, and you better speak some generally accepted structure language.
Pick Your Label
Sure, not everyone sticks to the 3-act tool box. Some talk about Hero’s Journey, Dramatica, 4 Parts, 22 Steps, 6 Stages, etc.
You know why?
Because each guru needs a point of difference to get their stuff sold.
Only a very few have really added anything of note to the existing screenwriting rules; they simply change the labels.
Lazy, I know.
I’m incredibly tempted to add a new approach to the list, just for fun. My own structure paradigm: The 2-Act Structure. You might even like it.
But when all is said and done, the 3-act structure ends up being the most commonly accepted dramatic language for the screen.
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.