How to Break Screenwriting “Rules”

By June 6, 2017Blog, Featured

The amount of so-called screenwriting rules out there is beyond epidemic. These fake rules have become a virus that sweep through social media infecting the unsuspecting, who then spread it to others.

From three-act structure as a rigid formula rather than a malleable “form” that gives shape to the experience of story, to flashbacks as some kind of screenwriting blasphemy. I recently read a social media thread where a mob attacked the use of flashbacks as a major screenwriting no-no, going so far as to say, and I quote, “If you have to use flashbacks your script is shit.”

Tell that to the writers and directors of films such as; Rashomon, Memento, Citizen Kane, Usual Suspects, Oldboy, and The Godfather II to name just a few. All of whom used flashbacks as a compelling storytelling technique.

I’m a big believer in the notion that there is no ONE correct way to execute a screenplay. Whatever works to tell the story works – within reason. During my career I’ve seen far too may aspiring screenwriters get so caught up in rules and formulas that they get locked into a box that they can NEVER think outside.

One such so-called rule is that you can only write what can be seen or filmed. This is just not true. For example, take the following screenplay excerpt….

This is from Oscar winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and as you can see he is using prose and editorializing in the script for Schindlers List.

Or check out the following excerpt…

A terrific piece of screenwriting from the Oscar winning screenplay and film, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins.

Or how about these bits from Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water.

Now obviously you don’t want to “overdo” this type of writing, but it is a proven screenwriting technique that can be effective in engaging the reader in your story.

It’s important to realize that a spec writer’s audience is the people who will be reading their screenplay (agents, managers, development execs, readers doing coverage on it, etc.). This means that your screenplay must work as a story first and a movie second. Get enough industry folk on board with your story, it can then lead to your script being sold and set up at a studio, and hopefully produced into a movie.

How do these so-called rules become so ingrained in our screenwriting culture? There are many reasons for this, but one of the most ubiquitous is from academics who teach screenwriting, yet have never actually worked in the film industry or sold a screenplay.

To compensate for their lack of practical experience, they turn to screenwriting books. And while there are certainly a small handful of really terrific books out there on screenwriting, regrettably the vast majority are written by academics who are vying for tenure. Subsequently their books adhere to a “right way/wrong way” pedagogy, one that perpetuates misinformation that students then regurgitate as gospel.

Bottom line, screenwriting is an art and not a science. So if you aspire to be a working screenwriter, avoid the so-called rules and live outside the fake box.


Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award ® winning and nominated producers. Mr. Long is also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant, and was Head of the MFA Screenwriting Program at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts for nearly two decades. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, an online, interactive, screenwriting process. Follow him on Twitter @ScreenplayStory