Skip to main content

Writer's Rules Revisited #13

It's been a while since we've done one of these. Aside from being busy with revisions and work and new writing, things have been hectic.

I've got a couple of other posts to point you to in case you're interested. The first is a small talk about writing I had with comics legend Walt Simonson. His take on fairy and folk tales really opened my eyes about some things and reinforced others. The other thing you might be interested in checking out is my series on Gamemastering on Big Shiny Robot! Gamemastering and storytelling are sister endeavors and there are some things I've elaborated on there that would definitely spark some creative juices for writing, though I understand if it's not for everyone.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 herePart 10 herePart 11 here, and Part 12 here.

The first on this list is specifically for screenwriting, but the other two in this installment are applicable to writers of every medium.

So, without further ado, we begin.

* 41) Try to avoid, where possible, the thoughts and feelings of characters in the scene setups and action. It won't play visually.

There are two very good reasons for this rule. The first is that saying that a character feels a certain way in a scene setup isn't going to help the director and cinematographer figure out where to put the camera, and that's what scene directions are for. And actors are going to bring their own unique take on the character, so your preconceived notions of what they might be are going to be thrown out the window.

One of my favorite quotes from George Lucas involves this very subject. The character of See-Threepio was supposed to be a very oily used car salesman in all the original drafts of the screenplay. "Eventually, you actually take a real person and stick them into that character, and that real person brings with him or her an enormous package of reality. I mean, Threepio is just a hunk of plastic and without Tony Daniels in there, it isn't anything at all."

You have to remember that screenplays are collaborative. If you spell out every detail in your script about what is going to happen and why and how people are feeling and every look on their face, no one is going to want to make your movie. You need to write the screenplay cleanly enough that people are interested, but can see their own vision inside of it. And actors are very ego centric. They will bring whatever they feel like to the character and inhabit them so completely that I've seen some resent every bit of scene direction that gives away their emotion or emotional actions in the script.

The other very good reason is that in screenplays, more than almost any other medium, you have people scanning your text. If you have all kinds of unfilmable sentences and emotions in your scene setups, it's going to be filed in the trash pretty quickly because they are going to know that you have no idea how an actual screenplay is supposed to work.

Your story needs to be so clear with the physical actions of the character and the dialogue and the tone of the text that the emotion the characters are feeling is unmistakable.

Then you'll know that you've done your job.

42) Don't guess trends. Write what you want to read or see.

Trends move along so quickly that trying to guess at them is going to be a waste of your time. Set a trend. If you have a specific taste enough for something to write it and want to have longevity as a writer, you'll either set the trend or have the book you wanted to write available when the trend comes back in vogue.

This is especially true in the age of digital publishing and perpetual availability of everything. If you've written a werewolf love story and no one is touching them right now because they're all focused on zombie stories, it's not a big deal. For one, there will be a small market right off the bat for that werewolf love story, and if, somehow, they catch on, you're ready for it.

But think about how long it takes to write a book and edit it and move it through all the normal channels and publish it. By the time you see a trend capturing the zeitgeist of the popular culture, it would take you until the time the trend was over to be able to capitalize on it meaningfully in a way that wouldn't embarrass you too much.

So don't write what you think others want to read, per se. Write what you have a passion for. Write the book you want to read. There will be enough people like-minded enough to be interested. Trends move in cycles and if the idea and the execution is good enough, then when the cycle comes back around and your book is already out, it'll be a matter of slapping a new cover on it and you're in a very good way.

The same is true with screenplays. Trends take even longer to come around and movies take even longer to get made than books. Don't try to anticipate those things, just focus on crafting a good screenplay.

I can't emphasize this one enough.

I've seen some exceptions to this that work, but they are the exception. I've seen a couple of people capitalize very well on short-story satires of very hot and topical issues or trends, but they're short and being published digitally without support. But even then, I wouldn't recommend it. Your energy is probably better focused working on your beloved opus.

And if your focus happens to follow a major trend, understand that the trend will be passe by the time you finish. If it hasn't played out completely, more power to you. Hope for the best, but expect the worst.

43) Paranoia about theft is wasted energy.

This one breaks my heart.

I see too many people concerned that someone is out to steal their baby. There are some very easy steps you can take to prevent problems like this from happening. Registering with the WGA or the copyright office are the most effective, but possession is really the biggest factor here. (And no, mailing yourself a copy doesn't work.)

If you have a clear cut case of plagiarism, it's something you can deal with very easily. But if you're worried about someone stealing your idea, I'm convinced you have no confidence as a writer. Who cares if someone steals your story idea? First off, you're a writer. Your ideas are a dime a dozen. I literally have a bookshelf full of notebooks crammed with ideas I'll never get to. Stealing one idea from me isn't going to kill me. Secondly, even if someone did steal your idea, do you really think they'll do it as well as you? Really? Even if they do take your idea, it'll go in a completely different direction and end up completely indiscernible from your product.

I can understand being protective of something very high concept that hasn't been introduced into the aether as far as you're aware, that's a little different. But, overall, the only thing you're doing by worrying about this stuff is feeding your lack of confidence as a writer and spending anxiety on something that doesn't matter.

I'm not sure about you guys, but if I'm too filled with anxiety, my writing organs don't work as well and I get stuck more often. 

So the best advice I can give is to not worry about it. Repeat after me: No one wants to steal your screenplay or your book or your story idea. 

And if they do? You can sleep easy knowing that they could never execute it as well as you.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10Part 11, and Part 12If 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.


Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of a Scene - City Lights

We're going to break down another scene this week, and it's one of my favorites in cinema history. It comes from the ending of City Lights by Charlie Chaplin, which I think is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. 
It's a touching film from 1931 and I would make it mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to learn to tell a story.
The scene we're going to be breaking down comes from the very end of the film, so if you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you. Go watch the film. You can rent it for $3.99 in HD on Amazon or for free on Hulu with a free trial or plus subscription. You should just buy the Blu-ray, though. You're going to want to revisit it.
For those of you familiar with the movie, or for those of you who are going to ignore my pleas to watch it and go ahead with this post anyway, I'm going to set this clip up a bit before you watch it.
City Lights tells the story of Chaplin's Tramp and how he falls in love with a blind flower …

Anatomy of a Scene: The Third Man

It's time again to break down a classic scene. One that's well-written and, in my view, a fine example of excellent craft.

I've done some of these articles from books (like The End of the Affairand Starship Troopers) and other movies (like Citizen Kane, City Lights, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), but now it's time to take a look at a scene from The Third Man. It blends the best of Orson Welles (as he's in the film and drives this scene) and Graham Greene, who wrote this particular screenplay.

Before we get to the scene, we need some context.

The Third Man is a tale of the black market in Vienna, just after World War II. It's about a cheap, dime-store Western novelist named Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) and his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) Lime offered Martins a job in Vienna, so Martins leaves America and arrives, only to find that Harry Lime is dead. Penniless, without a friend or reason to be in the country, h…

Anatomy of a Scene: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might be one of the most meticulously well-written movies ever made.  William Goldman scripts are almost always something special. He's a master of creating something that's interesting, every scene has a kinetic energy to it that keeps you moving. He's a talented prose novelist as well. His novel of The Princess Bride might be even better than the screenplay and the film.

But today I want to talk about a scene in particular for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

This scene comes early in the movie and we're still working to understand the relationship between Butch and Sundance, as well as Butch and his gang.

Goldman does something amazing as he's able to mix humor, character building, excitement, suspense, and an advancement of the story into the scene. There are so many building blocks at play here, and because the scene is so entertaining we hardly notice.

And the dialogue is so sharp I can't even stand it.

One of the mos…