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Excuse me, sir, but I'll paraphrase myself from now on! As for the bathwater, well, that's entirely my business and I'll do with it as I please.

In addition, this was the hugest follow up to a blog post I've ever seen! Which is to say, thanks for the follow up and for being incredibly smart explaining the fine lines between schlock and skill.


I find that the longer I write, the rules that I try to follow change. It's less about the big rules like three act structure or the active protagonist and more about remembering little rules I've gleaned throughout the years. I.E., exploring my story to find the right opening or making sure I show the most emotional, progressive moments for the characters without copping out of difficult scenes to write. I try to keep those sort of rules in mind because I know they make a great story and are constructive for the kind of story-telling style I want to cultivate. And if a three-act structure also makes my story better, great. Maybe my examples of rules aren't the best, but I think my point comes across. It's less about the rules, more about the story.

Of course, most rules were "created" to strengthen story, so that doesn't give us license to just run rampart, knocking rules down left and right. But I think the more you write, the more comfortable you are picking and choosing the rules that work for *your* story and *your* style of writing.

Not that I've ever even tried to sell anything... :)


Mark Martino

Although the movie industry has its own quirks, a movie is a lot like other products. Just because a product is being sold doesn't make it a good product. It means that somebody bought the idea and is willing to spend more money to fix it, produce it and market it. Companies that follow certain principles usually put out better products over a longer period of time than companies that shotgun their product design and marketing. Some companies get lots of money to blow on ill conceived products but that doesn't mean their production process should be imitated.

E.C. Henry

Brilliance is seldom acknowledged in it's time. But this post was BRILLIANT, Billy. Thanks for posting it.

"(Your spec script is...) not a work of art, ... it's a draft of a story that wants to be movie."

Get it people! That's where it's at.

Billy, you're in a GREAT position to put your stamp on movies being made. IF I were you, I'd relish in that. If you know you've got a lemon, you have a real opportunity to improve the art, put your stamp on it, and have a VERY cool story to tell after the movie comes out.

And if you like Philisitines, you're gunna love what I'm writing right now... Oops, that was a sidenote:)

Anyway, thanks for sharing your take on screenwriting rules pro's v.s. the vast throngs of hopefulls on the wrong side of the castle gates.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anna from Sweden

Thank you for another interesting post. My experience as a screenwriter (I've earned my living from this since 1993) is that it takes a lot of effort and time to learn the "rules", to listen, to read, to watch, to write and rewrite, to WORK in production - and then something wonderful happens: you start to feel this knowledge deep inside and you can just concentrate on what you want to tell. But some people are not willing to accept any rules at all and I think they should go for writing novels instead. Some years ago I worked as an editor at a publishing company, and it was fascinating to see how some writers just got it right and told a sparkling story, even though they didn't know one thing about storytelling in theory. One (a 65-year old woman who released her first novel, a fabulous story) didn't even own a computer... So what I like to say, I guess, is what reality is like: never let perfection stand in the way of a success.


I agree with you Billy and I think a spec monkey breaking the rules at certain places in the script can actually enhance it.
If you follow the rules for the majority of your script, but in certain places, for extra emphasis, the reader, perhaps you (and if you ever read one of mine, please advise me first, carton of wine on its way - express!) will probably subconsciously accept that this writer has followed the rules but has deliberately chosen to stretch/break the rules in these certain instances. So they may accept it as technique rather than amateurism/American Idol audition skill level.
The ones who break them all the way through and get a sale, lucky, skilled or both:)
PS red or white……best to be prepared!!


Man, you are the best screenwriting teacher I've ever had and I haven't had to pay a penny.

I'm not sure if I should be happy or annoyed at this fact.

R Dobbins

Mr. Mernit,

As a novice, I have purchased your book and frequent this site for advice and input. I simply wanted to contribute my point of view. In fact in my second post I stated that I understood your point and concurred. Imagine my surprise to discover that you mention me in your most recent post.

But per your request I am happy to forgive your condescension and will happily answer your question. Do I really think Richard LaGravenese suddenly started writing that way after he'd gotten some movies made? Of course not. As with any artist his work likely evolved over time. But in attempting to make your point you have proven mine. I mean no disrespect to LaGravenese’s, but look at his successful career of fifteen films. With only one exception his work as a writer is either based on another established source or he has been rewritten by another writer.

My point? He was hired to writer a screenplay based on another writer’s characters. He didn’t have to break the rules to create a character another writer did that for him. That is not a criticism. He wasn’t out there hocking his own spec either. While I have not read any of his work, I have seen several of the films he has written for. Clearly he is a successful writer, but to paint him as a rule breaking maverick in his early career is a stretch unless you can cite specific examples that only “a story analyst and script consultant in the studio system, and thus (having) read something like 6,893 screenplays over the past 17 years” would know. But being a novice, I defer to your expertise.

