SCREENWRITING RULES THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN
(except when breaking them works)
1. Keep writing, writing, and writing, but unless you are God (or in conversation with God), don’t write without a detailed, beginning-to-end outline for your story. If your script works out without ever having an outline, you are very lucky. If it doesn’t, you are like the rest of us (curled up in a corner, naked, crying about not having an outline).
2. Think of the outline as a skeleton. The more flesh and vital organs you put on that skeleton, the better and stronger the body will become. Knowing what the story is about gets the skeleton on its feet. More details make her dance. Specific details around plot-points and what the characters want give that skeleton reasons to live.
3. Add to the skeleton deep knowledge of your characters. That knowledge shows up not in description but in the character's choices. Ask pertinent questions about your characters and know the answers.
4. Always know what your story is truly about and know how every scene relates to what it is about. Every scene. Every line. Keep trying to refine this process.
5. If a scene doesn’t shift and change direction at some point, it’s not a scene. The change in the scene is what moves the film forward. I write too much dialogue. Generally, action is better than dialogue.
6. I’ve never heard this said before, but never write a scene that you wouldn’t want to watch, direct or act in. Take this to heart and a lot of unnecessary scenes will be cut. Think of the actors and make the words shine and the situation tremble with possibility, and shift with surprise. Check over scenes with this in mind.
7. Always ask what your characters really, madly, deeply want. Then ask if that’s interesting, and ask what the effect of getting or not getting those wants fulfilled will be on your character. Knowing all this, dramatic potential begins to grow.
8. What a character wants or how a character changes should general be seen through action. What the character chooses to do, how she responds to adversity or opportunity, is character. I know this, because I write a lot of dialogue.
9. If the best-friends and side-characters are more interesting than your lead character, the script may have internal bleeding. Try giving the most interesting, compelling, original traits to the lead character. We want to follow the most interesting and compelling characters—in life and art.
10. Little known secret: conflict between fair and loving people often builds tension and drama and pay-off even more than conflict through brutality. Don’t get me wrong: a great antagonist is wonderful—but particularly when that antagonist is three-dimensional and pitted against a decent person with desires, and good (if confused) intentions.
11. Redemption is not necessarily cliché or sentimental. It is a condition that says life, no matter the outcome—even with death—was and is worth the struggle endured (or celebrated, for that matter) in your story.
12. Redemption requires love as an underlying force. Love requires being honest about what the character wants—and all interesting, non-sociopathic people want love. I do, anyway.
13. Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” So are some of my hundredth drafts (and final drafts). You have greatness in you. Keep asking questions. Keep writing.