Screenwriting : Convention - Friend or foe by Ben Johnson Jr.

Ben Johnson Jr.

Convention - Friend or foe

I often hear people quoting very successful industry professionals, gurus and legends when defending a move away from convention in screenwriting. But I've always wondered whether the individuals quoted have earned the right to depart from convention because they know the rules well enough to break or bend them, have reached a status where producers give them that liberty or they're just courageous enough to follow their intuition and make choices that reflect their voice. As writers still learning our craft, do we follow this example or stick to the shallows of convention till we know our craft well enough and earn our stripes so to speak? A perfect example is the discussion around structure, linear storytelling versus other forms. What are your thoughts?

James Barker

Hi Ben, very good question - something that goes well beyond the structure of a story, right down to how it actually looks on the page. I'm of the general belief that it's best for one to stick to convention until you know the craft well enough, the reason being all story is based fundamentally on manipulation and it's something many, many people don't quite grasp for some time. A good example of this from many amateur scripts I've read is that they seem to "copy" structure and/or beats from a template, but don't quite understand how they go together and as such, the story lacks flow. You can go through and say, yep, the ingredients are there - but they don't seem to add up to something you can actually sink your teeth into. Scenes don't flow or there's too much information held back for some big twist whereas had the writer parsed some of that along the way, it would have given characters motivations a reader could clearly understand. In that regard, it's like the notion of Hitchcock wanting to give you 10 seconds of shock vs. 5 minutes of suspense. And that's merely one example out of so many techniques and devices to understand and master. I think once somebody gets a really good handle on the underlying principles and how they effect one another to carry forth an outcome that includes theme, then they'll be much better of figuring out how to manipulate those conventions - and subsequently the expectations of their audiences. I think ultimately anytime one steps outside the norm, especially if they're still in their early stages, they're increasing the chances of someone putting their script down. It's a gamble, like betting against the odds, but I think if one can master the essence of writing the scene, then they'll have a better chance of others continually turning the pages. If one can accomplish that, then conventions become less obtrusive - it's always easier to identify when something doesn't work, but when it does, that side of the brain tends to shut off as one becomes more immersed in the story. EDIT: I should add that I recently received coverage where the reader wasn't sure whose story was being told. That's because I did something a lot of people still can't grasp: separate the main character function from the protagonist. Main character is all about perspective whereas protagonists drive/pursue toward a goal. The Shawshank Redemption, To Kill a Mockingbird and even the recent Sicario are great examples that do this, yet the vast majority of storytelling follows the convention where the main character and protagonist is one and the same. I went against that convention and this particular reader didn't grasp it.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

If you write from your heart and soul than you have nothing to fear. You can please some of the audience some of the time, and some of the audience all the time. But you can't please all the audience all the time. You write from your passion, pleasure and sometimes pain. Convention? Structure? Oi Vay! Just tell a great story. Who do I try to emulate in my screenwriting? Here my UNconventional short list: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Billy Wilder. Just one more thing what works for me might not work for you. These are just my THOUGHTS. I wish you well. And Stage 32 is the best place to be if you want to hone your craft as a screenwriter.

Bill Costantini

If you read the Breaking the Rules or the recent Structure forum threads, you'll see a lot of examples of great films that don't quite follow the conventional rules set forth by Save the Cat, Truby et al. Even us people who haven't "earned the right" to do that can still do it as well - as long as are stories are entertaining and high-quality pieces of writing. On the flip side...we should still be able to write entertaining and high-quality pieces of writing using any of the conventional sets of rules. Regardless of which way one goes, it's always about the story.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Interesting post, however you lost me at "earned the right to depart from convention." Anyone can use the tools and devices of writing as they choose. Structure is meaning, not a fixed template. There are no rules. Plus, one never stops learning no matter how much experience one has. I have to say, I've grown tired of this notion that structure is some sort of equation that reduces everything into quantifiable parts, either through deconstruction or assembly. The consideration of a writer's intent seems to be lost or ignored or imposed upon—that's terrible! Structure, theme, dialogue, it's all part of a greater whole. They are one and the same together. And the whole of a story is far greater than the sum of its parts. I concur with Bill, it's always about the story.