For the writer who doesn’t know or have a firm grasp of “the rules” breaking them is risky business. Breaking the rules may give you a masterpiece or it may get your script tossed in the round file. It’s a crap shoot. That was my point.

No sir, I have thought it through. Your comment about “how weird it is, to preach the tenets of mindful, elegant craft one evening, and have to clean up the mess left by bloated, mindless philistines the morning after” is eye-opening. It should give the readers of this blog and those mindless philistines you deign to save some insight into your character as well as the person who signs your check. Your words have certainly done that for me.


Chris: Thanks to your good nature, I'm sure baby and bathwater are in relatively good condition.

Amy: "Picking the rules that work for you" sounds exactly right to me.

Mark: Thank you for a very intriguing POV and metaphor. Good food for thought.

EC: Sure. Philistines can be fun.

Anna: I'll drink to that.

Dave: And I'll drink to that (red or white): Cheers to anyone who manages to break through.

J: According to our President, we're officially in The Time of Being Able to Think/Feel More Than One Thing at a Time. And that's like, a good thing... isn't it?

R Dobbins: My bad -- I should've checked with you, via a personal e-mail, before putting your name into a post -- but I'm a little perplexed by the vitriol in your response. Can we possibly take a step back from all this, with a little less seriosity?

If you have been reading my blog, you know I tend to be playful and facetious (e.g. "Mindless philistines" is less than a straight-faced, sober assessment of the people I work with on a daily basis). Apologies for evidently having been too light and flip in dealing with you and with these issues.

You're absolutely right about rule breaking being a risky business, and you make a good point about LaGravenese and the origins of his projects. But I stand by my general point, regardless of the specifics of his career in particular: This "writing from inside the character (and thus bending traditional rules of form)" mode of screenwriting has been with us for some time, and it turns up in spec scripts and assigned feature scripts alike on a daily basis. It has proven to be a helpful factor in the accessibility and sale of many, many screenplays. As I said, that doesn't mean I'm all for it. But my larger point is that we all might want to consider being less dogmatic and doctrinaire about the How To's of spec writing, in the service of getting read, and getting produced.

R Dobbins

Your stock just went back up with me. I had my copy of Writing the Romanic Comedy over the fire, but couldn't let it go into the flames. I really do like it and refer to it often. My apologies as well. Chalk mine up to male pms.


R Dobbins: You are a good man (and you know, they're hard to find) to spare my book from the flames. Know that I welcome your comments, whether we agree or not, and thank you for providing a great topic for another post: "Male PMS -- Myth or Menace?"


I remember reading the script "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and that was 180 pages long and described everything the characters were thinking and gesturing, and it suggested shots and it rambled and spewed, and every rule about screenwriting seemed to have been broken except the most important one: write with passion.

It was so fun to READ! And Goldman the writer has admitted since that the story is short on action and the script is too talky, but you loved those two guys and you rode along with them right to the shoot-em-up at the end and you were out of breath from laughing and crying--you loved them on the PAGE. It just didn't matter that the script was all wrong in every textbook way. The guy wrote it from his gut, and anybody reading that screenplay would've said "This has gotta get made!"--it was that passionate and exciting.

Rules choke writers. Rules squeeze writers by the genitals, where all good screenplays come from. It's good news that so-called bad scripts are successful. But it's not because of the little rules they break. It's because they come out with both barrels blastin' into a hail of Bolivian bullets.


Great post. Has me over-thinking and over-analyzing but, it reminds me of a complaint recently spouted by my father, a complaint which has absolutely no analogical value here. He lamented on his failed third marriage and asked why women only like it dirty until they get a wedding ring. So I thanked him for the disturbing image, asked him to pay for my therapy and pointed out that his particular women had NEVER liked it dirty. They just did what it took to make the sale.


Thanks so much for these posts; I feel entirely liberated. To me, it only makes sense to spell things out a bit; you need to make sure your reader knows where you're coming from.

And what strikes me about the Michael Clayton passage you cited is that, if I were the director, it would turn me on. I'd be thinking, 'Okay, how can I make that happen?' The director's vision truly matters at that point. He's no longer reading a manual; he's reading something far more exciting and evocative than that. I'm all for it.


Stephen King says you can’t turn a bad writer into a competent writer, or a good writer into a great writer, but using rules can make a competent writer into a good writer.

However, following the rules slavishly is not enough. You have to grasp that ‘show not tell’, for instance, is a principle – write your scene one way and it’s involving, write it the other way and it’s distancing. Most of the time you’ll want one effect more than the other – but not every single time.

There’s a big market in selling storytelling rules to the public and that’s where the idea seems to come from that they are sacrosanct.

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