Update: Screenwriting ‘rules’

January 9th, 2014 by

On Monday, I posted this about an occurrence that happens with irritating regularity in the online screenwriting universe: The contentious specter of so-called screenwriting ‘rules':

What happens is pretty much this:

* Somebody posts something about how there is a rule against doing this or that.

* That circulates as people bat around the idea.

* Professional writers catch wind of it, then lambaste the shit out of the thesis in question.

* The ‘debate’ fades away…

* Until the next time it arises.

* Again…

* And again…

So it occurred to me, why not just deal with it once and for all! Get every single supposed screenwriting rule out on the table, then go through them, one by one, to see if we can take all the heat that typically gets generated when one of these online snits breaks out and collectively create some actual light.

In other words, let’s make this a real learning experience and hopefully in the process, put some of this nonsense to bed for good.

I asked for your help in aggregating these ‘rules’ and as always, the GITS community responded. Here is a preliminary list:

* Avoid using “we see” or “we hear” in scene description.

* Avoid using flashbacks.

* Avoid using voiceover narration.

* Avoid using montages or series of shots

* Avoid using parentheticals that ‘direct’ actors

* Avoid “continues,” ‘begins,” “tries,” “starts,” and “suddenly”

* Avoid present progressive verb construction… i.e. “is dancing” becomes “dances”

* Do not describe anything in scene description a moviegoer cannot see or hear [i.e., ‘unfilmables’]

* Do not cite specific song titles

* Do not use camera directions

* Do not capitalize anything in scene description except to introduce characters

* Do no use “CUT TO:”

* You must use Courier font

* Only use DAY or NIGHT to designate a scene’s time of day

* A feature length screenplay should be no longer than 120 pages

* Conversational dialogue should not exceed four lines

* Action paragraphs should not exceed three lines

“…” is used when a character’s dialogue trails off, to show the character is lost in thought or doesn’t know how to finish the sentence / “–“ is used when a character is interrupted by another character or action

* A protagonist can’t be ambivalent or passive

* You can’t shift protagonists

* You can’t have multiple competing plots and subplots

* You can’t shift a Protagonist’s goals

* Certain things need to happen by certain pages

I need your help once again. Which ones of these are the most pressing or important to address? Let’s target the top 10, then we can do a 2 week series (Mon-Fri) taking each one individually and pick it apart, pros and cons, as well as exploring alternative style and narrative choices.

So please, if you would, head to comments and express your opinion as to which ‘rules’ on this list are subject you’d like to see covered in the series.

Thanks to everyone who has and/or is going to participate in this conversation.

21 thoughts on “Update: Screenwriting ‘rules’

  1. […] So it occurred to me, why not just deal with it once and for all! Get every single …read more […]

    1. lauriec says:

      I’m answering as a story analyst – these are things that take a reader out of the story and I think should be avoided in a SPEC script.
      1.CUT TO
      2.Do not include “unfilmables” unless it is something an actor could show somehow.
      3.do not use song titles – if i know it, i start thinking about the song. if i don’t know it i can’t get what writer was trying to do with it.
      4. do not include camera direction in SPEC. It distracts. keep a version for yourself if you are going to direct.
      5. more than three lines of action is ok if it is interesting and easy to read. but i see tons of action with minute details like “a drop of water meanders down the leaf.” if you are trying to show your cinematography chops – leave it in. otherwise consider writing novels.
      The goal with a spec is to draw reader into story and show that you can write a script. Keep out stuff that does not support both of these goals.

      1. lauriec says:

        Forgot – Don’t use caps for anything other than a character. Keep that for a shooting version. It makes a sentence really hard to read.

  2. “Do not use flashbacks.”

    My script is about memory so flashbacking is rather essential.

    “Avoid present progressive verb construction… i.e. “is dancing” becomes “dances””

    That’s just trying to make the action active. I consider good advice for writing in general.

    “Avoid “continues,” ‘begins,” “tries,” “starts,” and “suddenly”

    I would consider this to be bad writing and redundant for the most part, but not always. It’s a problem if the character is always trying, always starting, always begins. When the hell does he finish?

    “You can’t shift protagonists”

    Tell that to Alfred Hitchcock.

    “Do no use “CUT TO:”

    This is redundant. All scene changes are CUT TOs. However, if scenes are tightly related, then a SMASH CUT. My prot wakes up from a nightmare in which he puts a gun to his chin.

    SMASH CUT

    A shot.

    He wakes up sweating and struggling to his feet.

    1. Let me add an addendum to the CUT TO rule break. Don’t use scene transitions excessively if you use them at all. You lose a lot of lines. One before, one after and the line the transition is on. That’s three lines lost just to say you’re changing scenes. Use them as needed and no more.

  3. Daniel Cossu says:

    I think some of these suggestions belong in another category and shouldn’t part of the discussion, really.

    Storytelling devices such as flashbacks, montages, VO, issues with goals or protagonist, things happening on certain pages, plots and subplots, etc. are creative choices with plenty of examples of both good ones and bad ones. In my opinion, it’s silly to even bring those into question.

