Screenwriting : Screenwriting 'rules', broken. And yet, still on THE Black List. Huh. by Phil Parker

Phil Parker

Screenwriting 'rules', broken. And yet, still on THE Black List. Huh.

I've just read the first 10 pages of a script on THE Black List. Not the public-facing Black List that so many of us have wasted money on, but the Black List that is a collection of scripts that have been voted the best unproduced (or in development) scripts by a closed circle of agents and others in Hollywood. The writers are also repped by two major agencies. So, all told, I think you can safely assume these scribes know their craft. That's why I got a chuckle when I saw how many of the so-called screenwriting 'rules' they broke in just the first 10 page. For example:

- a liberal use of the phrase "WE SEE"

- using CAPITALS to distinguish objects and sounds throughout.

- use of the word 'visibly' or "clearly", e.g. 'She turns around, clearly upset'.

- liberal use of CUT TO and SMASH CUT TO

- referring to a collection of short scenes that showed a series of actions by the same character over a span of time without using the labels SERIES OF SHOTS or MONTAGE

- use of ellipses or italics in dialogue at least once on each page

- brief action descriptive in parenthetical before dialogue

I'm not passing judgement on those writers, or proponents of said screenwriting 'rules', though. Over the course of an entire script, I might do a little of all of those things. Hell, I'm not on THE Black List, nor am I repped yet, but those writers are. Frankly, I think we could tie ourselves in knots trying to draw any sane conclusions from it all. I just found it....interesting.

Zorrawa Emily Ann Jefferson

Lol this is so true. There's always going to be people who break the rules and won't follow the crowd......

Beth Fox Heisinger

Well, the Black List Annual Survey is not of "the best" unproduced screenplays circulating within the industry in a given year, but rather the "most liked." And, yes, the substance of the writing and storytelling itself is far more important than the superficial and so-called. ;)

Craig D Griffiths

I believe it is impossible to be unique when doing the same as everyone else. Rules (not just writing rules) are designed to make things uniform.

Joleene DesRosiers

Objectively, writers should learn the craft and general rules first, and "break" them as they grow in their craft to fit their unique writing style.

When a relationship is formed between a writer and an executive, the rapport is strong enough that the style is merely considered just that...style.

Dan MaxXx

Congrats Phil, you just discovered “real Hollywood” versus “fake Hollywood”, the world of useless coverage sites, fired Execs turned script consultants, junk contests, queries, format do’s and don’ts.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Nonsense is not craft. It’s nonsense.

Michael Claes

My attitude is that if every "rule" about making a film or writing a script were followed, no movies would ever be made. I default to common sense.And getting the job done.

Dan Guardino

Some people follow the so-called rules and some don't follow them. Most people don't give a rat's rectum what any of us do out there in the real world.

Jenna H

Love it. There are no rules.

Doug Nelson

DAn - an' I'm one of 'em.

Phil Parker

Personally, I've just tried to use these (and other) 'rule breaking' things judiciously. Start with a killer concept, make it easy to read and the rest is fluff and feathers.

John Iannucci

I was just reading Goodfellas script - very other action by scorches starts with WE SEE in caps!

Pierre Langenegger

As we all know, even though some will deny it, there is a difference between a shooting/production script and a spec script. Personally, I frown upon the we see's in spec scripts, capping objects, the use of visibly and clearly, etc. Pretty much what you have mentioned. When I am providing notes, I'll mention it, when I am editing, I'll change them, but production scripts are different, no one really cares about those things. Presently I am providing notes for a horror feature that is littered with all of the above and I'm ignoring them because this feature already has funding. At this level nobody cares about that stuff. The annual Blacklist is a list of scripts from primarily repped writers. These scripts are already doing the rounds at agencies, the writers have already passed the first hurdles. Yes, they are not production scripts but they are ready to be picked up which is far removed from the thousands of hopefuls in the competition market. If you want to get your script ready for a competition then remove all that crap but if you're wanting to polish before a shoot then it doesn't matter.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator

