Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We're SERIOUSLY still fighting about this "Screenwriting Rules" s***?!?!?!

Nicholas writes in with a request that I got a few times on Twitter and honestly had been trying to avoid.

I'd love to see a blog post with your take on the Scriptnotes podcast where John and Craig discuss screenwriting rules.

For those of you who don't know what he's talking about, it's this podcast here. (Transcript here.) John and Craig break down a "Meet the Reader" post, "12 Signs of a Promising spec script."
Honestly, I've taken on the rules so many times that I've gotten tired of writing the same post over and over again. It's a fight I'm tired of because it often means that some useful advice gets shat on because someone like Tarantino found a brilliant way to defy convention. Perhaps some of us giving the advice could take more care in how we present it. For instance, my 12-Step Screenwriting videos are NOT meant to be "the secret formula for writing a script" or "the only way you should write a script." It's merely a processes designed to keep you always moving forward in your writing. I would never have put it out there with the message of "this is how you have to write a script."

But I have never seen such ugly fights break out as I have with people being advised on script length, or "we see," or bolded sluglines. You tell a group of aspiring screenwriters that they should be vigilant about catching typos and at least one person in the group will pipe up with "Fuck you! Tarantino doesn't even spell his titles right! This is bullshit!" And then suddenly we're no longer having a conversation about what can help you make a good impression as a writer, we're throwing down about if this advice really matters if it cannot be rigidly applied in the absolute.

About a year ago, Scott Myers and I coordinated efforts on a series he did for his blog called So-Called Screenwriting Rules. You can also find a couple of my posts - like this one on "we see" and this one on unfilmables - that fit into the context of that discussion.

Scott and I specifically wrote this series as an answer to all the "Rules" and you'll find that as we discuss each commonly-accepted "rule," we're careful not to apply them as absolutes and explain why certain tendencies might be good or bad for your script. It was an attempt to move the discussion to a more useful level than the binary "These are The Rules/There are NO Rules" fights that every screenwriting board devolves into.

And then John August and Craig Mazin take on an article written by Ray Morton called "12 Signs of Promising Spec Script" and treat it like it's presented as holy writ with regard to all screenwriting.


I've got a lot of respect for John and Craig and I don't know anything about this Ray Morton individual at all, so maybe I'm missing vital context as to why they went after his first-person article with such vehemence. If Morton's article was something like "12 Things Every Script MUST Have," I'd get it. But Morton isn't presenting his advice as if you're looking at the secret scorecard that all scripts are checked against. He's simply saying, "I've read a lot, and here are factors that tend to recur in the worst-written scripts."

Especially after reading the article and reviewing the transcript, I can't shake the observation that John and Craig seem to be turning Morton's piece into a strawman.

In a really telling moment, John says, "I think he’s also noticing patterns in his own response to things. And I think those are valid personal experiences. The frustration I have is that in observing his own personal reactions to things, then trying to go to the next step and codify these out as like these are things, prohibitions of things you should never do. And I think that is incorrect."

But.. I don't really think that's what this specific article IS doing.

I'll give John a little credit. He's usually the first of the two to concede that there's some kind of point being made in the article. While Craig is savaging the advice like "know who the protagonist is by page 5" and "something interesting must happen by page 10," John pipes up with, "I would basically stand up for him here. I think the overall point is that if by page five nothing interesting has happened, I’m going to have a harder time getting to page six."

This is where I'll remind everyone that a regular feature of Scriptnotes is the Three-Page Challenge. John and Craig read three pages of a script submitted by a reader and give their reactions to it. There are a lot of weeks where what they glean from those few pages doesn't sound terribly dissimilar to the sorts of diagnosis that Morton is making based on a history of reading entire scripts. Most weeks, a lack of clarity is a recurring issue with some of the submissions and if you pick apart Morton's article, a number of his issues are coming from the same place.

