Screenwriters Must Always Follow The Rules! (Except When They Don’t)

Never give camera direction.

Don’t say “We see.”

Cut out those graphic descriptions.

Oh, and don’t forget to always use well-crafted sluglines.

These are just a few of the oft repeated rules spouted by bloggers, gurus, and countless “experts” the world over, but if you read some of the top scripts floating around out there, you’ll see these rules (and many others) ignored all the time. In fact a great deal of the “rule breakers” spurned so often online wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow amongst actual execs.

Take for example the recent film “The Imitation Game” by Graham Moore. In the first several pages he throws bolded sluglines out the window, opting instead for a very dynamic (if not conventional) style. Rather than traditional sluglines, here is what he wrote:

A CONSTABLE PHONES IN the robbery to headquarters —

— At headquarters, a RADIO GIRL transmits the information to the detectives on duty —

— And in London, a RADIO OPERATOR in a dark room far below Victoria Street TAKES DOWN AN URGENT MESSAGE —

— ON THE MESSAGE: Random letters. Gibberish. It’s ENCRYPTED.

The ENCRYPTED MESSAGE is handed to a CRYPTANALYST, who DECODES it —

— Before the MESSAGE is HANDED OFF and WHISKED through the dim hallways —

— Until it’s finally deposited on the desk of STEWART MENZIES, the Director of MI-6. British Secret Intelligence Services.

Menzies picks up the message: “Alan Turing has been robbed.”

EXT. ALAN TURNING’S HOUSE – MORNING

Another example comes from the Nightcrawler script. Once again, sluglines are eschewed for an unconventional (according to internet gurus at least) style. These breaks shift focus intentionally to what the writer wants the shot to be, but without giving explicit camera direction (though the writer was also the director). Even so, you very clearly see where the writing forces you to visualize the focal point of the images as you read. Take a gander:

PEOPLE

riding bikes and jogging and roller-blading in Venice where we find

LOU

sitting on wall … watching

A MAN

in a spandex bicycle outfit as he locks his racing bike, enters a juice store and

LOU

crosses … picks the bike lock and CUT TO

A PAWN SHOP

You get the idea. Now as I said, the screenwriter was also the director, so liberties are expected.

As far as the use of “We see” or other camera direction, everyone I’ve ever spoken with who actually works in the industry (as opposed to myriad online gurus and experts who are more often than not not making their living as writers) have said that if a script is well written and engaging, they really don’t care if there is camera direction. The point is to tell a good story, and if you’re doing your job as a writer the story should be so enthralling that they don’t even stop to notice visual cues and direction.

This is one of the interesting elements (in my opinion) of the online world of experts and coaches. I wonder how many people have changed their dynamic and engaging reads on the advice of people whose credentials are minimal at best. There are literally thousands of writers who have completed scores of screenplays, but the act of writing a body of work alone should not be enough to give anyone the title of expert. Of course there are those who are like great coaches, perhaps not able to do it themselves, but possessing a keen eye towards improving other people’s creations. An old friend of mine is this way. She’s a lawyer by trade, a stage actress by hobby, and is utterly amazing at picking apart a story and finding strengths and weaknesses. She is also the first to say that she can’t write worth a damn, but she can edit with the best of them.

The takeaway from this all is these rules aren’t rules at all, but rather suggestions or guidelines. Do what you need to do to make your story flow. Just remember that if you do venture outside of conventional style, make sure you do it elegantly and effectively. You can get away with just about anything if you do it really well.

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3 thoughts on “Screenwriters Must Always Follow The Rules! (Except When They Don’t)

  1. Hi Scott,

    Enjoyed reading this post. I totally agree with this. I have read plenty of scripts where these formatting rules are broken, think PTA, Tarantino, Mark Heyman, Alan Ball et al. who all adopt their own voice similar to your example with Dan Gilroy in Nightcrawler.

    Your lesson that you can get away with just about anything if you do it really well is true of nearly all walks of life. I like this idea a lot, just do the thing bloody well and people will care little how you got it done.

    I came across your script ‘Living the Good Death’ on SpecScout. It sounds intriguing and I look forward to reading it!

    All the best,

    Charlie.

    Like

    • Hi Charlie, glad you enjoyed the piece.

      There is a great quote about blindly heeding experts that I feel applies to just about everything in life. “Great achievements are often made by those ignorant of the knowledge that it can’t be done.”

      Thanks for the comment & I hope you enjoy reading Living the Good Death.

      Cheers
      Scott

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely true. Or, perhaps those numb to the fear that it can’t be done, but then I suppose that in itself could be seen as ignorance! I shall, and I will let you know what I think. Cheers.

        Like

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