Most of the writers you'll see making the top of the Black List every year will already be repped writers who have been working in the industry for a long time. They don't need to break in because they've already broken in, so they can basically do whatever they want. That's essentially how it works. The more experience and credit you have, the more scripts you've sold or shows you work on, the more free you can be with your formatting. I think of "the rules" like dating. When you're first dating someone you're on your best behavior, trying to stop yourself from doing anything that might make them dislike you. Then, after a while, you can maybe fart and both laugh about it. I know this isn't the most professional way to put it, but it's the best metaphor I could come up with here.

Dan MaxXx

Does anyone else know how to re-write a spec to a shooting script?

Writing style doesn’t change on the BL. You are who you are before and after. People who make movies for a living want to read well told scripts that could be cinematic and make money.

Doug Nelson

The writer's job is to present a compelling tale in a tightly written format - what most of you think of as a 'spec' script. It is the Director's job (with help from a few others like DPs, Editors...) to convert that 'spec' script into a 'production' script. That's not your job as the writer. Oh I know a lot of you will inject a lot of 'what ifs' into the works (what if the writer directs, produces, edits...his own work?) yadda, yadda, yadda - but it's not the writer's job. Get over it.

Thomas "MoT" Hayden

Interesting. Thank you Doug.

Totally makes sense and makes for better result integrating an "entire landscape of collaboration." Oh, to orchestrate a written work of art that is ready for performance (reading), I hope to achieve that level of 'clever', i.e. sophistication and talent. hahaha. That's from my writer of me. From my actor perspective, entirley thrilling to present a character and can readily perform accordingly, yep according to character, but embracing the vision of the director, well, that's....."integrating an 'entire landscape of collaboration' that provides the layering and authenticity" of a film which becomes wonderful to view and emblematic for all to run. Ja, might be time for that third cup of coffee. Thanks again for your inspiration, Doug.

Dan Guardino

I agree with Doug that a screenwriter is responsible for telling their story and the director is responsible for how it will appear on film. So Camera Directions and Transitions really don't belong in a spec screenplays.There are some things the OP mentioned I would not do in a spec but they aren't formatting rules.

Dan Guardino

Dan M. I have re-write several spec to a shooting script so I know how to do it.

Pablo Diablo

Hell yes, the Wachowski's, J. J. Abrams and Tarantino's of our time. It is important to acknowledge the fundamentals within a screenplay, enough to know what rules you need to break to tell your story. If you have a vision, you have a story. So what draws your audience in? Your prose and cadence, sure, but what's your story?

That is what counts. It starts with the heart. Whatever your genre, your reader, your audience, will want to be moved.

Bill Costantini

Phil: I've seen the use of "We see" more and more in professional scripts these days. That was like almost non-existent for a long time.

Maybe my older scripts like "Killer Walnuts from Kashmir" and "Fleas, Fleas, Everybody Loves Fleas" have a chance after all!

Phil Parker

Bill Costantini - entirely up to you, mate. For me, I like to keep my powder dry and use that sort of thing only once or twice in an entire script, whether it's my spec or one I've been paid to write for a producer. I look at most of these items the same way I might look at the usage of swear words - the more you use them, the less impact they have and the more irritating they are to the reader.

Dan Guardino

If I get paid to write a screenplay I do whatever I feel like doing but when I write a spec which I will never do again I did follow most the so-called rules because that was all I knew.

Dan MaxXx

Bill Costantini Writers have been using “We See, We Follow, We Hear... We whatever” for decades.

You don’t need to be a repped writer. Only rules writers care and talk about are story rules like the use of foreshadowing, reversals, reveals, macguffins.

Beth Fox Heisinger

What the writers on the BL are doing, repped or not repped, is evoking a story experience. Creating an entertaining read and projecting what could be.

