You’ve Got to Know the Rules Before you Break Them. Or do you?

Some People love to give screenwriting rules.

“Write in a commercially successful genre!”
“Write a likeable star role with a clear character arc that changes him for the better!”
“Adhere to some kind of paradigm like the heroes journey, three act structure, Blake Snyder beat sheet, etc.”
“Keep your script between 95-115 pages!”

Some People love to rail against screenwriting rules.
“Shit like this is so stupid, why would you try to put your story into a box?”
“Advice like this is the reason Hollywood can’t make a good story like On Golden Pond anymore!”
“Don’t worry about trying to hit some cookie cutter formula! Write a great story by writing a great story.”
“The last thing i want to do is install someone’s network of creative barriers in my brain. That process is more about learning the maze than finding the cheese. I’m just here for the cheese.” 

I believe both these philosophies come from a good place. The rules hater are right to hate lazy, hacky formulas that too often serve as a substitute for creativity and actual thought. The rules givers come from the understanding that learning writing is really complicated, and it often helps beginners to train on preexisting structures before they branch out in more original directions.

Regardless of what approach you take, don’t get butthurt about your position (I wish there was a better word than butthurt, but ‘reactionary’ doesn’t have the immediate sting I’m looking for). If you react to advice like it shot your dog, if you get angry, if you find yourself composing a titchy, 250 word screed decrying a point, it’s possible you might be too entrenched in your position. When it comes to writing rules, it’s best to consider WHY the rule is being offered before you start debating the particulars.

The formulaic advice serves two purposes.  First, it gives beginners a framework so they can develop knowledge and skills quicker.  Secondly, it comes from an understanding of the industry itself.  This is a larger point that deserves its on post, but put simply: the rules are intended to help you write a script that a development exec of average intelligence will be more likely to recognize as a good example of writing.  We can argue the veracity of that premise all day long, but that’s the premise I’m sticking to.

The formula haters are right too.  As a reader, I see countless scripts that are completely predictable, lazy, and hacky.  Don’t be the writer who confuses knowing the formula for knowing how to write.  It’s about how you use the formula to create art.  You can put a piece of wood on a crate and call it a table, but a true table maker can use his art to make a table that is a beautiful work of art.

Use formula.  Don’t use formula.  But do yourself a favor and develop an understanding of the pros and cons of either approach.  It will help your craft immensely.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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