By N.G. Davis
I trolled the web for a picture that represents how I feel about the snake-oil salesmen who try and peddle their “insider knowledge” to new, unsuspecting screenwriters. I failed. But, I did find the following picture of what looks like an MMA fighter dressed as a unicorn. I feel it is appropriate, because he is pretending to be something he is not. Also, unicorns are not real. And neither is this bullshit.
(Also, it’s hilarious.)
FIRST, A FACE-SAVING PREFACE FULL OF CAVEATS AND EXCEPT-FORS THAT ALLOWS ME TO TAKE THE WIMPY WAY OUT:
Screenwriting rules can be found everywhere, be it book, blog, video, or seminar. It’s been said that Robert McKee’s knowledge was handed down on cuneiform by the gods themselves (Mormons claim it was gold plates). The internet is so full of this stuff that there are even “bots” out there creating fake screenwriting how-to blogs in order to bait-and-switch you with their preferred method of penis enlargement. The fact is, for someone who’s just starting out, a Google search is far more likely to yield information on how to make your script look pretty than how to actually write it.
Why? Because it’s simpler to focus on formatting and magical beat sheets. It’s less abstract than writing great characters and dialogue, therefore making it much easier for some guru to sell you their schtick. And sell, they do. People have become stupid rich off of this shit, and frankly, it’s really fucking annoying.
Why is it annoying? Because 99% of these “experts” are unsuccessful screenwriters themselves, who are attempting to turn a profit from their many years of being unsuccessful, and are unfairly swindling unsuspecting newbies from their money while simultaneously leading them down the wrong path.
Now, full disclosure: I am not exactly Shane Black. I’m not even Rebecca Black. The following advice is coming from someone who is hopefully, please-God-let-it-be-so, within a couple weeks of signing his first option & purchase agreement, which will lead to his first-ever check of a not-so-impressive high-four-figures.
I am, however, represented by a top notch manager and lawyer in Hollywood. I earned their representation by writing a script that bucked many of the “rules” I’m about to address. We optioned that same script to a producer whose movies you’ve definitely heard of and have most likely seen, and I’m developing another script with a production company whose producers are responsible for some major box office success.
None of this is to brag (I’m not actually sure it’s worth bragging about), but I want to put my credentials and lack of them out there before I get started. To make up for this lack, I’ll do my best to back up my words with references. I will also not ask for your money.
But – before we start: These “rules” you hear about exist for a reason. Most make sense in certain situations (some even make sense in most), so don’t just ignore them for the sake of it. In fact, it’s worth having a general knowledge of them if you’re just starting out. Just know that a single passive verb will not get your script thrown in the reject bin.
Use your brain. If it doesn’t make sense, question it. In the end, you are the writer. The most important rule is to be good.
PART I – RULES THAT DO ACTUALLY MATTER, MOST OF THE TIME
There is most-definitely an industry standard for page-count. Your screenplay should be 90-120 pages. Even better is 95-115, because then it doesn’t look like you’re doing the bare minimum or pushing the limits.
I realize this can be hard. Most new writers wind up well over 120 pages and cannot fathom the idea of cutting enough of those hard-wrought words to create a normal-looking script. Well, in 99.9% of cases, you can. In all likelihood, your script is not in that 0.1% and it will actually be better after you tighten it up a bit.
Seriously. Do everything you can to get it under that 120 mark. The first thing anyone does when they sit down with a script is note the page count. If it’s abnormal and it’s written by an unknown writer, it signals that they may not know what they’re doing. You don’t want someone going into your script with that bias.
Now here’s the crazy thing: Even this rule, one of the very few that should never be broken, has exceptions.
BRAKE and BURIED were both sold and produced, despite being under the 90-page mark and despite being written by first-time writers. They were both extremely-contained thrillers that centered around a single character, so the short length was more acceptable in these circumstances.
William Monahan broke into screenwriting (he was already a novelist) with TRIPOLI, a 134-page sweeping adventure script. It also has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. 500 DAYS OF SUMMERbroke its writers into Hollywood at 129 pages. Again, it’s an incredible script. The writing was so good that it stood well above the page count.
