The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rob Edward’s List

IMG_4339E.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.

We have a new list of “un-rules” today from Rob Edwards, the scribe behind the animated features Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. Rob was also a consultant on Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. He was kind enough to speak to us a few months back about the particular challenges of writing animated features, and we’re thrilled to now have Rob’s top five un-rules.

If you’re in the LA area, Rob will be giving a master class entitled The 5 Keystones to Great Screenwriting this weekend (March 8-9). The intensive weekend course is designed for any level of writer who wants to be able to quickly identify a story’s 5 Keystones and write dynamic scripts using this industry standard. Learn more and register here.

Without further ado, here are Rob’s five un-rules:

1. BE A REAL PERSON. Ultimately whether we’re writing highly formatted screenplays or sitting around campfires spinning yarns, we are storytellers, pure and simple. Our jobs are to take the emotions we feel and the information we know and weave them into entertaining tapestries that will be loved and adored by millions. If you don’t love movies passionately, feel anything deeply or know anything interesting, you’re going to have a tough road ahead of you. It’s easier to make movies people will love if you, yourself, are a great lover of movies. It’s easier to write moments that will touch people if you are a bit of a sap. Put yourself in the movie theatre with a box of popcorn and an Icee and ask yourself what you want to see up on the screen. What kinds of opening sequences do you like? What kinds of protagonists? What kinds of villains? And then write that and only that. The things that excite and entertain you will become the colors you’ll use to paint your cinematic tapestries, but you can only do that if you know who you are as a person first.

2. KNOW STUFF. And, by that, I mean everything. Know about the industry from box office numbers to gossip. Know what great screenplays are out there and read them. Know your competition. Know where you want to be in 3 years… in 10 years. Pick a movie that’s in theaters now and know what you would have done to have made it better. Whatever you think you know, know that there’s a kid about to graduate from some college somewhere who knows one thing more than you and he’s going to drink your milkshake when the time comes. And, when you finally get a meeting with producers, make sure you’re not the only person in the room that doesn’t know what Chris Vogler said about midpoints. It may seem esoteric to you now but, for insiders, it’s like an NFL quarterback not knowing what halftime is. Aristotle, Vogler, Truby, McKee, Snyder, Campbell, Fields… You don’t have to live by them, you just have to know what their theories are. And then check out Edwards, he has some cool things to say too.

3. FIRST DRAFTS SUCK, GET OVER IT. They just do. The good news is that 40th drafts rarely suck. Learn to love the process of making a screenplay great. Breaking it down structurally and testing it’s integrity. Asking yourself the tough questions. Embracing the cold sting of having your best friend tell you what’s wrong with your draft, thanking her with a nice lunch and then getting back under the hood and fixing it with a smile on your face. Then rinse and repeat until she calls you laughing about her favorite parts and thanks you for letting her read it. Writers write, every day if possible. And working writers write more than one thing so get into the practice of breaking one story while you’re writing another and proofing a third.

4. “HEART, HEAD AND HAND”. The secret to great art. “HEAD” is the idea. The thing that makes your work innovative and unique. The way your idea moves the industry forward. “HAND” is the craftsmanship you bring to it. Your ability to work with words. The dynamics you put into your storytelling. “HEART” is the emotion you fuel it with. The personal connection you have with the work. Head and Hand without Heart is hackery. Hand and Heart without Head is cliched and old. Heart and Head without Hand is melodramatic and amateurish. Keep all three in mind as you write and you’ll be on your way to making meaningful art.

5. GIVE BACK. You’ll spend your career learning how to make fire. After you get there, and you will get there, turn around and pull the next person over the fence. And the next. There’s a thirst for knowledge out there that’s being filled by guys who have never sold a screenplay in their lives. If you wouldn’t take a master class on how to make a billion dollars from a guy who’d never made a billion dollars, you shouldn’t hope for a person who’s never written a great screenplay to teach you how to write one. Fill that void. Be that person. The community of screenwriters will thank you for saving them from one more crappy screenplay… and you’ll meet a bunch of interesting people in the process.

Don’t forget to check out Rob’s master class here.

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