Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Rules Regarding Rules

I see a lot of arguments on writers message boards surrounding the 'rules of screenwriting'

It seems to me most of the arguments come from those who insist there are no rules and even if there were they should be broken.

Me, I don't think there are any rules. And break them at your peril.

What you have are conventions. A more or less 3 act structure, an empathetic protagonist, you know the kind of thing. Not handed down in tablet form by Moses. But something that has pretty much stood the test of time.

That's not to say there isn't any wiggle room.

But consider the fact that you may be a new, unproduced writer. Then consider the number of scripts a harrassed reader has to get through.

The truth of the matter is that unless your first twenty pages leaps up and grabs him by the throat, you are on borrowed time as it is. If the pro reader doesn't see your protag by then and your inciting incident isn't even on the horizon then the chances are your script will be confined to the big circular locker.

Readers aren't there to do you any favours. They are there to find scripts that their bosses might want to make.

You may like a long introduction to give meaning to your story which actually kicks in on page 55, but the reader and his bosses will not.

Of course there are arguments that 'I'm not writing mainstream, I'm writing Indie.'

Well that's fine - apart from the fact that most indies that actually get any kind of distribution follow the same basic structure as mainstream. And take a guess how many Indies were produced and couldn't get a release? Hundreds in the UK alone.

And there are the Tarantino and Nolan arguments - except I would counter argue that Pulp Fiction and Memento were basically mainstream structure but with story points out of sequence.

If you are a hugely succesful writer then you may be able to get something bought or made that differs wildly from what is percieved as conventional dramaturgical structure.

If you are not, and want to be - I'd begin by building a fan base. That means getting your work seen by decision makers. To do that they have to see something they think they can make that will put bums on seats.

Never, ever forget that this is a business. A very creative business, but still a business. And that extends to you as a writer. If you don't write what people want to see then why bother? That doesn't mean it has to be crass explosions and gratuitious sex, but it does have to be a good story well told. Certainly not some unstructured, navel gazing, masterbatory 'My Life' opus.

Having said that, as far as reading scripts and watching movies is concerned I'm just a 'begining, middle and end' kinda guy. If what is in that begining , middle and end is entertaining, well written, engaging, exciting and perhaps thought provoking, then pretty much anything goes. I'll be happy.

The hard bit is making that begining, middle and end all those things. A lot of that is to do with how you structure your story.

Not that there are any actual rules - ahem.


Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Yeah, most first drafts from new screenwriters that I've read suffer from "lack of turning point 1 syndrome" i.e. there is no point around the 20-30 page mark where the protag is jettisoned into Act 2 by an irreversible incident, an event where he can no longer say to himself, "sod this for a game of toy soldiers, I'm off home" - NO! Either because of a situational or character set-up he is now FORCED to act and move forward. With many of these newbie scripts I just see a 75 page act one which normally lacks dramatic tension and conflict, not to mention over exposition etc ;-)

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Just found this - What's wrong with your script? I mean, not yours ED, I mean one's script ;-)

Anonymous said...

But ED, you don't understand that it worked in this produced film and that produced film and anyway Hollywood is creatively bankrupt and doesn't recognize cutting-edge material when it sees it and anyway you just didn't get it!

(This post brought to you by the Society for Lame Rebuttals.)

Eubrontes said...

Great comment about the first twenty pages needing to do their job. I'll spend all of the the 4th of July weekend second guessing what I've just sent out...

It's funny that this is the same subject matter that was full of recrimination and vitriole on Done Deal (because of a certain poster), yet presented here, itis jsut cut and dried.
Thanks for the post.

English Dave said...

Thanks for all the comments.
There are a lot of books out there on structure and it can get very confusing. My view is KISS [Keep it simple, stupid]

The history of storytelling worldwide shows there is a basic human need for stories to have an empathetic protag propelled on a hazerdous 'journey' which has a satisfying resolution.
We want to get to the 'start' of that 'journey' as quickly as possible

We want story relevant emotional and physical obstacles placed in the way of our protag to challenge their perception of themselves and their world.

We want an inevitable, though hopefully surprising and satisfying resolution.

A beginning, middle and end.

If you have a story that doesn't fit the above criteria then given the cost of making movies it is unlikely to generate much interest in that medium.