Last week another list of writing rules popped up, this one in the Sunday NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/books/review/colson-whiteheads-rules-for-writing.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1)
It turns out I have a list of my own, compiled from other lists and culled by my own experiences. I’ve been sharing some version of this list with my students ever since I began teaching screenwriting.
The comfort of rules can be very important to a writer’s motivation to write because telling them the truth (there are no rules and nobody knows anything) is for most people not useful and a little intimidating.
Most of these rules are useful tools not because they are true but because most young writers naturally do the opposite. Their writing tends to improve the most quickly when they are directed to do what does not come naturally.
And finally, the rules below are intended for screenwriters writing screenplays, but all manner of dramatic fiction and non-fiction can be invigorated by the same rules. Or not. Equally.
Rubrics of Screenwriting
- Writers write. And rewrite.
- Show it, don’t tell it
- Write what you know
- Economize. Less is more. Small is large.
- Know your structure
- Raise the stakes
- Action happens on the screen
- Make it believable
- Eat your ego
- Character will save your life
1. Writers write. And rewrite.
Everybody’s got a great idea for a screenplay. “All I need is someone to write it down for me,” says my neighbor, my barber, my UPS guy. Nope. Coming up with great ideas is part of the job, and I certainly spend a portion of my “writing” time on the sofa and in the shower; but most ideas tend to look fully formed and perfect until you actually try to write them down.
If you are a writer you are actually writing things down.
And then we rewrite. Getting to the end of a 120 page feature film is huge, and I often print it out and spend the rest of the day just picking it up and feeling its heft. I did that! Yes I did! But getting to the end is not the same as finishing. A huge amount of the writing takes place after the initial basecoat is laid down. Know that rewriting is part of writing.
2. Show it, don’t tell it
Anybody can create a character who opens his mouth and tells us everything that’s on his mind, and some people can even make those words funny or poetic or heartbreaking. But movies are first and foremost a visual medium, and the strongest screenplays take advantage of that. What can a character DO to show us how they feel or what they are thinking about? What scenes can you create and in what order can you arrange them in order to SHOW us a routine or an intention or a memory? Dialogue is most amazing and powerful in a movie when it is not forced to carry the burden of exposition. Concentrate on showing and the telling will take care of itself.
3. Write what you know
This rule is very true and very stupid. It’s the same advice given to people who want to start up a small business: Don’t start up a chinchilla farm if you grew up working in a bakery. In business this advice makes sense because the mistakes you make through your ignorance are going to cost you and likely ruin you.
But in writing the consequences of encountering your ignorance can be helpful, the exploration of new territory can be invigorating, and through writing what you don’t know you may discover what you do know. I’m guessing that you have never been to the moon, but maybe from the depth of your ignorance you find something within yourself, something you do know, e.g. your understanding of isolation and loneliness; your understanding of fear, or stubborn will, or patriotism, or trust in technology. You won’t know what truths about yourself or what commonalities with others you may discover until you have gone somewhere completely foreign to you.
It is EASIER and sometimes more fun to write from familiarity. You know details about the people and the lifestyle that no outsider would know. This is great. But to write fantasies, or science fiction, for example, is to create worlds that nobody can know. Yet we often find our greatest truths in these kinds of explorations. Write what you know? How can you not?
4. Economize. Less is more. Small is large.
The best screenplays are not loaded down with redundancies, but instead are elegant structures characterized by efficiency and economy. Why give a speech when a nod will do? Why have two scenes where one does the trick? Every aspect of a screenplay is available for simplification, from the twists and turns in plot to the number of characters and scenes to the lines of dialogue. Good screenplays gain power from their simple efficiency.
Clever multiple agendas, plotlines, parallel meanings for example may be intellectually satisfying but can often clog the emotional impact of a story. Our ambitions tend toward the large, but know that dramatic success tends to rest with the small.
In the same spirit of economy, it is a good reminder that making scenes bigger, bad guys nastier, and monologues meatier is not always the best way to get bigger dramatic effect. Sometimes the tapping of a finger or the raising of an eyebrow can be more devastating than an explosion.
5. Know your structure
Most screenwriting courses heavily rest on the teaching of structure. It is vitally important for a screenplay to have clear, understandable, well-realized structure in order to stand, just as with a building or a car. The exact nature of that structure for a screenplay is debatable and I do think that the growing tendency to teach to structure has led to greater homogenization of screenplays. Still, if you don’t know who your protagonist is or what they want or why they can’t get it or why we care then you will never be able to fix what’s not working in your script. And if you don’t know any of those things then I’m pretty sure that your script is not working.
