“A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works…and has through all remmebered time.'”
“My first eight to 10 scripts were pretty horrendous, but I stayed at it, stayed at it, and stayed at it, until I eventually found a voice and a subject like Rocky that people were interested in.”
Writer, director, actor Sylvester Stallone
Yesterday’s post was a Christopher Lockhart quote about how nobody who reads scripts cares about screenwriting rules—only a great script. Or as Lockhart says in other places “the right script.” I’ve heard others say there are no rules—but break them at your own peril. And, “There are no rules, only guidelines.” And yet another common phrase is,”know the rules before you break them.”
Is there any way to bring a synthesis to these somewhat opposing views?
I look at writers and filmmakers like I do athletes. Being tall is an advantage in basketball, but not in horseracing. And even within the same sport like American football each position has different requirements. Having the ability to catch a football is a basic requirement of a wide receiver but not expected at all of a left guard playing offense. One has the gift of catching, the other of blocking. There are hall of fame players who wouldn’t even make the team if they had to line up at a position that didn’t play up their strengths.
Screenwriters tend to have strengths in one or two particular genres. And even working screenwriters have a mixed writer’s grab bag of some of the following traits in their writing; great characters, solid story structure, snappy dialogue, humorous dialogue, minimal dialogue, emotional writing, theme, visual storytelling, etc, etc.
Maybe the problem with the word “rules” is we’ve all read and/or written scripts that have followed basic accepted rules of screenwriting and are lifeless. Most if not all script readers say that they only recommend between 2-10% of the scripts they read. But I honestly think that has less to do with rules, and more with talent and how it’s developed.
You may have heard the story about how Michael Jordan, one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, was once cut from his high school basketball team. He had talent, but it needed to be developed. He had to hone what worked with his skill set. He had to play the game a little better.
So while Lockhart says there are no rules, if you listen his whole one hour Final Draft webinar you will find plenty of suggestions based on his years of experience that will help develop your talent and hone your skill set. Here’s some bullet points that jumped out at me. If we don’t call them rules, maybe we can just call them realities.
(Note these are my quick notes from the Q&A with Lockhart not direct quotes. Any errors are mine.)
—Active portagonist: The script revolves around this character. The one who makes everything happen and who moves the story forward. Is in almost every scene. And has to be involved in the climax of the story. Good example: Taken.
—Emotional range: Lead actors like to play roles with a wide range of emotions.
—8 to 10 pages: No set page count when he knows a script is working, but if it hasn’t happened by pages 8-10 experience tells him that it’s probably not going to happen.
—Visual conflict: Watch the movie Insomnia (2002)
—Starting Out: Find a manager willing to work with new writers. Know that every writer with an agent, at one time didn’t have an agent. For an unknown to get recognized with an agency like CAA/WME you need to bring some kind of heat to the table, like having a film at Sundance or be a Nicholl finalist. An agent wants to represent you when you have something to sell (or ready for assignments), a manager will help you get to that place.
—One right script. It may take you ten scripts to write that one right script, but you only need one to open doors. It may not get made, but solid scripts always advance a writer’s career.
—Pitching stories: Getting in the room to pitch a story is reserved for experienced writers.
—Screenwriting contests: The majority of contests don’t open doors, but they give writers goals and deadlines which are helpful.
—High concept: Best chance for new writers to get traction.
—Query letters/emails: A query from Canada can land on the right desk and get noticed. Never put the word “query” in subject of email—just the script title. Put your logline at the top of the email or letter. Example: “Hi Chris, I have a new horror thriller it’s about a psychiatrist who struggles to help a young boy overcome a bizarre affliction—the boy sees dead people. It’s called the Sixth Sense.”
—Movies vs. TV: In movies the story is in the foreground and in TV the characters are in the foreground.
—Hustle: If you don’t want to hustle then the film business may not be the best career for you. Writing is only about 50% of the job. It’s not rude to ask someone to read your script at a party, standing in line, walking down the street—that’s your job. Just be respectful. When networking realize that people want to work with people they like and want to be around. (i.e. Don’t be a dick.)
—Voice: Not about the words you use, but how you tell the story.
—Page count: In theory, 100-120 pages is the norm in Hollywood.
—Living in LA: You can write from anywhere, but you have to be able to take meetings in LA. (And if you’re Joe Blow/Jo Blow from Idaho traveling to LA comes out of your pocket.) If you do live in Idaho concentrate on writing the right script that will get traction. (That’s what Diablo Cody did with Juno when living in Minneapolis.) Kevin Fox (Queens of Supreme, Lie to Me) lives in New jersey.
—Treatments: Joe Blows in Idaho don’t sell treatments.
—Pitchfests: Good place if you have the money to get learning experience (but the chances of actually selling a pitch are slim because the people you’re pitching to tend to be from the lowest level of the places they represent).
—Read newly sold scripts: It’s helpful to get your hands on scripts that just sold and see how it creates the movie in your head without any preconceived notion of actors. Understand why that script sold.