I hate rules. I’ve hated them since birth. And screenwriting rules? Screw’em. My film school teachers couldn’t pay me to follow any of their “stupid” and endless parade of do’s and don’ts.
But, after years of being in the industry and reading thousands (and thousands) of scripts, I’ve discovered which specific rules a script needs to follow in order to make it great – and separate it from the throwaway pile.
The saying goes that rules were meant to be broken. Well, if you want your work to be relegated to the trash bin, then jump in that Thunderbird with Thelma and Louise and follow them off the cliff.
Now, I’m going to make a psychic prediction. I sense that while reading this article you’ll be thinking to yourself, “I’ve read movie scripts by Shane Black and Charlie Kaufman and they don’t follow these rules. You must be wrong, Michael Ferris!”. Well, as the other saying goes, when you’re Shane Black you can write however you damn well please.
Before we go on, let’s break that one down for a second. Why is there a discrepancy between the style and technical aspects of the produced scripts you read online and what I am about to tell you?
Basically, until you are a KNOWN quantity in Hollywood, with a reputation for being a great writer, you are assumed to be Just Another Crappy One. So until the day comes when you’re recognized for your genius, you have to write better than the professionals. And that means you have to follow a few rules in order to help make your script a fast, crisp, easy read.
If your script is lucky enough to land in an agent’s (or producer’s) take home pile, and you’re just another random writer, you’ve got about 5 pages to prove you can actually write. And for an unknown, that means they want a quick read. If you can deliver that – even if other aspects are less than stellar – you will have a huge leg up on the competition.
Ready to get started? Here’s how you’re going to do it:
Rule #1: Every paragraph of action lines should be 3 lines or less.
Below you will find an excellent example and one you should study: the first two pages of the script for Saving Private Ryan.
Entire scripts, as a rule, are like poems. If I were to write the previous sentence as a line of action in a script, it would read simply “Scripts are like poems.”
As such, you use the least amount of words possible, and don’t spend any time describing action or setting than we need to understand story, character, or to move the plot forward. As well, remember to keep everything in present tense.
The best of the best keep it at two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script, while still describing a heck of a lot.
Rule #2: Write Visually!
On the opening page of Saving Private Ryan you will see exactly what I’m talking about. Short sentences. Terse description. Easy to visualize. Evocative verbs.
This is how spec writers need to execute if they are to be taken seriously.
If you can use an arresting verb in place of a ho-hum or standard one, DO IT. For a simple example, it’s much more interesting to read, “The script slides across the table” than “the script gets passed across the table”.
Every single one of those four aspects is important (short sentences, terse description, easy to visualize and evocative verbs), so take each one into account and study how it’s done in these two pages. And though this is an action script, yes, this applies to all genres.
Now, look at the word choices: SWARM of landing craft. ROAR of naval guns. SNOWSTORM of bullets. We can see the carnage in our heads, and all in very little time and page space.
As well, don’t be afraid of white space on the page. White space is, like, your total BFF, and the key to an easy read. As long as you can balance action lines that only tells us what we need to know with the dialogue, keep that speeding script on full throttle.
Rule #3: Only write what we can SEE or HEAR on screen – and nothing more.
This is where Shane Black’s word flourishes differ most from what I’m suggesting you do. Remember, you’re not writing a novel – this is a screenplay. If you write wonderful prose, the audience won’t ever know it and the industry reader could give a sh*t. You’re wasting his or her time on things that either won’t end up on screen anyway, or illustrate to them that you obviously don’t know how to properly write in screenplay format.
It’s amusing and it works when it’s Shane Black because we already know he’s a hotshot. No one knows you from Joe Blow (yet).
Screenwriting 101 is about finding ways to convey character’s feelings, emotions, and layers through their actions – what they literally do on screen. This is an example I encountered recently:
She’s hurting inside, and we can see it. She’s a fighter though, so finding her inner composure, she puts the journal down on the table.
That’s lazy, amateurish screenwriting for several reasons:
1: Have the character DO something. Movies are about the external, novels are about the internal. Remember the format, always.
2: This is a character’s turning point, and it’s not only lacking visual dynamics, but even worse, it’s boring.
An example of how this could have read:
She angrily wipes away a tear before slamming the journal down on the table.
This is more visually interesting and tells us much more about her internal feelings – all without dialogue. As I showed in a previous post mentioning THE VERDICT, you can convey so much more about the story, characters, and theme with action lines and what we see a character DO than you can with dialogue. Which is just one more reason why writing great action lines can be your magic bullet.
If you can fill the script with those amazing silent moments (check out the VERDICT video in the link above) that bring to life a character and who they are, or those small, brilliant moments that define a great movie – you are two steps ahead of everyone else. One great example of a small, brilliant moment is in the Godfather, when Michael calmly and coldly closes the door in his wife’s face as she lets out a sob. Or, of course, the very last minute of The Graduate.
Rule #4: Never Use Camera Directions In Your Script
I can already see the hate mail piling up now. I know this one is a particularly controversial rule and there are adamant defenders of having *some* camera directions in a script, but I can tell you from industry experience: people hate that sh*t.
All the way around, really. Directors hate it because they think you’re trying to tell them how to do their job. Actors hate it because “it gets in the way” or they don’t understand it. Execs hate it because they think you’re full of yourself, and Reps and Producers think it’s the sign of an amateur. If any of these types of people see camera directions in the first few pages, it could be the very excuse they need to throw the script away without reading anymore (those tales of tall read piles? Not fictional. We really do look for any reason to stop reading a script).
At the end of the day, that’s really what these rules are all about – protecting yourself and your script. Getting an agent or selling your first script are already uphill battles – don’t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be. Give yourself the best opportunity to get your script read from cover to cover, and write action lines better than a pro so that they can’t use your technical writing skills as an excuse to throw your script away.
Write an easy read, with crisp action that evoke great images while using the least amount of words possible.
In the end, it turned out my screenwriting teachers were right. So don’t take years to learn the hard way like I did – integrate this stuff into your scripts right now. Your work will improve drastically, and you’ll be one step closer to your dream by having a studio ready script.
Good luck and happy writing!
Get tips on writing a page turner in Jon James Miller’s webinar,
How to Write an Action Thriller They Can’t Put Down