6. Raise the stakes
Whether a story we are watching is vital to us may depend on how vital it is to the characters. If the consequences to Johnny of losing his football are nil (“Don’t worry, Johnny; just take another football out of the game closet”) then watching a story about Johnny losing his football will be of little interest to us.
I once spent a lazy summer going to a Jai Alai fronton near my home to see what that was all about. It’s basically watching two guys volleying until one of them drops the ball. I didn’t know these guys and I didn’t care who won until I put some money down. This is a gambling sport, and with my money on the line every second the ball hung in the air became vital and excruciating. The amount I was paying attention and caring about the outcome went up as the stakes went up.
Same in movies.
You don’t have to put a gun to person’s head in order to make the stakes life and death. It can be a spiritual death. Getting a pimple on the morning of the prom can be life and death for a teenager. Make sure it is, or at least remember to give it a try.
7. Action happens on the screen
As screenwriter you are the storyteller. Not the characters in your story. You. If you hear your characters begin to tell a story (“You won’t believe what happened in school today…” or “I just had the most amazing day…” or “I was just robbed!”) consider for a moment that the story they are telling might be more interesting to watch than watching somebody telling us that story. You are a dramatist, so dramatize.
8. Make it believable
We have two processes in pursuing dramatic fiction. One is to tell the truth. The other is to lie. On the one hand the entire enterprise is a lie, a fiction, something that doesn’t exist but is made to represent something that does. On the other hand it is all a pursuit of truth, of what is real and resonant and relatable. Otherwise we don’t understand what it has to do with us and as a result we don’t engage.
So it doesn’t have to be true, but it does have to feel true. It has to be believable. Like a good lie. Even if you know a true story, something truly extraordinary and fantastic, and use that for the basis of your screenplay you could still lose your audience if the story isn’t believable. The fact that it really happened is irrelevant.
Related to “Belief” is the idea of “Suspension of disbelief.” It’s not that we believe that Jabba the Hutt is a real threat to anybody. But the tone of the film, the way the material is presented, gives us permission to suspend our disbelief – and believe. Managing the viewer’s ability to believe is part of the screenwriter’s job.
9. Eat your ego
Sometimes, particularly in the creation of the first draft, the writer can follow his/her talent, integrity, and style in creating a very personal work.
But somewhere you will come up against it. Somewhere your uniqueness will be challenged and you will be faced with a choice – stick to your guns or eat your ego.
If you always stick to your guns you will encounter a world of pain. For one thing your characters may naturally want to go somewhere you didn’t intend. They may be proving a point (e.g. that people are good) even when the whole point of your story was supposed to show your worldview (that people are despicable). Can you adjust your worldview to the one presented by your characters? Do you believe your children when they tell you that you are wrong?
And remember that film is a collaborative medium. You will encounter many people with many agendas, and your job may be to incorporate ideas that are not your own, to make tonal shifts that do not feel like “you”, or to make story choices that insult your intelligence. Are you willing to do that? Are you able to see the positive in doing that?
And then there is the “murder your darlings” aspect to all of this. I never found that description graphic enough. How about this: Sometimes you have to chew off your foot to get out of the trap. You simply can’t keep all of the good ideas you ever had, even if those are the very ideas that inspired the project to begin with!
Knowing when to stick to your guns is part of being a writer. Always giving up your ego is part of being a hack. But you must find a place in between. The capacity to eat your ego from time to time is an important skill for a screenwriter. Sometimes it’s the only way to see the greatness in other people.
10. Character will save your life
When encountering a story issue that is keeping you from moving forward the tendency is to look to plot for your solutions. How can he have a crowbar with him when he gets to the warehouse? How could she know about the baby at this point in the story? How did the car get from the impound lot to the airport? This kind of logistical thinking can drive you crazy and will often lead to some very convoluted plotting in order to get the result you want.
Or you could change your character. What skills do they have? What happened in their background that might make them prepared for the challenge you’ve given them? Being creative with your characters may provide a much more profound and elegant solution to your problem. Just look at our national leaders. They get our attention not when they dust off some secret weapon we didn’t know about, but when they rise to the occasion, prove their metal, show an unexpected grit or humor or knowledge base or willingness to sacrifice. Character in our leaders, our family members, and ourselves is where we find answers and inspiration. Remember this resource in your screenwriting as well.