Screenwriters are constantly bombarded by the so-called “rules and regulations” of both the art and craft of screenwriting. Endless courses, seminars, and books dictate what those lecturers and authors believe to be the definitive list of “do’s and don’ts” etched in metaphorical stone. Even people within the industry — including famous screenwriters — have their own beliefs of what is and isn’t “acceptable.”
But for every example backing up the validity of such rules, there are just as many that succeeded while breaking them. Rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they?
Here we turn to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece Dunkirk and pinpoint five ways that the script and the film — written and directed by Nolan himself — broke those now old school rules and made the “mistakes” that screenwriters are often told to avoid.
1. “Never Use Text on the Screen to Explain the Story”
In the opening moments of Dunkirk, we see title cards appear on the screen explaining the setting and situation of what is happening — story-wise — leading into the intense beginning sequence of the film.
A common screenwriting rule that you often read about in books and even see in professional script coverage is “never use text, title cards, voice over, or scrolls to explain the story, settings, and exposition.” Upon reading that very sentence, images of examples that prove otherwise will likely flash before your eyes. Acclaimed films like Star Wars, Scarface, and Red Dawn have utilized such opening text well.
The point of the “rule” is to ensure that writers don’t use such text as a crutch for expositional purposes.
However, text can be utilized well as a stylistic choice. In the case of Dunkirk, the story thrives by throwing the audience into the middle of the action and story. The usage of well written and stylized text gives us everything we need to know and once you’ve watched the film, you understand that there would have been no opportunity to stop and explain everything without sacrificing the amazing pacing and cinematic experience that Nolan had created in the script and eventual film.
Dunkirk — as well as many other fine films — have utilized this technique well, giving us proof that pundits and script coverage writers shouldn’t rely on judging a script with such rules as red flags. As long as the technique is used for a purpose, and used sparingly if possible, and offers a slight stylistic touch, there’s room for text, title cards, scrolls, and even voice overs in screenplays.
2. “You Need More Character Development”
Anyone who has received any notes or coverage from script consultants, coverage writers, producers, managers, agents, development executives, and even writing peers has often heard the endless notes of, “We need to know more about your characters. Where are they from? What are their strengths and weaknesses?”
This is a major rule that Dunkirk has broken, with amazing results in retrospect.
There is little to no traditional character development. The lead characters on land, sea, and air are ones who we know next to nothing about. They are thrust into the story — set up by the opening text — and their story unfolds with very little, if any, dialogue throughout the film.
So how do they become viable, three-dimensional characters? Through their actions and reactions throughout the story. That is what dictates their depth. Their choices and their reactions to the repercussions of those choices.
Spending the opening pages of your screenplay showcasing where your characters are coming from and what their background and belief system consists of is all too often a waste of space. Instead, try throwing them into the fire (conflict) and let the audience discover who they really are as they struggle to get out of it.
Character development and depth is not contingent on background and backstory. While some stories shine with eloquent backstories and buildups, others shine even brighter with merely placing their protagonists within the conflict at hand so we can allow their choices to truly showcase their depth.
3. “Never Have Too Much ‘Black’ in Your Script”
This is a very dated “rule” that has been around since the screenwriting boom of the 1990’s.
“There’s too much ink in the opening pages and throughout the script. Too much scene description to read. There needs to be more dialogue to break up that black.”
In the 1990’s, screenplays began to become more anemic, from a literary standpoint. Less description, more dialogue. The style began to take hold of the thousands of newcomers who wanted to jump into the million dollar spec market waters as development executives were bombarded by content. Easier reads with bigger concepts spelled out in the opening loglines were a surefire way to get read.
Needless to say, with Dunkirk there is little to no dialogue, thus there was a lot of “black” in that script.
You never want to over-explain the visuals in a screenplay, no. You never want to go on and on endlessly with multiple blocks of paragraph description, no. But when you have a visual script that relies less on dialogue and more on the actions and reactions of characters, you’re technically going to break that ridiculous rule. And good for you for doing that. Just make sure you do it well.
4. “Don’t Utilize Complicated Structure”
The bad script reader (coverage writer) is the one who obsesses about structure in their script notes, rather than focusing on the story and cinematic values. Those are the readers who are likely struggling screenwriters themselves and have read too many screenwriting guru books too many times.
Dunkirk’s narrative follows three major threads covering different periods of time: one beginning on land covering one week, one on the sea covering one day, and one in the air covering one hour. These are interwoven to create a non-linear narrative. The transitions between them have no set pattern. There isn’t even a title card to differentiate them, like which could be found in Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear film Pulp Fiction. Instead, Nolan chooses to blend those three threads together almost seamlessly, leaving it up to the audience to properly interpret that non-linear narrative.
If this were to happen in a spec script by an unknown writer, script readers, executives, and producers would likely use that as a red flag to pass on the script. Yet many scripts and films have stood out solely because they went against the grain and shifted the old school notion of screenwriting structure.
However, story structures such as non-linear narratives, the use of flashbacks, and other unique story methods have to be utilized for a reason and have to adhere to the chosen structure throughout the whole script. Bad structure occurs when the writer either doesn’t know the mistakes they are making or don’t care enough to recognize them through the writing process.
Screenwriting “rules” have proven throughout the years to be nothing more than a product of complacency within the industry. William Goldman wisely once wrote, “Nobody knows anything.”
While there are industry guidelines and expectations that screenwriters need to follow to better their odds — general format, engaging the reader in the opening pages, strong characters, compelling concepts, high stakes, great pacing, etc. — the only way they can really stand out is to differentiate themselves from the thousands of others out there trying to accomplish the same goal and dream. And most of them have been warned of the sometimes stringent rules to abide by. The screenwriters who challenge those rules and ingrained complacency are often the ones who stand out the most.
And in turn, the insiders within Hollywood development need to open their eyes and stop looking for red flags like these (and many others) as an excuse to say no. The screenwriter may not have the clout of auteurs like Christopher Nolan, but that doesn’t diminish their unique stories and structures. As long as they tell engaging and captivating cinematic stories, who cares about the “rules” that we learned back from yesteryear?
Dare to be different — screenwriters and decision makers alike.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies