Have you heard of the rules of screenwriting? Ah, the rules, and I go way back. I first heard of the rules when I started screenwriting, way before I moved to LA, learned a dozen more when I went to film school, and eventually, sold a script breaking pretty much all of the rules I’ve ever been taught.
Some of them are presented as rules, others as guidelines and while it’s good you’re aware of them, you shouldn’t limit yourself to them.
I wrote this article after gathering sayings I heard in film school, stuff my fellow writers have heard, and stuff I’ve read online, and I came up with a few of those so-called rules.
1. You Won’t Sell Your First Script, No One Does.
In film school, I’ve been taught sometimes to not even pour my whole heart into a script because it was my first one, and the chances to sell it were near zero. The same goes for short films “if it’s your first one, don’t invest too much, it won’t win contests anyway because it’s the first film you write/direct”. I see how this might be true, but it’s also debatable.
I sold my first TV pilot and my first feature ever written. That same first feature, one of my film school teachers said it’ll never even get requested; as I was a new writer, English wasn’t my first language, and the project was too ambitious for a first script.
So, are the chances to sell your first script high? No, I’m aware of that. But can you sell your first script? You very well might. Sometimes it’s the right story, the right time, the right people and it just clicks.
2. You Need To Have At Least 3 Projects To Attract Anyone in Hollywood
Yes, in theory. But if you have one script that producers fight over, it won’t matter how many more you have. Ideally, you do want to have at least 3 solid scripts to attract a manager and it might be a necessity, but I have never seen (yet at least) a producer say no because you don’t have three projects.
Obviously, the more the merrier. If they like one of your projects, they probably will be interested in taking a look at the rest of them. But if you only have one script and they absolutely want it, they’ll make you an offer.
When I found myself in the position of choosing which production company to sign with, I only had another first draft of a script and an unfinished feature. Following optioning the show, I wrote another six solid scripts. It does give me more options, more possibilities and it makes me look more legit in the eye of a manager, but all of that didn’t matter to the producers when I signed that contract.
Additionally, when I signed with my management company, it was based on one script only that they fell in love with. They then wanted to know what I was interested in working on next.
Bottom line is, it’s better to have fewer excellent scripts than a bunch of incomplete ones. Many writers want to write the next script versus rewriting what they have and to me, that’s not a great strategy. Before you move on to a new script, make sure the one(s) you already have are bulletproof.
3. It’ll Take You 10-20 Years To Sell A Script Or Have Anything In Production
Things in this industry take time. Yes, that’s true. Know that this career is a long game, and you need to stay patient, but do not set this “10-20 years” thing as a rule for yourself. It will limit you and unmotivate you quickly.
If you absolutely believe it’ll take you at least ten years, it will. I gave myself a year and a half. I came here in January, started film school, finished my pilot in August, started pitching to high shots by September, got two offers by December, and sold my show in February, six months after I typed FADE OUT.
When I sold my show, I had been writing scripts for two years and only had written two (totally unfinished) features and that TV pilot I sold. I really didn’t have much experience at all. But I was willing to learn and work hard. Since then, I’ve been lucky to be writing as my full-time job and have been able to complete several more projects.
I’m not saying it’s standard to sell your first script, but it is possible if you have a great concept, push hard, network every single day and take every opportunity you get.
Now, I’m still fairly new in this amazing mindblowing ever-changing industry and I can’t say I made it yet, whatever that exactly means. I’m still working hard to achieve the level I aim for. But I can tell you that it is possible to sell a script within a year when it’s the right project at the right time with the right partners.
4. You Need To Write In The Same Genre
That to me is one of the biggest misconceptions in Hollywood for us writers. It’s also one of the rules you hear the most.
Let me tell you once and for all: it is okay to write in different genres, in fact, many famous screenwriters do. You can have a mix of comedies, horror stories, thrillers, and so on.
Writing in different genres won’t make you look unprofessional IF (and that’s a big if) you have a clear brand.
What’s branding for a writer? The one thing that makes you a specialist, that sets you apart, the one thing that makes you the best to write the stories you write. When you present yourself and your brand, make sure you can connect those different scripts you wrote with one core element.
You might not be able to connect them by the genre, but you might be able to see similarities in the type of characters you explore or the type of themes you bring into the stories.
Since you are one human being, it’s almost impossible that your stories do not have at least one common thing, independently from the genre. Find it and use it as your brand.
5. You Can’t Do Anything Without A Manager
Yes, a good manager will bring your career to the next level. That’s undebatable. But when you start, play your own manager. It’s all about your networking skills.
The hardest is to get the first meeting, once you do, pick up your phone, call all the competitors of that one company and let them know you’re pitching, chances are they’ll want to see you too.
6. You Only Get One Chance, When They Say No It’s Over
If you really love rules, then replace this rule with a new one “I will turn every no into a yes.”
I learned that early on when I was in sales. You can always turn a no into a yes. If not, it’s on you, not on them.
What does it mean exactly? If a producer/manager says no to your project, don’t simply thank them and move on. Thank them for their time, be appreciative and ask them if you can in the future send them loglines for other projects.
I’ve done this every single time I got a no and no one has ever refused to receive the loglines in the future, because 1) I asked nicely 2) no one wants to miss on a possible good story. From this, I have created a network that I continuously pitch to.
7. Write What You Know
Yes and no. Of course, writing something you know will be felt in the pages of your script. But we aren’t all international spies that have the power to kill their victims with one wink – if that’s the story you’re writing (if not, you can take the idea from me, I think it’s a great one).
I like to replace this with “write what you feel.”
Write what you’re passionate about, do your research, and don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be real, it has to be believable. Not real. Believable. And if someone can sense that you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t matter if it’s not something you’ve experienced yourself.
8. It Has To Happen On Page 5, It Has To Happen On Page 37 …
That’s a film school classic. Truth is, if your script doesn’t have something great happening every few pages, readers will drop it.
Ideally, every page should make you want to read the next one. But I’m not aware of any readers opening your script on page 5 or 37 to check if that ONE thing is happening before they even read it.
Structure is great, but if you have a great story that feels like it’s told in the most organic way, the exact page count won’t matter.
9. Voice Overs Are Lazy & Flashbacks Are Cheap
I’m pretty sure you’ve heard that Voice overs are lazy, McKee himself says it’s flaccid, sloppy writing.
I think Voice Over is a fascinating tool, very far from lazy. And I think in some contexts it’s absolutely necessary to make you understand and emphasize with a character.
The V.O is the only reason we can somehow, in the most uncomfortable way, understand Joe in YOU, the brilliant Netflix show following a dangerously charming, intensely obsessive young man who goes to extreme measures to insert himself into the lives of those he is transfixed by. Now, that’s an example where VO is almost a necessity to help understand a psychopath.
VO can also be an amazing hook to a story. For example, in the opening of American Beauty, Kevin Spacey’s character goes “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This… is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already.” Now that’s a catchy movie opening that immediately makes you pay extra attention and understand what you’re watching.
Most of the VO examples are successful ones, written by well-established writers (Frank Darabont, Christopher Nolan, Alan Ball, Stephen King, Shonda Rhimes,…), and none of those writers are lazy. Know why you’re using the VO, and how it serves your story, and make sure it isn’t simply because you don’t see how to show how your character feels.
As for flashbacks, I believe they can be a necessity. It isn’t right to call them cheap.
Depending on your story, they can be an essential tool. But it has to fit the story, because flashbacks aren’t made for every type of story and need not to be used because “it’s the only way I found how to tell this part of the story.”
One of my co-written thrillers relies a lot on flashbacks, and the whole twists and turns come from the mix of the past and present that fit the story from A to Z.
There are plenty of successful movies using flashbacks (Fried Green Tomatoes, The Godfather, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Casablanca, Terminator, and many more).
I guess the message here is to have a deep understanding of your story and the best way to bring it to the screen, if the answer is flashbacks, use them (as wisely as Master Yoda would).
10. Don’t Talk To Your Readers In Your Scripts
I believe scripts should be fun and entertaining to read. A couple of times in a script, I like to speak to my readers, and for me, it’s worked great. It helps my script stand out. It makes it more personal and fun.
I’ve noticed though that the new wave Hollywood absolutely loves it, but the old school Hollywood has a harder time with that, maybe because it’s a bit of a ballsy move to address your readers. It’s like a sacred thing. And I get it. It’s a very personal thing and while some readers will love it, others will absolutely hate it. Be ready for that.
In summary, guidelines are important to know and important to learn. If they became guidelines it’s that somehow, somewhere, they had to be repeated over and over again because people needed to hear them.
Know that if you’re going to film school, you will be confronted to them, but very often you will also work with people that have broken those same rules.
Hollywood is an ever-changing landscape. What used to be a normal way to write a script is now deemed old school. New ways of doing things keep coming so be ready to always adapt and be creative with the rules. Be aware of the “rules”, but don’t ever let them limit you. Know they might be what’s standard but don’t let it be what you aim for.
Explore your storytelling craft enough to take risks and break the rules, always follow your gut and what feels organic to tell your stories, have a blast writing and networking, and I promise you, you will see results faster than you expect.
Written by Lena Murisier