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Writer's Rules Revisited #2

Last week, I opened up a new series on the rules of writing based on my original "50 Rules and Tips for Writers." It was very popular and people really seemed to like it, so I'll certainly be keeping it up.

You can read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

The three rules we'll be talking about are primarily for screenwriters. As much prose writing as I've done, I've probably done as much screenwriting. (The next episode of Confessions of an Independent Filmmaker will be highlighting a lot of the misadventures I had in the Hollywood agent and screenwriting system.)

Over the years I've talked to a lot of readers, mentors, and screenwriters that seem to back up these philosophies. There are a few important things to point out when screenwriting, though. The first is that everyone has a different style of writing a screenplay, but the format is largely the same. If you want to compare and contrast, read Alex Proyas' early draft for Dark City, it's very florid and reads, at times, very much like a turgid noir novel. On the other hand, check out William Goldman's script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's almost boring to read because it's so clinical and precise with the shots. In both cases, each script served as a blueprint for a masterpiece of a movie.

Perhaps that's the key to being a good screenwriter: reading screenplays that served as blueprints for the very best of films.

The next most important thing to remember is who you're writing your screenplay for. If you're trying to pitch a production company, a producer, or an agent (even an actor), chances are they're passing the reading off to a reader. It's the reader's job to read screenplays all day, every day. That's what they do. And they've seen every bit of bad writing and formatting in the book. Since they do it so much, they are looking for absolutely any reason to toss your opus into the trash.

These rules are aimed at taking away some of the biggest reasons they have for discarding your manuscript.

Though these are geared toward screenwriting, they could be construed as applicable to prose and novels as well in some cases. Personally, I find any bit of advice on writing in any medium useful and insightful. If nothing else, it gets me thinking about writing from a different direction and sometimes that's exactly what we need to unstick our process.

9) No one likes to read large blocks of text, keep action to one or two lines but no more than four.

This rule is inviolable when I'm working on a screenplay. If you're familiar with screenplay format, you'll know that a typical page will have a slug line in all caps telling you where you are and what time of day it is. Below that will be blocks of action to set the scene and describe the motions characters are going through.

If there are more than four lines in any one instance of action, I know exactly where to cut. Even if I can't lose any of the action I've written, I will break it up into two (or more) blocks separate of each other. These blocks of action are how you pace a scene. Longer blocks of text keep readers reading longer, shorter blocks make them feel like they're flipping through pages at an alarming rate. It's a difficult thing, but you are managing the physical reading experience of these readers every bit as much as you're managing the storytelling experience.

This is a very simple bit of manipulation.

This serves as a good way to keep readers from skipping huge chunks of text as well. Readers go through so many screenplays that they are looking to make it go as fast as possible. If you give them a reason to skip a passage because it's too long, it's not going to help your cause.

When I originally wrote this rule, it actually read Leave as much white space on the page as possible. Pages of screenplay sparse of text with lots of white space are in no way intimidating to read. Your job is to keep them reading, not to scare them off.

10) Unless you're directing, keep inflections, camera direction, and editing suggestions out of the script.

This is one that a lot of would-be screenwriters seem to struggle with. I struggled with it in the beginning, too. And, like I said before, this is a rule that can be broken for some, but it doesn't work for me and I don't find it worth the risk.

Again: Consider your audience. If you're writing this as a shooting draft, ready to hand a camera operator, then you're going to throw this rule out right now. The same could be said if you're making the movie yourself. If you're making the movie on your own, then you can write the screenplay

But if you're trying to get your screenplay read by someone who would in turn be convincing someone else to pick it up, buy it, and/or make it, you don't want to waste any words of your script on camera direction, editing, or speech inflections. You need to cram as much storytelling into your screenplay as it is, you don't want to bog it down with stuff that an ego-centric director and actor are going to cross out anyway. These guys are all the sort that think they're the most important person on a film and the last thing they want to do is take advice from the "writer."

I've seen it happen before: the writer visualizes the entire movie in his head, plotting every camera move and inflection in dialogue. They pour their heart out into making such a thorough and complete blueprint that they can't imagine the film turning out anyway but the way they planned. Then the director and producer come on board and they start hacking every piece of specific stage direction. "The script calls for a long panning shot, but I'm really seeing a hand-held closeup here." And so on.

Then the actor gets ahold of the script and guts the rest. "This bit of dialogue has the word 'must' underlined for inflection, but I'm not really sure my character would say it like that. I think they'd put the emphasis on 'the' and then trail off incoherently."

Now, it's the directors job to rein those attitudes in, but the writer's job ends when he hands over the blueprint. Things will not be exactly as you imagined them and that's okay. More than any other form of writing, screenplays are the most collaborative. You nurture and create a story, then, unless you're making the film yourself, you pass it on to a group of artists whose array of talents and strengths are much different than yours. The results will vary. Sometimes a brilliant screenplay will turn into terrible movie and other times a terrible screenplay will turn into a brilliant movie.

Sometimes it's hard to write around specific shots you have in your minds eye, but finding creative ways around them is an exercise in elegance.
CLOSE ON: The killer's hand as it slowly turns the doorknob... The camera cuts to his eyes, the rest of his face obscured by a mask, as he squints at the sound of the squeaking door.
...can easily turn into:
The hand of the killer reaches for the doorknob, turning it slowly. The hinges squeaks and he flinches through the mask that partially obscures his face. 
Each tells the same story and imply the same shots, but with the camera directions missing, it feels more like prose and more pleasurable to read. It's shorter and tighter, and each sentence is a new camera set up without saying so.

With practice, removing all the scene direction while still implying it will be as easy as anything.

11) Action should be clear and concise, like a children's book.

This is another rule of mine I struggled for a long time to get right in my own screenwriting style. I'm a big fan of guys like Hemingway with their long, flowing sentences that take you four different places interspersed with a dozen commas before ending in a period. Those kinds of sentences work just fine in prose, but you want to make your sentences small, clean, and concise. 

If possible, try to make each sentence its own camera set up.

If you can make each sentence vital to the story and the visual action of the film, not a single line will be cut. And don't write anything that can't be filmed. If you need to reveal some bit of a character that can't be filmed, do it in the story, the dialogue, or the actions of the character. 

The action is what needs to be filmed on camera.

For example:
GEORGINA THOMAS, 25, a statuesque blonde, struts up the street looking for a mark. She's had a hard life living on the street and it shows on her face. If she hadn't been abused as a child, maybe she wouldn't be on the street tonight...
How would anyone in their right mind film anything beyond the first sentence? It smacks of terrible screenwriting. How does the fact that she's had a hard life and had been abused as a child advance the action of the scene? Sure, these are things the actress might need to know, but these are blanks they'll want to fill in on their own.

If you've done a good enough job with the character, through their actions and dialogue, their backstory will fill itself in.

For the rest of the story, think about it as though you're reading it to a fifth grader. You don't need anything fancy to tell your story. The visuals will do so much more of the work for you, that you can afford to be elegantly simplistic here. 

Keep it simple, don't confuse anyone, and make it easy to read. It's really that simple.

That's it for now. Feel free to comment with questions...  ...or to tell me how wrong you might think I am.

 If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.


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