My life as a schizophrenic: As a writer/instructor, I spend my time on the page and in the classroom trying to realize writing ideals, my standards lofty and role models iconic. As a studio story analyst, I slave in the industry coal mines, often enabling shameless hacks to be horrifically overpaid in the service of creating artless schlock.
Tonight, I show a group of students how a cleverly crafted series of setups in a script's first act is the key to effective pay-offs in a credible, contrivance-free climax. Tomorrow, I spend a day doing notes on a script that's a credibility-free contrivance-fest that has no climax... and has already been bought by the studio for half a million bucks.
How weird it is, to preach the tenets of mindful, elegant craft one evening, and to clean up the mess left by bloated, mindless philistines the morning after. Clearly the tension between these roles has been getting to me, as you can see by my last post. After all, I make a certain portion of my living consulting on scripts and teaching screenwriting, so what exactly do I have to gain by telling an audience of fledgling screenwriters that many of the so-called rules of screenwriting are meant to be discarded? Way to lose your client base, dude.
Nevertheless, I continue my self-destructive streak, trying to reconcile the two worlds I straddle, since many of the comments made on that "virtues of writing badly" post made me all the more aware of a yawning gap between What Is Taught and What Is Actually Done in the world of working screenwriters. For example, Chris writes:
Ok, so if no one should actually follow the rules... should those still be the rules? ...I'm baffled by everyone's demand for rules while no one successful actually follows them.
I think we need to define rules on both the micro- and macro- ends of the spectrum. Tony Gilroy, in a great profile of this great screenwriter/director in The New Yorker, cites only two "fundamental rules" that he lives by in writing his movies: "Bring it in within two hours" and "Don't bore the audience."
Well, yes. But on a microcosmic level, there are tons of rules -- the bulk of them, I'd say, having to do with form and format. Simply put, there is a standard: there are tacitly agreed upon craft precepts having to do with what makes a piece of material look like a viable screenplay. There are established margin-sizes for narrative, for dialogue, regulations for length of a scene, of a script; there's even a preferred font and amount of white space advisable to create a maximally-readable draft. Screw with this stuff, and you will be perceived as an amateur.
Go beyond form and there's a smaller set of rules having to do with basic storytelling issues specific to the art of dramatic writing. Most scripts observe the conceit of a three-act structure; most are attuned to certain time-honored traditions of characterization and conflict-building.
Radically mess around on these levels, and you're taking real risks. This is the arena of "learn the rules before you break them," equivalent to learning representation before one attempts abstraction, where talent is the crucial dividing line between being innovative and being capital-r Rong. Discarding the rules of linear time in a story isn't generally advisable... unless you happen to be Tarantino writing Pulp Fiction.
But beyond these two spheres -- call them Rules of Form and Rules of Dramaturgy -- is a great gray area where exceptions prove the rules, and where a little rule-bending can go a long, long way. That's what I was talking about when I observed that professional screenwriters "writing from inside the character" often used supposedly verboten technique, from employing the dreaded "we see..." to baldly stating subtext ("She can't believe he said that, so she...").
Chris, I'm not advocating throwing babies out with bathwater. Observe the rules that work for you -- but don't be fear-based in your devotion to them. That's my issue with R Dobbins:
Established writers can get away with more than the unproven. A script written by heavyweight who was hired to write it compared with a spec script written by an unknown hoping someone will read and buy it is like apples and oranges. For the unproven, unsold spec writer, breaking the rules might mark you as an amateur giving a reader an excuse to put down your script.
Forgive me, Mr. Dobbins, but you really haven't thought this through. Sure, established writers can get away with all kinds of malarky (excessive draft length, using specific song titles because they have the clout to acquire the rights, et al). But in terms of the specific approach I was touting (i.e. writing from the protagonist's point of view and supplying his/her emotional reactions and thoughts), how do you think these writers were writing before they were established? Do you really think Richard LaGravenese suddenly started writing that way after he'd gotten some movies made?
These boys (and girls) who became Big used such techniques from the get -- and what they got, for such rule-abuse and risk-taking, was produced.
Finally, commenter Dave Morris gets me to the point of all this point-and-counterpoint-ing:
William Goldman has a sample script in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and lots of writers who he asked to critique it tell him off (rightly) for stating things in the screenplay that we couldn't possibly know if we were watching the movie. And Goldman's riposte is that you've got to start with a "selling" version of the screenplay - and that's not good writing, it's the version that's intended to spoonfeed the studio exec who's speed-reading it.
There you have it: the idea of The Selling Screenplay. Goldman, who certainly knows of what he speaks, is talking about a reality that isn't often articulated in newbie screenwriting circles --that a spec script's purpose is to sell the movie.
There's often a world of difference between the draft that sells and the shooting script of a given movie. The selling draft may be the one that slays people precisely because it's out-of-the-box risky. Its writer puts in the provocative ending that'll never get shot, or the anti-heroic character choice no studio will support, or any idea that makes an unforgettable read... but may never see the light of the silver screen.
Point is, it gets the movie in the door. Of course they'll change it in the development process -- but the writer has gotten a reader (executive, director) excited enough to go to bat for this script. You may remember J.F. Lawton's dark spec script Three Thousand, with its black hooker protagonist who didn't get the guy in the end. No? Oh, that's right: you saw it as Pretty Woman, and whether Lawton wept on his way to the bank or shrugged good-naturedly... he had a check to cash.
Similarly, the style of a spec that's meant "to spoonfeed the studio exec" may break the rules of good writing in order to get an emotion, an action, or a visual moment across. Goldman himself is partially to blame for this trend, having infamously invoked a (then) new style of hyperbole in his screenplay for Butch Cassidy when he described the dynamiting of a train as: The biggest explosion you've ever seen.
What could be ronger than that? Vague, unfilmable, and talking to the reader, no less, yet it spawned an unholy style of screenwriting that proved uncannily effective in getting those darn puppies sold, especially in the '80s (see: the career of Shane Black). This kind of "sell" persists today, albeit with a less in-your-face bent. You can see it at its craftiest in the work of Tony Gilroy. Here's the opening paragraph of Michael Clayton, praised by Goldman in the published screenplay's introduction:
It’s 2:00 a.m. in a major New York law firm. Ten floors of office space in the heart of the Sixth Avenue Canyon. Seven hours from now this place will be vibrating with the beehive energy of six hundred attorneys and their attendant staff, but for the moment it is a vast, empty, half-lit shell. A SERIES OF SHOTS emphasizing the size and power of this organization; shots that build quietly to the idea that
somewhere here -- somewhere in this building -- there’s something very important going on.
There's so much wrong with this passage, in terms of the doctrinaire "what you see is what you get" edict of most Good Screenwriting, that it's liable to make Professor DuCinema faint. But it's undeniably compelling and it makes you want to keep reading (see Gilroy's fundamental rule #2, above, and for that matter, do read the New Yorker profile: Gilroy is a living rebuttal to Goldman's snipe about Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything"). Making you turn the page is what a good spec script does, no matter the height of its writer's status.
Your spec doesn't have to suck. But it helps to acknowledge that it is a sell. It's not a work of art, it's not a priceless pinnacle of writing perfection, it's a draft of a story that wants to be movie. And if letting go of some rules you were taught is what it takes, to get people to see the movie you see in your head... have at it, I say. You have nothing to fear but another rewrite.