Film Fund-amentals:The Rules of Screenwriting

Screenwriters are the most fortunate people in the film industry. Fortunate, because they have so many other people out there just aching to tell them what to do.

I was recently reminded of that point while reading Danny Rubin’s blog piece How to Write Groundhog Day: 10 Rules for Screenwriters. Since Rubin actually wrote Groundhog Day, he has the advantage of having an honest to goodness major movie under his belt. That is more than some folks handing out advice (keep this in mind when signing up for a screenwriting class).

Rubin’s article has become a must read; and, to be honest, his advice is actually pretty good. The same is true of Colson Whitehead’s article How to Write, printed several years ago in The New York Times. Heck, there are nuggets of wisdom to be found in most of the thousands of articles that turn up in a Google search on the topic. Writers are blessed or what?

The key points to screenwriting (or any form of writing) can be narrowed down to several basic rules. First and foremost is the rule of “Show me, don’t tell me.”  A long time ago I had an editor who practically had this slogan tattooed to his forehead. He said this so often that a few of us were tempted to show him our boots in his butt. However, we also knew that he was right.

This is especially important with a screenplay. Film is a visual medium. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. That may or may not be true, but a clear sense of visual structure can save you at least 900 words.

Interestingly enough, both Rubin and Whitehead have the same Rule 4: Economize. In writing, this means using as few words as possible (the Hemingway model). With a screenplay, this often goes back to the visual aspect. Often the most powerful emotional moments in a movie are based upon facial expressions and visual patterns. Nobody needs extra chatter.

Another piece of advice given on most of these lists is that you should write about what you know. Taken too literally, that could be a problem.  If most first-time screenwriters only wrote about what they knew, we would be buried in scripts about the coming-of-age of recent college graduates. Not exactly an exciting prospect. So yes, you have to extend beyond your own area of immediate experience in certain ways if you want to create any kind of story-line that might be interesting.

However, you need to find an emotional connection to anything you write. It has to mean something to you (and not just a paycheck, though a paycheck is always nice). Personally, I think the emotional commitment is the key to this issue. A lot of the rest can be handled through extensive research. And yes, you’d better learn how to research.

Rubin’s Rule 5 is, know your structure. With any form of writing, the structure is the first step in doing the job. This is perhaps even more critical when writing a screenplay. A screenplay is essentially a blueprint to the movie. A screenplay is not, in itself, a finished project. It is an initial step in a larger process. It will be altered and rewritten numerous times (see Rubin’s first rule) as the project takes shape through the pre-production process. The script will start with a structure, and then be restructured as the process goes along. A good script is a good guide but not the final word.

Film being such a convoluted process, there is a strong emphasis on structure from the very beginning. So outline it, if need be. Play with it. I have heard of some writers who draw visual graphics for their structure. I have never seen these visuals and have no idea how well that works, but sometimes you do whatever it takes.

I am often surprised that one item is often overlooked on these lists: Dialogue. Writing solid, convincing dialogue is not easy. In fact, most first time writers suck at it. They end up writing something that sounds like monologues being carried on at the same time by two different characters. There is little if any resemblance to real conversation between real people actually talking to each other.

So you need to listen to people. A wide range of people. Everybody from cab drivers to business executives and everyone in-between. Study the differences. Note the nuances. Then when you are writing dialogue, read it out loud. Get somebody to read with you. Once you hear it, it should quickly register if it is working or not. If it doesn’t sound right, rewrite it.

So get to work. Read all the rules you can find. Find what works best for you. But also remember Rule 11 on Whitehead’s list: There are no rules.

That is the tricky thing about writing. There are many ways to do it and you simply have to discover what works best for you.