My Photo


Stats & Etc.

  • All written content (c) 2005-2021 Billy Mernit, all rights reserved.

« Success! | Main | Half the Rules You Learned are Wrong »



I write Romance Fiction.
You are speaking to the converted. One of my key craft objectives is to make my reader - who I have assumed to be female- totally and completely identify, empathise and sympathise with my heroine.
And somewhere in the first line, first paragraph and first page.
I am a published author who has just sold my second book to the largest publisher of womens' fiction in the world.
And I totally agree with you. :-)

E.C. Henry

Will definately remember that writing tip. Quick tag-line summation:

Protagonist rules!

He (or she) is the queen of the screenwriting chessboard, and he (or she) must be loved for the millions to start flowing in!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA


I totally, totally hear you.

I'm an artist, but if I want to add "working" to that title, I gotta do what the industry asks for.

I'm no crazy genius. Those guys are the only ones who can buck the system.

Third World Girl

Absolutely Billy. I belong to a writer's group where folks consistently question these "internal" lines and gasp "That's showing not telling!"

But I used to read for a couple production companies and trust me, a reader isn't going through tossing aside scripts because they "cheat." They're not reading with a rulebook in hand. They just want to be entertained.

Yeah, you don't want to go over the top. That showcases your laziness. They'll know you haven't done the work figuring out the external dramatization of the internal, but a little fudging never hurt.


Hello Billy,

Here's a link to Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie and Adi Hasak's '30 Days of Night'

an example of going too far in the telling...

The Big Snake

This column is the single best screenwriting class I've ever had! And you did it in about 1,500 words. Bravo!


OMG, absolutely laughing my ass off here. Speaking as someone who reads a lot of scripts that go on to get produced too, this is so, so true in so, so many ways. SUPER LOL!

Bill Pace

Must ... resist.

Must ... not ... tell my ... screenwriting students ... this.

How can I ... renounce ... all that I find ... holy?

But wait ...

This kind of writing actually sells?


Well, then ...

Okay, class -- today your assignment is to read Billy Mernit's "The Genius of Bad Writing" article!

But ... must ... still slay ... the anti-writer ... ROTH!



I so needed to read this column. I keep telling myself not to get so caught up in the rules that I stop being creative and telling my story, my movie, my way.

Honestly, I was losing that battle until I clicked over and read this post today.

Chocolate and liquor are great. Some sound words of advice can be even better.



Hey Billy,
I hope all is better in Mernitland :-)

Terrific post. Thank you. One of your best and most helpful.
Be well.


Ok, so if no one should actually follow the rules... should those still be the rules?

I guess my question is more about the evolution of screenwriting. All arts grow through challenging the preconceptions and accepted practices of that art, but screenwriting can't be its own "art" if its just a blueprint for a film. It's more on the craft side.

So if its art, can it be challenged successfully? And if so, is what you're describing exactly that?

I'm baffled by these thoughts and by everyone's demand for rules while no one successful actually follows them.

You're smart, so I'm asking you.


I think one of the problems with Roth's elipses riddled blurb is that is it such a typical 'movie'
scene. We've all seen it before onscreen though never in real life. He should have written ACTUAL ACTION
from the perspective of the lead. Beaufoy's "The ball seems suspended in the blue sky.
Shouts from the other children seem very far away." drew us in because he chose not to editorialize the emotion for us, the audience.

As far as the rules go, I follow them with a grain of salt. I realize that I can't listen to the rule writers as if they're Gods
because I saw the vomitous 'sweeny todd; demon barber of fleet street' that got oscar nods. I also saw 'Adaptation'
that had Robert Mckee bragging that he gave the writer pointers for the third act. If I had seen the youtube clip of him bragging
I wouldn't have trekked all the way to downtown Toronto on a snowy Sunday for I his 'Story' book.
I'm glad I didn't though. It's a good book. But grain of salt...

The problem I find with these teachers is they never stress the importance of realism in (non-fantasy)film. Another problem is always
encouraging new writers to watch other films for "inspiration". The result is REGURGITATION. Ugh! That galls me!

By the way Billy, don't you worry that you will be taken literally by novice writers to "write badly"?
They may not realize that you mean they should use a particular style of writing.
I suspect the reason so many screenwriters write the way you suggest is because they come from tv writing.
Aparently in tv writing it's encouraged to write the character's thoughts in order to guide the actor.

Check out Alex Epstein's article here

Laura Deerfield

Permission to be imperfect? But how will I manage to keep procrastinating???

Judith Duncan

Hey Billy,
You're my hero.(she typed looking out at the autumn Sydney sky)It was so good to read that.(she sighed softly, realizing
that finally she had permission to be...less than perfect)I gotta do one of your classes.


Judith Duncan, how does an actor act "(she sighed softly, realizing
that finally she had permission to be...less than perfect)"?

... and Billy, therein lies the rub.

