There are many screenwriting rules and pieces of advice available in the form of books, blogs, clips, and podcasts, but is everything you’re learning accurate? Many of these are helpful when used correctly but some will do more harm than good.
As controversial as this topic is, here are some suggestions of “rules” that you may wish to ignore!
Write What You Know
Are you even a screenwriter if someone hasn’t told you to “write what you know”?
Now, this rule isn’t entirely bad, but it can be if applied too literally. It is important to research and know your topic, but never underestimate the necessity of imagination. This is not to say that you haven’t encountered some exceptional experiences in your life, however, I highly doubt that you’ve had to survive a zombie apocalypse or on your eleventh birthday discovered you were a very famous wizard!
Yes, if you would like to write about personal experiences then go ahead, but also use your imagination and this will elevate your script.
Send Your Screenplay Into the World
Often screenwriters are told “get your script out there” and while I am sure the person saying this has their heart in the right place, spamming the market with emails can not only be a waste of your time but it can also be very demoralizing when you don’t receive the success rate you expected.
If you feel that your script is ready to start sending to some people/companies, then be realistic and be targeted. Maybe start with smaller independent production companies, for example?
Write Every Day
Writing every day could be an unattainable goal which leads to you getting burned out or feeling guilty for having days off. It could also mean that you end up spending some days writing garbage to keep up your streak.
However, this isn’t always bad, but it really can be detrimental if you ask too much of yourself. This rule is hard to stick to and expecting too much is one way to fail.
If you are trying to get writing into your routine, maybe write daily for a short period of time. Start with a 7-day challenge and then have a couple of days off or write every other day?
Also, remember that you can do other things to work towards your writing goals on the regular like reading scripts and watching movies!
Show, Don’t Tell
“Show, don’t tell” is something writers hear frequently and although this screenwriting rule can be useful in some situations, this is a gritty rule that could prevent you from getting your ideas down, developing your characters, and enjoying writing, especially with your first draft.
This can result in writers trying to write in a cinematic way and when you’re worried about a rule like this and trying too hard, it is more likely that the delivery is going to be poor.
Keep this rule in mind, but don’t let it give you dreaded writer's block. This is not the be-all and the end-all of screenwriting. Aaron Sorkin is a prime example who ALWAYS ‘tells’ when he could have ‘shown’, but no one will dare knock the masterpieces he has created.
Create Likable Characters
Yes, it is good to have some likable characters, but the protagonist doesn’t have to be flawless to be liked by the audience. After all, perfect people don’t exist!
Not all protagonists have to be courageous, heroic, witty, clever, or powerful. Instead, aim at making characters more human -- emotional, conflicted, and hopefully learning and growing from their mistakes. They may even possess other qualities like being cheeky, a la Jack Sparrow -- he’s a selfish drunk but at the same time humorous and perhaps strangely caring.
You’ve Got to Work Free Before Being Paid as a Screenwriter
This one is relatively simple, PLEASE don’t let people take advantage of your passion for screenwriting.
Some volunteer positions that lead to paid opportunities may be worth it as this could open some doors for you, however, don’t work for an individual or a company tirelessly for little reward and no money. There are paid jobs out there, even for those starting off!
The First Draft Must Be a “Vomit Draft”
This could be a rule to break if you misinterpret it. A “vomit draft” for a first draft is a situational thing and if you have deadlines to adhere to for production, then writing without any structure or deadlines could just waste your time.
What you can do is set yourself mini-deadlines for “vomit first draft” and then another one for second draft, etc.
You NEED an Agent to Succeed
Having an agent has become a goal for many screenwriters. However, it isn’t the only way to succeed and there are a few things to bear in mind when focusing all of your energy on trying to get an agency representative.
One of the main issues is that agents work on commission, taking on average 10% from the sales they place, and this means they can only make money if the contract is large enough.
Yes, if your script is ready for a big Hollywood contract, then an agent may be for you. But there are other ways to succeed, including selling your screenplay to smaller indie production companies. This does not require agent representation, which keeps more money in your pocket!
You Need to Spell Everything Out for the Audience
Who wants to pay to watch a movie with no suspense and surprises? Not me, that’s for sure! I don’t think you would either. This is different from giving your audience confidence in the journey you’re taking them on as a screenwriter but allowing the viewer to navigate their own way through the movie.
Create a situation for the audience to form their own opinion about what is to follow and they will likely have a better film experience.
All Feedback is Good Feedback...Even Your Mom’s
Firstly, this is no disrespect to your mom! The issue is that not all feedback is useful actionable feedback and, if everyone you know gives you their two cents on your script with little valuable feedback, this is harmful to your work, and potentially your confidence.
Only take criticism or pointers from those who have industry experience or have a creative vision. (In fact, you can get notes on your script right here at ScreenCraft.)
If you take one piece of advice from this blog, it should be that the most powerful rule you should follow is to get out there and get writing! You can do much with an unwritten script.
Alex Edge has worked for companies such as MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central. His roles and specialties in these companies lie in production and script consultancy. He currently works at Screenwriters Network as a director. Reading and writing scripts whenever he can!