Indievelopment: The Only Screenwriting Rule Guide You’ll Ever Need

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One note before we begin. I’ll put in some screenwriting examples. They’ll be in blue so it’s easy to tell what’s an example and what’s not. All right. That was EARTH-SHATTERING! On with our tale.

Rules. You’ve heard them, and every book, every seminar, every writing discussion seems to generate a new set of them.

Typewriter - resizedDon’t use the passive voice.

Don’t use camera directions.

Don’t use “We’ll see.”

Don’t write over 110 pages.

Don’t write under 90 pages.

Don’t write more than 5 lines of dialogue without action.

Whether you work in Hollywood or in indie, rules matter.

“But I wanna!” I hear. “I want to write

We see Alex walking down the street.

CUT TO:

Close up on Alex’s face as she’s obviously remembering her mother’s death.

And I wanna and I’m an artist and you can’t stop me.” Well, no, I can’t. But I can tell you something. That style of writing up there? It sucks, and it won’t sell. Yes, I promise.

So. How to avoid that? What are the rules? Let me tell you the true rules of screenwriting. One, the one rule you can NEVER, EVER break! Indie, Hollywood, no matter where you are. And then Rule Two, the way to understand every other screenwriting rule you will ever hear.

Okay, Rule #1. The unbreakable one. Don’t ever even think of breaking this one. Ever. Seriously. Did I say don’t break it? I did? Ever? Okay.

FORMAT

Seriously. This is carved in granite in one hundred foot tall letters at the base of Mt. Screenplay. Get the format right. I’m not going to waste time on details; there are plenty of sources that describe everything you need to know about industry-standard formatting. There are books that cover everything you need to know. Okay, so whether you are submitting a script to a film school student or a major studio, GET THE FORMAT RIGHT. If you write a script in 13 pt.Times New Roman, kittens burst into flame, school children grow up to be politicians, and Hollywood starts rebooting movies during their own opening weekends. Get the format right. Don’t screw with it.

Okay, here’s Rule #2. This covers everything else.

DON’T SUCK; THE REST OF THE RULES ARE WAYS TO AVOID SUCKING

Aside from formatting, every other piece of advice you’ve ever heard, about not using –ing verbs, camera directions, “we see”, lots of parentheticals, etc…. it’s out there because 99.999% of the scripts that use these suck like a Hoover wired into a nuclear reactor. “But not MINE!” says the Aspiring Screenwriter. Yes, yours, Aspiring Screenwriter.

“Butbutbut,” I hear them cry. “J.J. Abrams/Tarentino/The Coen Brothers use it! Are you saying THEY suck?” You’ll notice I said 99.999%. (And sometimes… yeah, they do, actually.)

The truth is, people at that level are famous enough to get away with writing scripts in purple-coloured Comics Sans if they wanted. They are often writer/directors and are making notes on the page for how they want the material presented. Check out J.J. Abrams’ pilot script for Fringe if you don’t believe me. He uses “we push in” and “we see”, he randomly switches his method of indicating emphasis, he underlines and capitalizes and writes like he’s telling the story at a bar. “The Flight Attendant runs past INDIAN MAN -–WHOSE FACE IS F***ING MELTING NOW TOO – HE’S LOSING HIS MIND-– LOOKING AT HIS HANDS – THE FLESH PAINFULLY LIQUIFYING!“ I didn’t add anything but asterisks. The caps are his. The unreal number of dashes are his. That underline? His, all his. He even wrote “As our minds somersault, we CUT TO:”. Forget unfilmable character reactions, he’s writing the audience reaction into the script. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. J.J. Abrams.

Once you’re J.J. Abrams, go ahead and write that way. He’s not writing for a pitch. He’s writing as someone who is in total control of the project and wants to make sure everyone reading the script understands his exact intent. Yes, as writers we want readers to understand us, but there’s a difference: he’s saying “here’s the roadmap, use it.” We aren’t doing that, Aspiring Screenwriter. We need to evoke, guide, lead the way. He’s instructing, because he’s the showrunner.

Also, just because someone’s famous doesn’t mean they’re immune when it comes to bad writing. Heat is a brilliant film. Michael Mann is a brilliant director. But that script just has some flat-out bad writing in it.

