The “Meet the Reader” column ran in Script from 2001 to 2006, at which point it was pulled from the print edition so that it could be moved to this website. Although this took a bit longer to accomplish than originally expected, we’re here now and so I’ll carry on as I did before, offering observations and tips for screenwriters inspired by the hundreds of scripts that I read and analyze each year.
During the print hiatus, Script reprinted one of my old columns on the site. How Not to Annoy a Reader was a humorous list of mistakes for screenwriters to avoid that I developed based on the errors that I have encountered in script after script. The response to the reprint was generally very positive — I received many complimentary notes from as near as Hollywood and as far as Lebanon and Iran. However, one response was not so favorable. Fed up with the avalanche of edicts that shower down upon scriptwriters from the experts — the myriad of analysts, teachers, how-to-book authors, and gurus that make up the screenwriting support industry, all of whom insist that their rules are the rules, despite the fact that the advice offered by one often conflicts terribly with that given by another — one reader opined, “Ask one simple question to three of you and get 250 totally contradictory answers.”
All of this confusion generates a great deal of anxiety, which is only made worse by the insistence by many of the experts that if a screenwriter doesn’t follow every last bit of their advice, then he/she can expect that his/her script will be forever consigned to the seventh circle of development hell. I encounter this anxiety all of the time in nervous writers asking if it’s true that if their first-act plot turn occurs ¾ of the way down page 22 rather than ½ of the way down (because that’s the way some screenwriting book said it had to be), if a particular bit of dialogue runs longer than three lines (because a script analyst said it couldn’t), or if their actions scenes were punctuated with a few periods instead of solely with exclamation points (because a renowned screenwriting guru said this was the only way to let the reader know that the scene was supposed to be exciting), then I will give their script a pass and have them permanently blackballed from the industry. (I’m not making any of this up, by the way. These are all actual bits of advice given to screenwriters by some alleged “experts.”) To help alleviate this anxiety, I thought it would be a good idea to answer the eternal question — are there really inviolate “rules” for screenwriting? At the risk of further irking my already irritated reader, the answer is yes. And no.
There are very definitely some core principles of dramatic construction — those first codified by Aristotle in his Poetics and re-explained in various ways over the eons, perhaps most clearly for screenwriters by Syd Field in his book Screenplay — and, yes, they must be followed, because if they’re not, you may wind up with a ream of pages filled with words, but you’ll never have a story. There is also a standard format for screenplays that must be adhered to because it’s the common blueprint of filmmaking, and if you don’t use it properly no one will know how to interpret your tale for the screen. Finally, there are also the basic rules of proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You have to follow these because you want people to understand what you’ve written and because you’ll look like an illiterate moron if you don’t.
As for all of those other rules — those suggestions, guidelines, tips, and imperatives that insist that certain story points must occur on certain pages, require that there be a strict percentage of ink to blank space on each sheet, and insist that character names in comedies can end only in “k” — some of them are useful and many are just silly. So, my advice is to implement the ones that help your script and forget the rest. Ultimately, the only rule you have to follow is the prime commandment of storytelling: tell a good one, because if you don’t, then following all of the rules in the world ain’t gonna help you.