The Un-Rules of Screenwriting

Professional screenwriters weigh in on the rules of writing they find most useful:

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rob Edward’s List

IMG_4339E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

We have a new list of “un-rules” today from Rob Edwards, the scribe behind the animated features Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. Rob was also a consultant on Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. He was kind enough to speak to us a few months back about the particular challenges of writing animated features, and we’re thrilled to now have Rob’s top five un-rules.

If you’re in the LA area, Rob will be giving a master class entitled The 5 Keystones to Great Screenwriting this weekend (March 8-9). The intensive weekend course is designed for any level of writer who wants to be able to quickly identify a story’s 5 Keystones and write dynamic scripts using this industry standard. Learn more and register here.

Without further ado, here are Rob’s five un-rules:

1. BE A REAL PERSON. Ultimately whether we’re writing highly formatted screenplays or sitting around campfires spinning yarns, we are storytellers, pure and simple. Our jobs are to take the emotions we feel and the information we know and weave them into entertaining tapestries that will be loved and adored by millions. If you don’t love movies passionately, feel anything deeply or know anything interesting, you’re going to have a tough road ahead of you. It’s easier to make movies people will love if you, yourself, are a great lover of movies. It’s easier to write moments that will touch people if you are a bit of a sap. Put yourself in the movie theatre with a box of popcorn and an Icee and ask yourself what you want to see up on the screen. What kinds of opening sequences do you like? What kinds of protagonists? What kinds of villains? And then write that and only that. The things that excite and entertain you will become the colors you’ll use to paint your cinematic tapestries, but you can only do that if you know who you are as a person first. Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rob Edward’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Billy Mernit’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

Our latest list of “un-rules” comes from the always insightful Billy Mernit. Billy writes Living the Romantic Comedy, a great site that anyone writing romantic comedies or comedies in general should treat like gospel. Known as “the guru of rom-com” for his best-selling screenwriting textbook, Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and contributed two chapters to the recently published Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

Billy published his first novel Imagine Me and You in 2008. During his many years in the entertainment industry, he has written for television and worked as both a screenwriter and private script consultant. After being a story analyst for Sony and Paramount, he has held that job at Universal Pictures for the past fifteen years. At Universal, he’s had a hand in the development of such recent successes as Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect.

Billy chose to approach his rules from the perspective of a story analyst. Here are his top three truisms:

  1. A primary goal of any spec script that’s going to market is to get the reader to identify with its protagonist. Your story requires a compelling, relatable lead character – meaning, we know what she wants and we believe she may be capable of getting it, the ways in which she overcomes her obstacles make her empathetic, and she’s complex enough to keep us interested. Your job is to get us to be her, even if this means putting what she thinks and how she feels into the narrative on the screenplay page. If we’re not totally emotionally invested in her story and seeing it though her eyes by the end of the first act, your script is dead in the water. Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Billy Mernit’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Deborah Moggach’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

Our latest list of un-rules comes from the talented Deborah Moggach. Deborah is an English writer whose career has spanned television, film, and novels. She wrote the screenplay for the exceptional adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and wrote the novel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

With her rules, Deborah noted, “Rules, of course, are there to be broken. Screenwriting in particular seems enslaved by ‘three-act-structure’ rules and so on, which I think can put a straight jacket on a writer. Another trope is ‘whose story is this?’ When Billy Wilder wrote Some Like it Hot, nobody asked him if this was the Tony Curtis character’s story or the Jack Lemmon character’s story – and THAT film did ok.”

“However,” she added, “here are some tips:”

  1. Be adaptable. A good screenwriter is not precious – listen to criticism and take it on board. After all, it’s a communal activity and, besides, it’s somebody else’s money at stake. Be adaptable, but fight for your corner if you believe in it.

  2. Screenwriting is re-writing. Again and again and again. If you haven’t the fortitude and resilience for this, don’t get into it. With each draft, however, you’ll learn something. I’m learning all the time.

  3. If you’re adapting a book – and many films originate as books, of course – first read the book a couple of times with your screenwriter’s hat on – noticing the dramatic, filmic moments; the great speeches; the narrative thrust. Then write your first draft. This will closely resemble the book. Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Deborah Moggach’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: What We’ve Learned So Far

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

Every week we’ve been posting wonderful lists of “un-rules” from successful screenwriters working in the industry today. These un-rules, or “principles” as Robert McKee would call them, are the guiding ideas that each of these writers find most important to their creative process.