    Those are quite different from discussing fonts, verb construction and other story presentation particulars that make a screenplay look and read like a screenplay. Here we have plenty of guidelines that just about every screenwriter follows, with a few contested points, such as the infamous “we see.” With these points, we can argue why one way might be better than another in order to conform to an industry standard and to make a vehicle that projects one’s ideas and story in the most efficient way.

    1. Scott says:

      Daniel, you may be surprised at how strenuous some people are re not using flashbacks, not using voiceover narration.

      I think what I’ll do is focus the first week on the more particular items like we see, cut to, parentheticals, then maybe the second week open it up to the more ‘creative’ choices because there are supposed ‘rules’ for these, too.

      1. Is there a point to discussing creative choices? For every militant reader who threatens to throw out a script if they see a flashback or voiceover, there’s another Inception or Adaptation getting major studio funding and making film of the year lists.

        When the ‘rules’ cross from being standard formatting guidelines to stating what you can and can’t write about, that’s when people need to remember that it’s entirely subjective. What works in one script is limited only to that script, and should never be considered a ‘rule’ upon every other script.

      2. Daniel Cossu says:

        Have these people never seen The Shawshank Redemption? ;)

        1. blueneumann says:

          I think that when people think “Flashback” they think a whole set of scenes like Casablanca or that horrible THIRTY MINUTE FLASHBACK in D-War. Something like Shawshank Redemption, it’s visuals from the past illustrating a discussion happening in the present (if I remember correctly). And I think that the voiceovers were tying together different moments or filling in the blanks between scenes, instead of a voice telling us what was happening when we were watching the scene.

          Did Hunger Games have a voice-over? I don’t remember. People seemed to be okay with that, but that was already set up in the book. Sin City got away with it, I think, because it was part of the character and the style, it felt like a substitute for dialogue and it was part of the flavor of the world, that gravely voice an inch from the mike grumbling about the horrid state of the world. It was also an homage to the voiceover in the film noirs that inspired the books/movie in the first place. Wanted and Kick-Ass got away with a voice-over because (especially in the books) they was making fun of Spider-Man’s voiceover, and Spider-Man only had a voice-over because he didn’t have anyone to talk to (this is why the sidekick was invented in comic books and radio plays all those decades ago). And in all those cases, they were also letting us in on a secret and talking to us like people, like friends, not going on like a book on tape.

          I guess when it’s things like this, they can’t just BE, they have to have attitude, then people will be more forgiving. But everything in your script should have personality.

  4. “The secret life of Walter Mitty” script (at least, the one I read on dailyscript) has a lot of “don’t do” things from this list. For example:
    – There are “we see” and “we hear”.
    – The characters “begins” and “starts”.
    – There are _A LOT_ of parentheticals, some of them three lines long.
    – Present progressive.
    – There are some “CUT TO”.
    – There are “MORNING”, “LATER”, “MOMENTS LATER”, and “EVENING”.
    – The script is 122 pages long.
    – Some dialogue are more than four lines.
    – Actions are more than three lines.

    Probably it wasn’t a final draft, but they made a movie from that script. So maybe “rules” should be called “suggestions”.

  5. blueneumann says:

    The whole “we see,” “we hear,” “cut to” etc and action/dialogue paragraph lengths can be boiled down to “use as few words as possible,” or “keep my eye moving/don’t waste my time.” You want to be effective and clear, and you don’t want your script to be a chore to read.

    I think you CAN use “we see/we hear” if it’s counter-intuitive (“We see a bobcat. When it roars, we hear a kitty cat.”) I don’t think you can ban actual words. You could probably put a similar rule in for parentheticals, don’t put in anything terribly specific unless there’s a terribly specific reason.

    * A protagonist can’t be ambivalent or passive
    Let’s add “whiny” or “running on rails” to that one, since it seems to be happening a lot lately. Your character can be conflicted, but he/she has to have momentum from the moment the script starts.

    * You can’t have multiple competing plots and subplots
    I’ll agree with this one. Your plots should compliment each other, even if the characters are working against one another. They shouldn’t compete for time or for importance. This could be a subset of a larger point, “Every part should fit.”

    * You can’t shift protagonists
    Someone already mentioned Fargo. You can shift protagonists if the story momentum keeps the reader/viewer in there. We have to be following SOMETHING, and you want everything to feel connected.

    * You can’t shift a Protagonist’s goals
    I think that goes with what I said above, the goals can change, but they need to be connected to the previous goal: there needs to be a logical connection.

    * Do not cite specific song titles
    I wound up citing specific songs in my script, but mostly because it music is so important to the story and I was commenting on the poor music choices in similar films, BUT they’re not cited in dialogue, and the actual songs aren’t ironclad, I actually expect and hope there will be more interesting ideas if/when the movie is made. It’s something I probably wouldn’t do in any other circumstance, even though I like making playlists for my ideas.

    I answered far too much but those are the ones that stuck out to me.

  6. Debbie Moon says:

    The most destructive of these is surely “Certain things must happen by certain pages”. That’s the one that leaves newbie writers frustrated and confused, struggling to force their story into an artificial template – and it affects the entire script. So that has to be in there.