D Marcus

I believe the "shallows of convention" have lead to wonderful stories and screenplays over the years. There are many ways to tell terrific stories within the "shallows of convention". I also believe that a writer should tell their story exactly as they want to tell their story. However, since the goal is (often) to sell the screenplay I believe that writing what the "employer" wants is important. And there is nothing wrong with that. Break "rules". Defy the structure. Ignore the "guru's". It's what creative people do. Explore and experiment with storytelling. There are no "rules" that can't be broken. Do so knowing that a sale might be more difficult. We do not write in a vacuum. Many others are needed in the production of a movie (or TV show) based on our work.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Beth, Bill- Thank you for getting to the heart of the matter why we write. It's always about the story. Well, enough already. We are storytellers. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sorry, but I can't help myself... Jackson Pollock didn't "dabble." His work was about "the act" of painting. And in terms of abstract expressionism, his work was spot on. See what I did there, "spot on." Hehe! Lol!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, to add, Jackson Pollock's paintings actually have a lot of structure and convention to them: color theory, balance, composition, visual rhythm and repetition. Within this discussion of "convention" and "breaking the rules" he actually is a great example because the "big break" Pollock did was that he moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush. He didn't break any "rules," per se. He used the force of his whole body to paint. He could view and apply paint from all directions when his canvas was on the floor. Many don't see his work as "breaking with convention," but rather as an expressive style or a new dimension for creating art. "I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well." —Jackson Pollock

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Go Beth! You're money. Go Beth! you're money. You hit the spot. See what I did there? Hee. Hee. Boy I am having fun on this thread.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sorry, I'll stop after this, when Jackson Pollock said "his painting had no beginning and end" he was not wrong. Not at all. He's referring to his thought or creative process. He doesn't start with a sketch or a plan, really. He allows the painting to just flow, to guide him. In that sense, it just "is."

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well said, Patricia. I think the message (or lesson?) in discussing Jackson Pollock is: find that balance between the means of your medium (be it writing or paint) and your creative intention/intuition. :)

Bill Costantini

I love art and have seen a lot of great paintings in a lot of great places, but the most amazing artist that I have ever seen - all things being relative - was an elephant in Thailand who could actually paint pictures of elephants, trees, flowers, people and other things. This was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. When I looked at the elephant, and looked in his eyes after he finished painting, and talked to him....wow. It just shook my foundation on reincarnation. It was more amazing than Koko the Gorilla and other amazing animals that I've seen in media or that I've personally encountered.

Jody Ellis

Chiming in late but I think there are certain "rules" in screenwriting that should not be broken when you're still trying to get a foot in the door of the industry. Scripts that are endlessly long, improperly formatted or don't follow the basic template of screenwriting are probably not going to get read. If you "make" it and become well-known, then you can scratch your script out on a dinner napkin and it will still get read. Or write 3 hour movies ala Tarantino. I think one can write a stand-out script that might be slightly unconventional, but you should still follow the basic industry standards.

Beth Fox Heisinger

No one is challenging the basic form and superficial elements of screenwriting, like formatting. And, work that is too "formulaic" doesn't necessarily do well either because it's too "cookie-cutter" and lacks a sense of voice. Therefore, a "template" or fill-in-the-blanks screenplay may not get you noticed. A script has to rise above the fray. But, there are soooooooo many subjective considerations to this crazy, difficult, wonderful thing called screenwriting. So, the larger concern should be: how to tell, construct and execute a great story. Can you? That's the golden ticket. Tarantino carved his own way. He also writes mostly for himself as he directs and produces his own work—that gives him a lot of freedom and a different set of considerations. I'm not a huge fan but he certainly is a master of structure. :)

Bill Costantini

I'll take "Age-Old Theoretical Arguments Amongst Scribblers" for $600, Alex.