However, here’s the really important bit. Sometimes megastars use these things and it works. Because they have the experience to know when to break the rules.

If you’re on your first script, then I’m sorry, but you can’t tick that box. On your third? Probably still not. Tenth? Maybe; let me read it. (I’ve written about twenty, and I still almost never do it.) When do you know you should break a rule? When you can say “I understand the rule, and I normally follow it, but my writing will be better for breaking it because of _______”

So, let’s get some understanding on.

NO –ING VERBS

No, it’s not an amusing expletive deletion. It’s technically the difference between the simple present and the present progressive. Skipping the grammatical labels, it’s this:

EXT. CITY STREET – DAY

Alex is walking after Bill.

That’s the present progressive tense of “to walk”. And it sucks. Please, don’t do this. It makes angels drink bad hooch. –ing verbs are blah; they are boring expressions that an action is talking place. The simple present (‘walks”) is more immediate. The whole point of a film, and therefore a script, is to give us an experience; anything that distances us from that experience is bad and should go. “is walking/crouching/shooting/burping/assassinating” is passive and dull. Axe it.

NO CAMERA DIRECTIONS

This takes a variety of forms. It might be lots of “CUT TO:” and “CROSSFADE TO:”. More commonly, it’s “Close up on Alex” or “Tight shot of Alex’s hand as she…”

Two problems here. The first, and this is even truer of indie than of Hollywood, is that you run a serious risk of pissing off the director by telling them how to do their job. (Most indie directors don’t have Ferraris and first look deals with Sony to keep them warm at night, so they’re less secure.) Annoying the director, a potential employer, is known in high-end showbiz terminology as a Craptacularly Dumb Thing To Do. True, some won’t care. But some will, and why lose X% of the potential jobs when there’s another, and even better, way to do it?

Speaking of better… the second thing. You are saying to the reader: “Hey, guess what? You’re reading a script!” It’s the writing equivalent of the boom in the shot on screen. We know it’s a script. Pull us into the STORY. Don’t jump up and down with a neon sign saying “SCREENPLAY” on it. That’s pointless. Worse, it’s amateurish. Let’s look at an example.

Alex creeps up to the door.

CUT TO:

Tight shot on her trembling hand with the key jutting out. The key scrapes against the lock. After a few tries, she unlocks the door.

This sucks. Let’s make it not suck.

Alex creeps up to the door.

Her hand. A clenched fist, trembling. A key juts out.

It shakes, scrapes the lock. One attempt, another. At last, she unlocks the door.

You see? Faster read, more info, and more importantly, more energy. Even a simple unlocking of the door has some drama. And it doesn’t kick us out of the story and say “Hey, lookie! A MOOOOOOOVIE!”

Camera directions isolate the reader from your protagonist. They remind us that we aren’t there with Alex in the rain outside a spooky house she doesn’t want to enter; instead we’re with someone playing Alex as the camera op changes lenses for a close up on her hand and everyone grabs coffee while they reset the lights.

That sucks. Don’t suck. Next? A big six-lane highway to scripts that suck.

WE SEE/WE HEAR

This is almost always lazy writing, and lazy writing is crap writing. This stuff is usually the screenwriter’s equivalent of “y’know” and “um”. A script is around 100 pages of nothing but what we as the audience can see and hear. Most of the “we see/we hear” can be deleted with no ill effect.

We see Alex crouching in the shadows with a gun.

Alex crouches in the shadows with a gun.

Now, forgive me if we get a bit grammaticalogicalistic here. In the second example, “Alex” is the subject, “crouches” is the verb. In the first example, “We” is the subject, “see” is the verb, and “Alex crouches in the shadows with a gun” is the object of the sentence. We see what? We see Alex etc. The point of your story is not what WE SEE. The point of your story is that ALEX IS IN THE SHADOWS WITH A GUN!  Your protagonist! She has a gun! WHY?!?! Alex and her motivations matter. Us and our eyeballs are the observers; the motivations and arcs we care about are Alex, so tell us about her and her crouching shadowy gunny eventful time; let us worry about our eyeballs and how they’re glued to the page because you’ve sucked us into Alex’s story. We know we see it; you just said it, so we see it. No one ever wrote “Alex crouches in the shadows with a gun” if the audience was never supposed to see Alex in the shadows. (Also, see that –ing verb in the first example? It’s funny how suckage breeds suckage.)