I'm not surprised that there's animosity between these gentlemen and the gurus who sell consulting services. Hell, I hate most of those guys too, so I'd be right there with them. If some idiot was charging $500 for you to attend his seminar and this was the sort of advice he was giving, I'd be all for dropping the hammer on him. Looking at the actual article, it's a pretty benign bit of first-person advice from someone who's a decent representative of the people whom companies have as their first-filter. Morton's biography claims he has read for Paramount and Columbia Pictures, among other companies and producers. He's also a freelance consultant and I get why that makes people like John and Craig wary. It makes ME wary. Yet his rates don't even seem all that out of line.

I've seen a lot worse advice coming from people with a lot less practical experience and much higher rates. That's all I'm saying.

Another part of Craig and John's discussion bugged me in how it was presented - their initial aggression that NONE of these RULES are ever true. And then if you listen, they kind of walk some of those assertions back. I wish it was that they'd lead with the point I quoted from John above and broke down what the reader was really saying when he was declaring these rules. Writers often talk about having to look for "the note behind the note." I think a lot could have come from examining "the flaw that spawned the 'rule.'"

(And I don't wish to dissect this at length, but it feels deeply disingenuous to use The Godfather as the film that disproves the "rules" when the article is specifically referring to spec scripts. Not only are most aspiring writers NOT Mario Puzo, who had a strong enough command of the form to have his audience hanging on every word, but The Godfather was not a spec as we think of them today.)

John and Craig's discussion comes from a place of "Don't let anybody tell you how to write!" But that's because John and Craig are seasoned enough at this that their process is innately effective. They don't think about "rules" because they don't have to. Aspects of writing that others have to think about, they do by instinct. If John August opens his script with a five page monologue, then it probably is because there's a definite REASON for it. And John's a good enough writer that it's probably a helluva speech that justifies that length.

It's like the "don't direct on the page" rule. Craig might say, "That's a stupid rule, I've never been told that! Hell, I've done it!" If he were to say that, I guarantee you that when Craig did it, it was unobtrusive. I also guarantee you that he probably didn't do it often in the script. (And more than likely, it was a scene where such direction was necessary for the clarity of what the audience does or does not see at that moment.)


I've seen amateur scripts that really try to micromanage the directing. I'm talking about scripts where every other scene is noting a whip-pan, or a tracking shot or a camera move, or some other bit of photographic choreography. When people say, "Don't direct on the page," it's directed at THOSE guys. Clarity and brevity are two things a screenwriter should strive for and excessive camera direction is rarely either of those.

Guys at Craig and John's level are capable of writing strong description that captures the tempo and the flow of the scene so acutely that they don't need to say if the action provokes a close-up or a camera move. Why bluntly tell the director where to put the camera when good description subliminally leads him to that result AND has him convinced it was his idea?

The way I'd suggest thinking about it is if some reader tells you something that sounds like a rule, internalize it as "Oh man, some dumb bastard did that excessively!" Think moderation. If the "rule" is "Be between 90 and 120 pages," it doesn't mean that a script that's 89 or 121 pages is as egregiously offensive as the 160 page script. (If I glean from the first ten pages that this is a gross-out comedy and your page count is at 135, I admit, THAT is probably going to concern me. Conversely, if it seems like you're writing a WWII epic that clocks in at 75 pages, I'm also going to look askance at it.)

Look at how much space has been wasted on a debate over if the Rules are real and if John and Craig are right and wrong. It's clouding the real issue and all it accomplishes is the next time someone says, "Hey, maybe don't have your first page be made up of 3 sixteen-line paragraphs," instead of considering why they shouldn't do that, they'll say "Fuck you, man! Craig Mazin says there ARE no rules!"

That doesn't help you. This debate doesn't help you. It's a waste of your time and it's a waste of my time. So fuck the debate. Instead look past the rule and try to understand the writing pitfall it's trying to steer you away from.


  1. In film school and every art class I took in college, the rule was, "Know the rules and then break them FOR A REASON". now that I'm getting into screenwriting, I try to keep that thought in the forefront of my head.

    The "rule" that is frustrating for me, as an actor, is creating visuals for character actions versus just saying "John Doe is angry" and letting the actor and director figure out what that looks like.

  2. Good stuff. Thanks. Yeah, Morgan saying, "I notice that good scripts generally contain these things" is a bit like a manager saying, "I notice that most successful job applicants are wearing shoes and don't smell of alcohol."