Jody Ellis

By template Beth, I was referencing things like using final draft. I know of someone who tried to write a screenplay using word. It was terrible on many levels, but not using the proper format made it even worse. I understand all too well that a script must be different enough to "rise above". And yes, I think I can do all that, thanks for asking, lol.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Here's a consideration: Pulp Fiction, in a nutshell, so to speak... In it, Tarantino constructed several independent stories, each with their own well-crafted structure, and broke them apart and intertwined them, each affecting the other. To compare that to Jackson Pollock as a metaphor... Tarantino took his "canvas" and put it on the floor so he could see it from different angles and directions and created a new style or dimension for storytelling. Yes? No? Too far? Oh well, I thought it sounded good, you know, tie this whole messy thing together. LOL!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Jody, I think it may be helpful to get the words "template" and "rules" out of your vocabulary. Perhaps consider these more from the perspective of "tools" and "devices" that are at your discretion as a writer. Final Draft is just a writing software. Formatting is just formatting. And, just to clarify, I was asking the question to the universal "you," meaning all of us and no one in particular. Anyway, I know I'm still learning. I'm still working towards that golden ticket. Speaking of which, I have to get back to my work. Lol! Best to you!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Bill, you crack me up. Lol! ;)

Jody Ellis

On the contrary Beth, I think we have to know and understand the "rules" if we ever want to break them. And yes, final draft is just software, but try submitting your script to an exec without using it (or some derivative of it.) The key, imo, is learning to ride that fine line between following the rules enough to get through the gates, but breaking them enough to shine.

Beth Fox Heisinger

To each their own, Jody. Again, best to you. ;)

Beth Fox Heisinger

For this to be a more constructive discussion there would need to be an agreed upon and clear definition of what exactly is considered conventional and what is not. And an agreed upon meaning and definition of all related terms used in the discussion to prevent misunderstandings. Unfortunately, I don't think we all would agree from our various perspectives and experiences. There are far too many subjective points of view which may cause the discussion to go around and around in circles. A lot of the tidbits I threw out about structure being a means to create stories and not a template I picked up from studying many of the greats, and from this following article. Save the Cat lovers may not like it but perhaps should read it anyway, if only for forming another understanding about structure. ...Okay, I really need to stop distracting myself and get back to work. Cheers all! Here's the article: http://narrativefirst.com/articles/forget-the-cat-save-yourself

Dan Guardino

I'm with Jody. If someone doesn't know how to format a screenplay they might as well go write a novels because nobody will ever hire someone that doesn't know how to format a screenplay. Unless someone is just doing this as a hobby then I guess it wouldn't make any difference.

Dan Guardino

Structure is how you structure your screenplay and has nothing to do with the rules for formatting a screenplay. It seems like a lot of people here don't know the difference between them.

Jody Ellis

Dan you're right and I kind of missed the end sentence of the original post where he was talking about structure. I do think one has to learn and understand the general conventions of screenwriting (aka the rules) in order to know when to break them.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yes, I think Jody was perhaps confusing the two, as I was referring to and talking about structure, not formatting. :)

Jody Ellis

Not confusing anything Beth. Simply missed the last sentence of the original post and took his question of convention to be more along the lines of following specific rules when writing, to include (but not limited to) things like formatting.

Dan Guardino

@ Jody. Yes and I know every rule that I love to break.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

A lot of good shares in this thread topic. Both for and against convention. At the end of the day it is still a personal perspective on what the writer is writing. Granted, We do want to make a living at this. But with all things considered it has to be a personal decision on how to proceed to the next level. We are the ones laying the framework for an artistic endeavor that will put on average 500+ people to work in a collaborative effort to make what was written a reality. Anyway I thought I would just add my take on this topic one more time.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Here's the thing, I haven't been pushing one way or the other—conventional or not or whatever. My point was really: do whatever works best for your story. Construct the script in whatever way works best for your creative intention, or genre, and execute it in the best way possible to be entertaining and engaging. Why does the mere mention of structure mean rigidity? Or formula? Or rules? It doesn't. I always find that perplexing. Structure is story. It's craft. It is the means in which a story is created and told. Sure, there are different ways, practices to go about constructing and structuring a script, but certainly not "one way." :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

