There are tons of books, videos, blogs, and podcasts that will tell you what the screenwriting rules are. We have quite a number on this very website. Here are five popular suggestions that might be more helpful if you ignore them!
Hook the Reader in the First 10 pages
I hear this quite a bit from writers—-aren’t I supposed to hook a reader by page 10? Or page 5? Page 1? If you don’t get people interested by a certain page, your screenplay is in big trouble. Isn’t that right? Well, maybe. Overall, the emphasis should be on engaging your audience emotionally at all times. ON ALL PAGES. The focus on a certain page or “starting off strong” often leaves the start of a screenplay rushed, confusing, jarring and lost. Don’t worry about trying to get the audience interested. Focus on loving what you write. Instead of trying to write something by a certain page number, be patient and describe humanity. It isn’t the page numbers that interest an audience. It’s what you share about your life. And that will hook a reader on every page of your screenplay.
Write What You Know
Write what you know usually means write something from your own experiences. If you worked in an emergency room, you bred horses, you grew up in Munich, write a movie from those experiences and that’s how to write a successful screenplay. Well, yes and no. What this “rule” might discourage you from doing is writing about something you’ve never done or seen. Writing a movie set in Italy but having never been to Italy. Which is what Shakespeare did. Look, we do write a lot from our own worlds, and writers do get in trouble writing what they don’t know. But in general, ignore this as much as possible and employ your imagination. We do not emphasize the gift of “making stuff up” enough. Don’t be afraid to invent all sorts of things when you’re writing. When we limit ourselves to what we’re experts on, we miss out on the accidental gifts of actual creation, the birth of story and character from nothing but our spirited minds.
Understand Screenplay Structure
People are often introduced to writing for the screen with advice to buy a book that provides a structure for how every movie is written and that by following that structure, you will be successful and make money. There are old books about structure and new books about structure. I see writers giving new writers advice—-learn structure. Three act structure. Beat sheets. Techniques. What happens on this page. And that page. We’ve actually given names to the pages when important stuff is supposed to happen. We’ve created structural terminology for what people used to call the middle of the story or the beginning of a movie. It’s nice to remember the three-act structure when you want to refer to something in somebody’s script. And I’m sure we can look at a million movies and eventually prove all these formulas correct. (That’s why the books sell.) But understanding these systems and implementing them guarantees you nothing if you can’t deliver emotional pain in an authentic way. And by chasing structure it often gives us a robust source of distraction from being vulnerable.
So structure is optional.
Outline Before You Write
We all know this is bad advice for creative writers, but we still hear this coming from experts and giants of making money from selling writing in Hollywood left and right. Outline everything before you get started or you’ll waste your time. Who cares about wasting time? I’m interested in writing an unforgettable story, no matter how long it takes. If I come out the other side with a movie that people watch 50 times over and over, is it going to matter how “efficient” I was? Outlining is a great tool before you start writing and throughout the rewriting process. But making plans before you write a story, as a rule, is an awful habit. And if you’re doing this now, try something new soon. Or you might have different goals for writing than some of the rest of us. And that’s perfectly fine. But if you want to leave something for ages, don’t be scared of extra work and making a fool of yourself in an early draft.
Know Your Ending
The ending might be the hardest thing to pull off, so why do you need to figure that out before all the other stuff that’s easier than writing an ending that you haven’t figured out yet? You don’t. You might know your ending. That’s fine. It’s not a bad thing to know what your ending is, but don’t worry about it. Sometimes when you know your ending, you’ll find it changes when you actually write your script. So why is it so important to know your ending? When you know your ending before you start writing, you actually don’t know your ending. So don’t worry about your ending. Don’t even think about your ending. Develop a relationship with your story. Let your story crush you. Later, after you’ve grown completely married to your story, your ending will reveal itself like your initial idea —- in an inexplicable way.
Overall, advice for storytelling should be ignored in lieu of actually writing.
By: Gordy Hoffman
This was a great post, very liberating and much aligned with what I feel about writing/scriptwriting. Thank you!
Thanks so much, Katayoon! —Gordy
Wow. This feels good. I’m hung up on a new story in my head. The characters are talking to me. But if I’m too concerned with the ending or the structure, I’ll never get out of my own way and start writing.
So basically follow the rules loosely but let your heart lead the way. Screw the experts, your the expert. Your writing the story. You know what you want to say and you feel and that translates into what you want the audience to feel. Genius!
The kind of rule I like: there are no rules 🙂 Thanks for posting this, surely it will hit many screenwriters’ spot!
Notice how he didn’t say ignore basic grammar though… “you’re” not “your”.
I’m currently writing my first feature, and all of these rules (especially outlining and knowing your ending) have been weighing me down. Thanks for the relief!
So many bridges to cross, so many rules to adhere to–or not. No detour signs, no road maps appear as do-able as one’s imagination–the place, where locations remain un-limited by regulation,where no screen play cop chases one down to ticket one for speeding, on a one-way road, going eighty miles an hour. Nice to know his authority has no relevance. Maybe, now I can speed up to one hundred. Thanks for the info,
Good solid screenplay writing is building it brick by brick, layer after layer, revision after revision, polishing those words until they glisten and your fingers are numb from hitting the keys, then and only then go back and make it as lean as you can. Feel what you’ve written to the core of your soul and you’ll connect with the reader as they tear their heart out to turn those pages with gusto. Don’t forget to show them what you’re telling them. It’s a visual medium. Writing about something you know is the icing on the cake. I just finished a screenplay about God… and it is glorious.
Thank You Gordy! I feel ‘Grounded’ and “Liberated”again!