However, there is another usage of “we see”, and that’s to differentiate between what the audience sees and what the character sees.

Bill walks into the parking lot, intent on his BMW. We see Alex behind him, crouching in the shadow with a gun.

Bad writing. Because, despite the writer’s intent in adding it, I don’t know if Bill saw her or not. (And it still has the same problem as the grammaticalisticalogical example above.) “Okay, okay,” says Aspiring Screenwriter. “I can fix that!”

Bill walks into the parking lot, intent on his BMW. We see what Bill doesn’t; Alex behind him, crouching in the shadow with a gun.

This is what we call in the biz “making it worse”. I should be focused on Bill, Alex, the shadows, THAT GUN… instead, I’m focused on the fact that I and a bunch of popcorn-sucking freaks are more observant than Bill. Not where you want your focus. The central message of that example isn’t Alex has a gun. The central message is “We see better than Bill; aren’t we clever!” Undercurrent: “Because we’re looking through a MOOOOOVIE CAMERA!” Bad writer, no biscuit.

Want to fix it? Here’s how.

Bill walks into the parking lot. Intent on his BMW, he doesn’t see…

Alex, crouched in the shadows with a gun.

There we go. We know Bill didn’t see her, we know she’s there, and we’ve even created some suspense and a cool impression of the shots (without camera directions!). The second example does a better job of keeping us in the immediacy of the action.

I could go on forever, breaking down the logic behind every screenwriting rule you hear, but here’s the underlying truth. Aside from formatting, every rule can be broken, but only when you know why you are breaking it. 

So, the second rule is? Let’s modify the above version a bit now that we’ve gone through the examples.

DON’T SUCK; AVOID SUCKAGE-INDUCING TECHNIQUES UNLESS YOU KNOW HOW TO AVOID SAID SUCKAGE

I didn’t say it was pithy, but it is true.

Will someone throw your script in the trash at the first CUT TO: or WE SEE or “Joe is walking”? No. (They will probably throw it out at the fifth one on page one.) But virtually all the time there’s an –ing verb, or a We see, or a Cut to: or a 125 page script or a ton of parentheticals, it means the writer has been lazy and has yet to find the absolute best way to write that particular part of the script. Use these signposts as a chance to tune up your writing; recognize them for what they are and dig in there. Make it better. That’s your job. Don’t be lazy. Try to make it perfect.

And get the formatting right. Seriously.

Jeff shares more thoughts next week in The Screenwriting Rules, Round 2

Do you think you’ve got a counter-example? A brilliant use of an –ing verb? A “We see” that is perfect? Put it in the comments and let’s see if we can improve it!

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3 thoughts on “Indievelopment: The Only Screenwriting Rule Guide You’ll Ever Need

  1. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards Post author

    Scott, that’s a great example of when you should use an -ing verb, Sure, you can describe the scene lots of ways, but I’d say “Bloggs dying” is one of the strongest, and it stands out even more if you haven’t filled the rest of your script with “is walking” and “is driving”.

    If we want to get into nitty-gritty, “Bloggs dying” conveys that Death is the active aspect; Bloggs is just a bystander, and by using the weaker way of describing the action, you’re reinforcing that Bloggs is helpless.

    Thanks for the example. It shows both a time when an -ing verb is a great choice, and reinforces why its strength in this case would be a weakness in a different case, when you’d want the character more active.

  2. Scott Wallace

    Butbutbut… what if, say, Bloggs is dying? Compare:

    INT. INTENSIVE CARE UNIT – DAY

    Bloggs dying.

    ABERCROMBIE
    Here it is, the last of the magic antidote.
    What’s it worth to ya?

    OR:

    INT. INTENSIVE CARE UNIT – DAY

    Bloggs dies.

    ABERCROMBIE
    Here it is, the last of the magic antidote.

    Too late. Too late for Abercrombie, too late for the antidote, and especially too late for Bloggs, all because the writer avoided an -ing word.

    1. msaltar

      “Bloggs thrashes, coughs up blood.”

      (If Bloggs is dying, how would we know by looking at him? How would someone shoot “Bloggs is dying”? The writer might as well show us how he’s expiring.)

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