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!

  3. Stories consist of constant conflict – or you could say “constant attempts to solve problems, which meet with resistance, and largely fail.”

  4. Stick to a clear and singular point-of-view. You want the audience to experience the story AS the main character, not looking at them from a distance.

  5. Entertainment is about emotion. Our job is to elicit emotions in the audience that they want to feel.  Key to this is #4 – getting them inside the main character, and caring about what they care about.

  6.  “It’s real” or “it’s cool” is not reason to include it.  Everything should serve the story and concept.  Movies are usually about one clear, simple pursuit – and it’s important to keep things uncluttered, and moving forward.

  7. Get feedback from the right people and use it.  Be open and non-defensive, and seek out the most devastating notes.  You want to understand what industry professionals would think if they read it.  But don’t use other people’s “fixes”, if they don’t work for you.  Figure out what the problems are, and find your own “fixes.”

  8. You must have passion for what you are writing.  You must believe in it and think it will be good, and something you’d want to see – for it to work.

  9. Our intellectual mind doesn’t create.  The critical left brain can only rearrange and evaluate.  Ideas come from somewhere else.  It’s crucial to free up the right brain to receive.  Brainstorming is one good way.

  10. Seek more “to give,” than “to get.”  We will always tend to be impatient in our ambitions.  If you focus on creating something of value for others, you will tend to do better, faster – than if you obsess over what you can get out of it.  Learn and grow and seek to be your best, and do well what only you can do, the way you can do it.

Remember to follow Erik on Facebook and Twitter for more expert screenwriting advice.

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