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. Unless there is an example of an unknown writer who broke the rules and sold his/her spec, I probably wouldn't deviate too far from what is deemed standard practice.

Tom Green

@ R Dobbins

Perhaps you're right. But I think Billy's main point is not that you *have* to tear up the rule book, but that:

"The most important task a screenplay must accomplish is to get whoever is reading it to identify with the lead character."

Achieving that is more important than sticking to 'the rules', whether you're a novice or a veteran.

R Dobbins

I get Mr. Mernit’s point and concur. My point however, is that no matter how well written a character may be, the odds of the script getting read are greatly diminished if it appears to be the work of someone who doesn’t know or has simply ignored the rules of the game. Again, show me a purchased spec written by a newbie who broke the rules and I might be convinced.

Dave Morris

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.

However, as you pointed out with the Slumdog example, there's a way to "spoonfeed" and *still* make it good writing.

Judith Duncan

But...I was only kidding.

She walked away knowing she had given her best performance of 'less than perfect' since acting school.Then...a smile curled the edges of her lips.

oh well(she thought
to herself)I'm sleeping
with the director.So it
just ...doesn't...matter.


TV writers often write what the characters are thinking. This works as a kind of shorthand:


Hey, I called the other night...

Oh, my God. He knows! Jill tries to cover:


Yeah, I accidentally kicked the plug out. I’m such a klutz.

If the actor knows what the character is thinking, he can act it. The alternative would be for you to go into way too much depth of detail about what we see:


Hey, I called the other night...

Jill shrugs, maybe a little nervously. She forces a self-deprecating grin.


Yeah, I accidentally kicked the plug out.

And even then, the reader may not get it, the director may miss the point, and the actor may just be confused.

Aside from making for snappier writing, telling us what the character is thinking also puts the reader more into the character’s point of view. The episode will read better.


You have to be careful with this tool, though, and only use it for good, not evil. Someone can act “Oh my God, he knows!” Someone can act “Oh, great. I’ve put my foot in it, haven’t I?” Someone can even act, “Isn’t that just like a man?” These are all shorthand for distinct emotional reactions — specific flavors of alarm, embarrassment and disdain. But no one can act a thought:

The hematologist said the exact same thing!


The writer finishes the chapter with this advice:


of every moment Cordelia’s made a fool of herself.

Be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It’s slightly naughty. It may be justified when you’re on staff, but it’s risky in a freelance script, and very risky in a spec. Use it only when you’re sure of what you’re doing.


Very interesting (yet touchy) advice. I've been in situations where producers insisted that I put in more of this kind of "explanation", quoting me examples from screenplays I considered to be very badly written. Made me wonder if it's only screenwriters who care about the rules and if the rest of the people involved in production just love this stuff.

It's all about finding the right balance... and keeping yourself from screaming when you're still in the producer's office!


RayAnne: Glad we see eye to eye on this -- congrats on the publication!

Check and double check, EC.

j: "no crazy genius" could be a sign at my local cafe...

Third World Girl: Sometimes a little fudge just hits the spot.

Racicot: And... scene! And... AURGH...

Thank you Big Snake!

Lucy, I love it when your ass laughs off.

Bill: Your... resistance... is... futile.

FLewis: Chocolate and liquor? Add sex and you've got the pleasure trifecta.

ScribeLA: We're all on the healing path, thank you!

Chris: You're now featured in a blog post (almost) all your own.
Just when you thought it was safe to put your comment on a post...

JamminGirl, I agree with your thought re: realism. But being educated in different ways to write (via seeing other people's work) is a time-honored and worthy method of learning from all disciplines throughout the ages. Regurgitation is the problem of individuals who don't pay back what they borrow with interest --
it's not the method that's at fault.

Re: the TV issue, thank you for the link, which is great, and it's true that TV writers often write that way. But none of the "big boys" I cited come from television with the exception of James L. Brooks, so it's highly unlikely that TV work had anything to do with their chosen writing style.

Oh, Laura, come on: we can ALWAYS find ways to procrastinate!

Judith, come on by (he said happily).

Jammin: ... can also be found on three men in a tub.

RDobbins: See the new post above. Meanwhile, I read specs all the time that are sold (featuring the techniques cited) but to rise to your challenge, I'll keep an eye out for a specific title or two, and get back to you with it when I find a typical offender.

What Tom said (Hi Tom!).

Dave: See post above; you're almost famous.

Judith: Sleeping with the director -- can't go wrong with that.

Jammin: They oughta put a warning label on the jar ("Overuse of this technique will lead to eye-rolling, nausea, and a gig on AS THE WORLD TURNS")...

Martine: Now, there's a few rules to live by:
1) Find balance
2) Keep from screaming
Nice! ;->


It takes a strong and of course amazing writer to admit that most of the "rules" are subjective, and that there ARE exceptions in almost every case.

Do keep the advice and revelations you have flowing!! It's been so helpful and enlightening.

P.S: great news to hear that your Dad's doing well :)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Billy's Books

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2005