Today, I want to take a step back and look at what we’ve learned. Below are the rules that I have found most insightful, practical, and helpful thus far:

  1. Respect the craft of screenwriting. This includes mastering format and becoming an excellent storyteller. There is no easy way to success. If you believe that your first script will make your career, you will be humbled when you learn that your craft is bigger than you’ll ever be. (Mark Sanderson)

  2. If you can’t pitch your idea in a sentence, toss it in the garbage. There’s a very good chance the person who has the power to buy your script will never read it.  They will simply ask the exec underneath them (that did read it), “What’s it about?” (Joe Gazzam)

  3. Don’t be afraid to extensively outline.  Get examples of outlines where you can.  Outline your favorite movies and favorite screenplays to teach yourself about structure. (Kirsten Smith) Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: What We’ve Learned So Far”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Karen McCullah’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

We’re excited to have a new list of screenwriting principles this week from Karen McCullah (@KarenMcCullah1). Karen and her writing partner Kirsten Smith (who shared her own list of rules here) are the team responsible for such hits as Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Ugly Truth. (See their full list of credits here.)

With her list, Karen decided to keep things short and sweet. These are the three screenwriting rules that she found most important to share with budding writers: Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Karen McCullah’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Erik Bork’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

This week we’re honored to have a list of “un-rules” from Erik Bork (@flyingwrestler). Erik is best known for his work on the HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, for which he wrote multiple episodes and won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards for helping to produce. Erik has also sold a variety of drama series pitches to the big four networks and recently developed a comedy pilot with one of the studios. He’s worked on the writing staff for two primetime dramas, and written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. In addition to all of that, Erik teaches in National University’s MFA Screenwriting Program and for The Writers Store, speaks regularly at writing conferences, and offers one-on-one consulting to writers.

Erik got his start as an assistant to Tom Hanks, who gave Erik the opportunity to help him write and produce FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON after reading some sitcom spec scripts he had written.

Erik has an excellent article on his screenwriting website, Flying Wrestler, which provides deeper information about each of his following ten rules:

  1. Concept, then story, come first.  Getting those right is the most important part.  The “words on the page,” while important, are less critical.

  2.  “Compelling, unique, real and entertaining” is what every scene and every story should be.  The audience needs to believe in and care about the main character’s situation, and enjoy the process of watching them confront it – without feeling that they’ve seen it all before.  This is not easy to do! Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Erik Bork’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Mark Sanderson’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

Our list this week comes from the talented Mark Sanderson (@scriptcat). Mark is a screenwriter and consultant blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies. He has done sketch comedy writing and performing with The Amazing Onionheads, completed eleven screenplay assignments and television premieres, and enjoyed worldwide distribution of his emotionally compelling films, the WWII indie feature I’ll Remember April, Lifetime Network’s holiday films Deck the Halls and An Accidental Christmas, the stylish indie-noir feature Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below (aka HereTV’s Tides of War) and SyFy Network’s Sea Snakes (aka 20th Century Fox’s Silent Venom).

His films have been recognized at major film festivals and distributed globally. Mark’s long association with Hollywood veterans dates back to his first produced screenplay, and he has since worked with Academy Award winning producers, veteran genre directors, and Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe acting nominees.

Mark is currently busy shopping two TV pilots, moving into pre-production on his indie sci-fi comedy Area 54, and he just completed his first book, A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success. He offers workshops, webinars and screenplay consultation services at his website FIVE O’CLOCK BLUE ENTERTAINMENT and screenwriting advice on his popular blog MY BLANK PAGE (Script Magazine’s pick for Website of the Week).

Here are the rules that Mark would like to share with us today:

  1. Respect the craft of screenwriting. This includes mastering format and becoming an excellent storyteller. There is no easy way to success. If you believe that your first script will make your career, you will be humbled when you learn that your craft is bigger than you’ll ever be.

  2. Carve out a schedule and protect your precious screenwriting time.Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”—Ernest Hemingway. Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Mark Sanderson’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Joe Gazzam’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

Our list of un-rules this week comes from Joe Gazzam (@JOE_GAZZAM), the talented screenwriter/novelist who graced our pages with an interview about what it’s really like to be a screenwriter.

Joe gave us a list of five random rules (more like soft guidelines, he said.) “Let me preface this,” he told us, “by saying that I’m a working writer pounding out mainstream studio films.  If you’re an indie type, if your dream is to write “My Left Foot,” you should probably ignore everything I’m about to say.”

With that in mind, here are Joe’s thoughts:

  1. If you can’t pitch your idea in a sentence, toss it in the garbage. There’s a very good chance the person who has the power to buy your script will never read it.  They will simply ask the exec underneath them (that did read it), “What’s it about?” Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Joe Gazzam’s List”

The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rick Suvalle’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

This week’s list comes from Rick Suvalle (@RickSuvalle). Rick has been a professional film and television writer for over 15 years. He is currently writing and Executive Producing a sci-fi/action web series for NBC Universal. Other recent credits include two television movie premieres: The Hallmark Channel Original Movie Honeymoon For One and the Syfy Original Movie Roadkill (see his interview about writing movies for television here). Rick has also created and produced an original pilot presentation for 20th Century Fox, and he served as the Executive Story Editor on Pamela Anderson’s hit syndicated series “V.I.P.” where he also wrote 15 episodes.

Needless to say, Rick knows this business (like, really knows it) from both the film and television sides. Here are his un-rules: Continue reading “The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rick Suvalle’s List”

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