    1. blueneumann says:

      In the Cracked podcast, they put it as “people expect certain things to happen at certain times.” I like that phrasing, it’s not saying you have to do it, but there are consequences if you don’t, but if you KNOW that these beats are expected, you can have fun with that. And really, the way we approach all these rules and guidelines should be to have fun with them.

  7. lynellewhite says:

    The following ones are pressing to me:

    – Avoid using montages or series of shots (What?)
    – Conversational dialogue should not exceed four lines
    – Do not capitalize anything in scene description except to introduce characters (Yeah, right. Tell that to JJ Abrams and company…I just recently read the STAR TREK script and they capitalize sounds and actions quite a bit to great success)

    I’ve also heard that putting curse words in the action lines is a no-no but I don’t care. I do it anyway.

  8. Ange Neale says:

    The ‘rule’ about not changing the protag’s goal(s) seems especially specious. Often what happens on the protag’s arc is that he / she realises that what they thought they wanted is NOT what they really need. Isn’t that what personal growth’s all about?

    Jerry Maguire’s afraid of commitment. He wants to be a big-shot agent to dozens of athletes, get the hottest woman in the room and fly in the front of the aeroplane. Then he works out he’s most emotionally fulfilled with a small client list – people with whom he can have real, sincere relationships – and the modest, down-to-earth single mom with the terrific kid. He doesn’t as have much money, but he’s happy.

    That’s one ‘rule’ that should be tossed out with the trash.

  9. Chriszh says:

    Most (or some) readers seem to insist on these rules.
    So what if a newbie doesn’t give a damn and puts a montage, a flashback, or whatever in there?
    Imho, these rules limit the way of telling your story, but what if it is the only way to be read and taken seriously by the industry?

  10. Joe Parton says:

    I’m a script reader/analyst and in my opinion none of these “rules” are deal breakers when I am reading a script or cause me to stop reading it or give it bad coverage BUT (you knew there would be a but) I think a lot of these “rules” are things that a lot of starting out writers have problems with, or over use, to the detriment of their script.

    For example, the whole “we see” debate. Of course you will be able to find examples of great, professional writers who use “we see” in their projects, but the problem is some amateur writers use it way too much in their scripts. Instead of being a carefully applied tool, they use it as a substitute to writing creatively and thinking about how the story will read.

    The same with capitalizing. Used effectively it can be a great tool for bringing the story alive. Over used and it becomes annoying, or worse, useless.

    For example (this is roughly from memory of a script I read a few weeks ago (nouns have been changed to protect the writer))

    We see a WHITE CABIN IN THE WOODS. We push up to THE FRONT DOOR. We see A BLOODY KNIFE STABBED into the DOOR. We move through the door and into the LIVING ROOM. A DEAD BODY LAYS ON THE CARPET.

    I’m sorry, but that is just bad writing. It is like someone describing a movie to another person, not telling a story or generating interest in the script.

    So I prefer to think of the “rules” list above more a strongly suggested guidelines. If you are going to use them make sure there isn’t a better way of writing the scene first and even then never over use them.

    Note: Except for the Song Title rule. Never use Song Titles. Unless you have a lot of money to license the song and are planning on directing the movie yourself, telling the reader what song is playing is at best useless and distracting, at worst it will turn the reader/producer/director off (what if they hate the band/song you are referencing?) It is best if you just use general terms “A hard 70’s rock song plays as he races down the highway” or “a trendy hip-hop song plays as they dance”. And NEVER include the lyrics to famous songs in your script. I’ve seen this a few times as well. A writer will write out the entire lyrics of Paint It Black or Sympathy for the Devil into a script and write the action around the lyrics. You are not making a music video. You are telling a story.

  11. Despina says:

    Never realized CUT TO was a no no, but I don’t think I really use it unless it’s similar to the example used above for SMASH CUT.

    Flashbacks. Obviously not to be used as the bulk of the story, but the apparent distaste for them has my head at full tilt. Maybe it’s bc I’ve got a story in the wings that deals w PTSD and memory loss/suppression…?

    Also what Debbie said about setting page count”accomplishments” is def a bit distracting to a newbie. It’s not something I ever obsessed about, but it was always a lingering question/concern as I wrote/planned the story and its pace – is this too slow? too fast? is the set up and establishment of conflict or characters ok? Stuff like that.

  12. Zach Jansen says:

    Just got these from a reader in a well-entered contest:

    — Never use SUPER: or TITLE: in a spec script.
    — No cross cutting.

    I’ve never come across these asinine “rules” before, but apparently there is at least one reader out there who believes them.

  13. Scott says:

    Thanks for all these, folks. I’m going to focus on 5 of these ‘rules’ starting tomorrow, one per day:

    We see / Camera directions
    Unfilmables
    Action paragraphs: 3 lines or less
    Cut To
    Parentheticals

    The following week, if folks are up for it, we can move into more substantive issues like:

    Flashbacks
    Voiceover narration
    Montage

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