Beth Fox Heisinger

The more scripts you read—specs, shooting scripts, shorts, whatever—the more you see effective use. Good writing versus bad writing. It’s really a matter of how a tool is used, not whether it is used or not. So use them well. ;)

Kevin Bolger

if there's something in your spec that catches someone's attention, you're doing it right...end of, because it's all about the story/ concept.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator

Dan MaxXx Bill Costantini I think the actual issue here is the usage of those techniques as Beth Fox Heisinger is saying. What I was saying is that if you're already successful, no one cares how much you use those techniques, because they believe the end result will be good, but if no one knows who you are, over-usage of any one of those things will make you seem like you're either lazy, inexperienced, or both. There are more clever ways to write than to constantly use "we see" and "we hear", both of which are redundant anyway as stage direction should ONLY be what we see and what we hear. So using those phrases is often seen as lazy, and will pull readers out of the script. As unrepped writers you have to realize that your script needs to get through a lot of people to make it somewhere, and any little thing can get you put in a no pile. It's a tough business, and the more you rely on crutches in your writing, the less likely your script is to get through. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing better than a perfectly placed underlined action that raises the tension at an ideal moment, or the reveal of your MacGuffin being in bold to make it pop off the page and create a better visual for the reader. Screenwriting is, afterall, a visual medium. My point is just try not to tell people what they're seeing or hearing. Show them on the page. It's about how you, as the writer, tell the story. Any rule can be thrown out the window at any time, just depends if you're being smart about it or only doing it because you saw Alex Garland (my favorite) do it.

Dan Guardino

The audience will see what is on the screen even if you don't tell them.

Beth Fox Heisinger

There is great use of “we see.” Sometimes it is certainly a good, effective choice. When it is the most simple and clear way to convey something, say, a force, an entity, that is unseen and stay in story telling mode and not go into technical mode. For great example, IT FOLLOWS, Page One. Google it; it’s an easy script to find online. Personally saying, and I don’t mean to sound flippant, but just blindly accepting these blanket redunctional notions is rather missing the point. Tools not rules. Some of these notions are imposed personal taste and personal biases. I don’t care for “we see” either, but I will use it in a heartbeat if it works. I’ve read so many scripts now and see so much good use that it does not even register any more when I see it. This seems to only be an issue in teaching and amateur circles. And I think, ironically, it causes damage to new writers because effective use is not being talked about or taught. Only bad use and bad examples are taught and those bad examples are then portrayed as some law and as the tool itself. Put blame where it belongs on bad writing, not the tool. Yes, a lot of these notions are practical, common use and good things to consider. Absolutely. But to ignore the substance of the writing itself and not consider specific context and various complexities as well... well, that is truly unfortunate. And, again, rather misses the point.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Bill: sorry, disagree. You can follow all the so-called rules and still end up with a bad screenplay. It’s not just about handling screenwriting form well on the page, it’s about the intangible qualities that resonate with a reader, that entertains an audience. And it is the intangible qualities of the writing that got those writers on the BL.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Sigh... I give up. The point lost. Again.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Bill, the point seems to always fall on deaf ears. I’m exhausted.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Bill, with all due respect your comment above shows that my point is indeed being missed. And you yourself is not what is exhausting me, sorry about that, my apologies, it’s this endless debate. Could we please get past formatting. Please. I am not talking about formatting. Formatting is a given. It is the baseline. I’m trying to talk about craft. But, again, I give up. ;)

Kevin Bolger

A cool shirt, is a cool shirt, even if it may need an iron to get it looking the best it can be, it's still going to be a cool shirt. But all the ironing in the world won't make a fuck-ugly shirt, cool

Kevin Bolger

If y'all get me....

Dan Guardino

Most producers don't care about half the stuff we talk about. Readers are normally screenwriters that are still trying to break in so they might not give a spec the full consideration it deserves if you do a lot of things they think is wrong or amateurish. It is always a balancing act. Just do what you think will show the reader you know the business and how to write for it an cash your checks. lol!

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