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)

  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. (Erik Bork)

  5. “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. (Erik Bork)

  6. Conflict, conflict, conflict between characters.  Although we try to avoid it in life, it’s essential to embrace it in screenplays. (Kirsten Smith)

  7. Create a solid body of work. Are you a one-script wonder or a workhorse who constantly creates new material? Always have ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment or script to offer. Hollywood is a business and agents and managers size you up to see your professional work ethic. (Mark Sanderson)

  8. Always set your script aside for 2-3 weeks, (longer if possible) then come back and read it one more time before showing it to people. You will be amazed at the number of things you’ll want to change. (Karen McCullah)

  9. Be patient. It’s true what they say—an overnight success is usually ten years or 10,000 hours in the making. I sold my first spec (my 5th script) six years after graduating film school. I hope you’re in this for the long haul because it’s going to be a long slog marathon. Make sure to enjoy the little successes along the way on your journey to success. (Mark Sanderson)

  10. Embrace rejection and realize that “no”s are no big deal. (Kirsten Smith)

  11. “No one knows anything.”  My god, was William Goldman right. I can’t tell you the number of ideas I’ve been talked out of writing (by agents, managers, and writer friends) only to see a similar — or the exact same idea — sell months later. “You can’t sell a time travel script!!!”  That’s a favorite around here in Hollywood.  Truth is, there are a ton of time travel scripts in development and yet, every single year, a bunch of them sell.  I was told four years ago, “Never write an alien invasion movie.”  At last count, I think ten gazillion alien invasion specs have sold since then. (Joe Gazzam)

Which rules do you find most helpful?

Remember to check in every Wednesday for more rules!

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