I'll just add that it's tricky to talk about structure in a general sense. It would seem that through this discussion perhaps "conventional" structure is meant to be something along the lines of Save the Cat or Robert McKee or Syd Field or the like. But, we also aren't really taking into account all the variables; the creative intent of a writer; the intent of a particular story and its needs; working in a particular genre and how that can effect structure; the subjective nature of writing; the subjectivity of opinion; the meaning of anything, really; and on and on and on. Structure/screenwriting is a process, not really a thing. I think whether it's considered conventional or not, one or the other, implies that there are only two ways, "rules" or "no rules," which to me seems far too reductive for such complexities. Linear verses non-linear... I'd say, these days non-linear is becoming more the norm, certainly in TV series. Again, what is truly considered conventional? Or defined as such? So, to get back to the question about "do we need to earn our stripes to write to our voice or do we need to stick to the shallows of the conventional," I'd say, no, you don't need "permission" to do anything. Learn craft, as much as you can, from all angles. Be open-minded and use all the tools, devices and information available to you. Take calculated risks. :)

Jorge J Prieto

Call me crazy. But, I LISTEN to my characters, first and foremost. They guide me, as a Spirit would (and I don't believe in ghost) as they take a life of their own and I suffer, laugh, cry, love, hate, ect...in their journey with them, always keeping in mind where I need them to end up, base on their actions which will have consequences. For structure, we I have Magic, many of you have Final Draft. But, STORY is the heart and soul of my screenplays and it has to be compelling, if its a drama, thriller, it has to make cry (DRAMA), laugh (Comedy) and scare me if its a horror. Simple - I'm the writer, but I'm also the first/singular audience member to see my own film. Great points from everyone, but I have to highlight two of you: BETH and STEVEN. Thank YOU. Keep writing with PASSION fellow writers.

Jorge J Prieto

BETH, just reading your suggestion on STC article. Thanks, for this.

Ben Johnson Jr.

What is the difference between rules (boundaries) and elements that define good screenwriting? Surely saying there is a particular set of standards that writers should adhere to be considered good is a soft way of saying there are unwritten rules they should follow to gain approval? Just wondering

Beth Fox Heisinger

Ben, perhaps consider "unwritten rules" or "standards" to be more like "guidelines." There are no rules, just tools and devices. ;)

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

I said to myself, Self: You were not going to add another comment. But after reading through all the comments above, I just have to say that it is still about a great story. An original voice. Characters that engage and entertain. There will NEVER be a magic structure, convention , beat, or format that will make it work. You have to enjoy the journey of writing, because you never know the destination. Granted we are also screenwriters who do this not only for the passion and the pleasure but for the pay. I just hope that something of what I just said has some meaning to my fellow "Happy Writers" that I admire and respect. A big shout out to Beth, CJ and Bill and others who make coming to the lounge a most educational experience . Thank you.

Ben Johnson Jr.

I agree Beth. I think the difficulty happens at the intersection of art and craft, of which screenwriting is both. Artistically there is complete freedom of expression and interpretation but craft necessitates craftsmanship. No one who has attempted woodworking or pottery would say there are no procedures, methods or rules of thumb. Yes there are tools and yes there is artistic license. No one is saying what you should carve, what would you should use, what purpose your carving should have, whether it should be painted or varnished. But to call yourself a craftsman you need to be schooled in the methods, process and tools or you will never be able to apply them at optimum. Is it not possible to craft something beautiful? Can one be practiced at the expense or to the exclusion of the other?