It happens. I recommend against trying it, because it does put you at a disadvantage, but it happens.
Look… if you mess with margins, people are going to notice. Everyone working in Hollywood has read hundreds (even thousands) of scripts, and one that’s been messed with sets off a billion red flags. If you tweak the margins only a little bit, they’re going to be annoyed that you tried to play them. If you really screw with them, then you look like someone who doesn’t even know how a script should be formatted. Don’t do it.
There are little things you can do. The way screenplay formatting works, sometimes just cutting a few lines can help you lose a whole page. This is important when your first draft rings in at 125. You should try every legitimate method first, but if those still leave you at an annoying-as-fuck 121, you can mess with dialogue a bit.
Say you have a piece of dialogue that runs into a second line by just a word or two. Cutting those words would destroy the effect, but you can always lengthen the margin on that particular chunk by just a little. Sometimes that’s enough to bring it down to a single line.
I guarantee you people notice this, but I’ve done it and have never had anyone say a thing. This is probably because I might only do it four or five times in a script. It doesn’t impact the entire thing; it’s not really enough to be annoying.
So, if you’re going to fuck with margins, use that as your standard. Don’t do it enough to be annoying.
Also, please get yourself a formatting program and let that set the margins for you. If you set up a template on Word, you can almost always tell. Final Draft is the standard. Movie Magic is supposedly a little better, but not used as often. If you really aren’t willing to invest that much in your dream career, then CeltX is supposedly pretty solid and it’s free.
Size 12, 10-point Courier. Or Courier New. Or Final Draft Courier. Or John August’s brand new Courier Prime. The color should — obviously — be black. Don’t use anything else, because that will make your script look extremely fucking stupid. For realz.
Of course, it is becoming commonplace for people to have some fun on their title pages. So go ahead, download a fun font if it makes you happy, and put it right there in peoples’ faces. As long as it’s the title page, it doesn’t actually impact the read. I do this with my scripts. So do most other writers I know.
Also, as with every other screenwriting rule, if there is a REALLY, REALLY, REALLY good reason to emphasize something, you can probably make an exception. Maybe you make a word red. Maybe you make it bigger. Maybe you use an ancient-looking font to show what’s scrawled on an old piece of paper.
That is not something I’ve done and I’m not sure I recommend it. However, in a unique circumstance, I could see it being effective. Just keep it limited, because a major reason we use such specific fonts and margins is to ensure that roughly one page of screenplay equals one page of screen time. If you mess with what’s on the page too much, you’re going to have a very different result. And it will annoy people.
A beginning, middle, and end. Every story has them. Every script has them. You really can’t fight it.
Sure, you can start in the middle and then flash your way around the story, but you’re still going to have to use those early scenes to set everything up. You’re still going to have to finish with a bang.
You’ll see sample beat sheets and diagrams that tell you what should happen on which page. Guess what? These are actually pretty useful.
Generally, you really should get that inciting incident in there by page 10. You should have your first act break between pages 20-25. A game-changing midpoint at page 60. A sobbing, widowed, castrated protagonist on page 75. Etc.
Managers, agents, producers, executives – they all look for these things. They’re going to notice if your beats aren’t falling in the right places. That said…
There is still a major element of storytelling that is abstract. Subjective. And if yours is really, truly better served by placing the end of Act One at page 35, you should do it. As long as your story remains entertaining and full of conflict, it will work (until the aforementioned managers, agents, producers, and executives force you to put it back at page 25. But at this point, you don’t care as much, because the script has done its job and gotten you repped/sold).
You’ve seen a bazillion movies. Your love for them is the reason you’re doing this in the first place. Although there’s a ton to learn in this game and it takes a long time to learn it, sometimes you’ve just got to trust your gut.
Look, the above rules are actually rules. They need to be taken seriously, as they’re the industry standard and apply to almost every single script. You should only consider bending or breaking them after very careful consideration, as doing so will make people question your ability. That said, if they don’t allow you to tell your story in the best way possible… fuck ‘em.
Got questions? Want to argue? Any rules that annoy you? Any that you’re curious about?