Beth Fox Heisinger

I think what gets these types of discussions into trouble is that different terms have different meanings for different people. In the dictionary, "craft" means one's trade, or art, or occupation or manual skill. Creatively speaking, I see craft and art as more closely related, intertwined. To me, Ben, what you are calling or describing or labeling as "craft" is really technical skill. And, sure, one needs to learn and know how to work the craft tools with precision, but at the end of the day they are still tools. They are the elements of your trade. It is the person who yields them that gives them life and meaning. In the art world, there is a distinction between "crafts" and "art." Crafts or "craft art" is sometimes used when referring to "functional art," like pottery, or jewelry, or furniture design—things that are designed and used for something other than expression. Art is about expression. It gives meaning. It gives something a soul, a voice. Craft is also used when referring to an artist's technical ability and command of any given medium—their "craftsmanship" or "artistic skill," if you will. So, it depends on the context. In screenwriting, "craft" has many interpretations. When used, some are referring to the technical skill and knowhow; some are referring to the "art of screenwriting;" and some are referring to the "trade of screenwriting." And, of course, a screenplay does have a functional purpose. It is "functional art": it is the means or the beginning or the inception of a film—if that is the intention of the writer. Then, of course, it gets handed over to another set of artists: filmmakers, directors, actors, editors, etc. It just goes on and on... I would kindly suggest to not separate the two: art and craft. They are rather symbiotic, certainly in screenwriting. :)

Regina Lee

I'm not saying that convention is "friend or foe" because it really depends on your intent. Just offering an example of an unconventional film in the public eye right now. Friend or foe? Who are we to say without knowing the filmmakers' intent? http://variety.com/2016/film/news/daniel-radcliffe-farting-corpse-swiss-...

Jorge J Prieto

Read the Variety article, Regina and I have to say, Daniel Radcliffe, is one brave, risk-taking actor. Love him for that.

Regina Lee

Further to my post located 2 posts above, check out the Variety review: http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/swiss-army-man-film-review-1201685807/ This critic believes it was the filmmakers' intent to eschew convention and mainstream credibility, in favor of the pursuit of weirdness. To each his own. It that's your brand, and if you have the resources to make indie movies, go for it!! Diversity of content is a good thing.

Jorge J Prieto

There should be not restrictions on creative minds. That's why I love foreign films, they go there. Real life is alot more disturbing, cable TV, has gotten really intense (lack of a better word) and even network TV. I.e. American Crime and last week's , Law & Order - SVU, had some strong language. So, like JOEY T. just said yesterday on his Webinar,TV is where is happening. We gotta put our batteries on and start writing those TV pilots, my fellow happy writers. Let's do it this year!!

Regina Lee

Sure, Jorge, "there should be not restrictions on creative minds." But unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world with an abundance of media grants floating around us. Thus, IF IF IF our goal is to get a movie financed, then we have to consider the creative and strategic approach that might yield the greatest chance at success. Key factors are the current market, our personal networks, and our ability to reach/convince people who can "make it happen."

Dan Guardino

I agree with Regina. I really don't know where all this talk about restrictions on creativity is coming from. Sure this is a business that is a mixture of "art" and "business" and one cannot exist without the other or no movies would ever get made. I've worked with quite a few different directors and producers and I never once worked with one that tried to or even wanted to restrict my creativity. I think most of the fear comes from screenwriters that really haven't been out their working with producers and directors yet but maybe I am wrong.

Regina Lee

Here's proof. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primer_(film) PRIMER, an experimental film, that was experimental BY DESIGN, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Highly unconventional. The filmmakers felt it was on brand for them, and they had the resources to achieve it. Nothing wrong with that. For them, being unconventional was their "friend," but for other people, it could be their "foe."

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

I agree with you Dan. That's why they call it Show BUSINESS. When we finish our screenplay the real work with over 500 people involved is only just beginning.

Jorge J Prieto

Regina, what I was trying to say is that in other countries, they don't have the MPA, censoring your movie. Michael Douglas, who I just watched in an old, Carson interview, said that if you wanted to see the whole, uncensored, Basic Instinct, you have to go across the pond.. It's my opinion, since I work for many years in a multiplex movie theater, that R rated movies, created a huge interest in teens, just for that fact alone. It was a constant battle, where I even got assaulted once, just for asking for I.d. They would find ways to get in, anyway. Like, JOEY, would say: Amazing.

Jorge J Prieto

Reach people who can make it happen. I love it. People, where are??? I'll pay, I'll pay you! The Weinstein Co. How can I reach you? Your films are bold, cinematic, inspiring, informative, artistic, provocative and most importantly compelling stories.

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