Screenwriting is a literary art form that is bound by strict principles of structure, standardization, and certain rules. Yet, they never stop us from thinking out of the box and writing a story never heard before.
Actually, the uniformity of the screenplay gives us a sure dominance over taming the most wildly imagined stories onto a set of crisp, white paper. Even if you write messily to create an extremely dire first draft, you still have something sophisticatedly structured to work with.
Though every page of a screenplay from every screenwriter looks the same – the differentiating factor resides in the written material or the story that is properly fleshed out in the form of a film.
If you ask a screenwriter who learned the profession just a couple of months ago or ask the highest-paid screenwriter how they write a screenplay, they will surely include screenwriting rules as one of the major reasons to have a manuscript stand out from the crowd.
Wait, what? How are rules going to make my screenplay outstanding?
The rules writers follow are of two types – formatting rules and plotting rules. The format of the screenplay is unchangeable and set in stone.
The format is nothing to worry about as screenwriting software makes writing ten times easier and you can freely focus only on your writing. And if you are starting from scratch in this field and know literally nothing about screenwriting and its process, you can learn it here.
But the second book of rules – the plotting and the writing, is a phantom air of herd mentality writers starting to follow a single writer’s writing style or plotting style, resulting in countless doppelgangers of a cult-status or a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking.
Hollywood is many, at times, announced as the holy grail of cinema and is considered the birthplace of the same. The profession of writing, creating, marketing, and releasing films for commercial audiences was delivered from the ever-glamorous West Coast.
The exponential rise of films and media may have introduced us to hidden gems of fine cinema, but they have also showcased some of the most overused rules followed by a substantial number of screenwriters not only from Hollywood but from all around the world.
In this article, we are going to have a look at the screenwriting rules that should be stopped to save your screenplay from becoming a sterile, churned manuscript.
The not-to-follow screenwriting rules are;
RULE #1- INFO-DUMPING
This is an actual phenomenon that writers use in their stories to get it over with. Though this rule may seem a gateway to getting your screenplay written fast without having to depict anything, it proves your principle wrong as screenplays are the root of ‘show don’t tell’.
Lots of screenplays have a lot of principles, forbidden limits, etc. that can be easily found and understood in classic screenwriting books that can help you master this demanding profession.
Info-Dumping is known as the supply of information in quite a heavy amount mainly at the beginning of the story or the film about the plot, the subplot, or characters related to it.
Imagine a whole buffet laid out in front of you – from tasteful appetizers to entrees to whole roasted, glazed chicken to the most beautifully made desserts…but there’s a catch.
Of course, you will be able to eat it, but not at your own pace, you will have a funnel attached to your mouth and will be forced to gulp it all down, making the digestion, let alone the taste, impossible.
This is what happens when there are a lot of names thrown around, interesting plotlines, and startling scenes are shown or written in the first couple of moments.
That way, not only will the audience be negatively confused, but they will also be turned off by the story that has depicted too much to even comprehend.
Many writers seek info-dumping as a way to skip to the real meat of the story, but it should not be forgotten that the beginning of the opening of the film or the screenplay is what sells it.
What sells it, even more, is how the opening is shot, written, and edited. When you have limited yourself to white pages and pressing keys on the board, you will never know what is happening on set.
Broadening your insight from screenwriting to filmmaking is what every writer should give a thought on because a screenplay alone doesn’t set your movie’s quality – and this is where filmmaking courses come in handy.
That is why the monstrous rule of info-dumping should be isolated by fellow screenwriters. The opening of the screenplay should always be well-thought and expertly written.
It needn’t be all eye-catching or vaguely interesting. It should contribute to the plot itself without being too lazy to map out the introduction instead of dumping the names and the incidents directly on the first pages.
RULE #2 – CLICHÉ STORYLINES
There are a million creative minds around the globe thinking, brainstorming their ideas in front of a sheet of paper and when they finally achieve a complete outline, they believe there is no other film that exists with this kind of plot, but lo and behold!
There are more than 50,000 films released and even though you think your idea is original, some films may have already been created on that base itself.
What is given above is just a sheer example of innocence and a diligent creation that just strikes with a film known with the same storyline. But cliches are a whole other part of the writer’s Venn diagram.
Long ago, an ambitious director created an adrenaline-filled, highly appraised film on a man who carried out serious crimes. Since then, people have not forgotten that extremely soporific template of a story.
Since then, a multitudinous variety of films, television pieces have not failed to showcase the fictional life of a certain main character.
The template is there for reference, but there have just been copies of films by different writers written to satisfy their writing compatibility – but they forget that there exists an innumerable set of cinematic films in that same catalog.
Just like that, cliches exist in every genre of cinema – be it action, horror, drama, or even comedy.
Writers must tread their way through the story they are creating so that the audience fails to compare your film to another film made with the same incidents, plotline, etc., and savor the grand originality that your screenplay brings to the table.
The rule of writing the same story over and over again with different settings and varying cast will someday be defeated by the writers, but there’s high doubt.
Because these cliched stories were also once original and untouched in their time, but new concepts like death-loop (repeating the same day over and over again) are being introduced but they, too, have started to become a known plot now.
So, just like this death-loop, we can never defeat this rule to dust, but we can absolutely avoid it to add a new level of originality to your screenplay.
RULE #3 – FILLER CONVERSATION AND CHARACTERS
Writing a screenplay seems quite a hefty task, along with industrial standardization of the manuscript’s average mandatory length being 90-120 pages, if a feature film’s screenplay is considered as the example here.
For a new screenwriter, the length of a feature screenplay may seem daunting or intimidating. Hence, writing shorts, or even advertisements or YouTube ads can be a great starting place for your career.
Creating a masterpiece is not the goal; completing the project is. But for the sake of it, you can’t just scribble in temporary characters and incidents that don’t relate to the plot just to elongate the feature script.
This is an omnipresent rule that comes with a baggage of risks like boring the audience and the reader of your manuscript with tantalizing yet meaningless threading of words that ultimately don’t tie in with the core material of your story.
Instead of seeking the easy way out, a well-written set of acts with strenuous thinking will glorify not only the length, obviously, but also the quality of your screenplay.
As soon as you overcome the use of this rule, there will be less brain-racking about rewriting and creating multiple drafts, giving you a sense of zenith in contemplating your writing style.
But avoiding this rule alone doesn’t guarantee that your screenplay will reach its peak.
The combative nature of us humans wanting the best but also in comparatively lesser time is a horrifying paradox, and we should stay out of it. That is why sober and strengthened outlining is extremely necessary and helpful to create a quality screenplay.
So, curtail those filler scenes including simply unneeded characters and dialogues which will leave space for more story-building. Screenplays are not as wordy or heavy as novels, because we ‘depict’ a story, and the novels ‘tell’ a story.
Many will contradict this rule by saying their screenplay includes hearty conversations and humane incidents. And that is absolutely fine if you are using it to build an atmosphere of the story (but refrain from writing chunks of action lines), or develop a character’s background.
If you avoid the rule and write from the heart, a 90–120-page screenplay will be a gentle breeze.
RULE #4 – DRAGGING SUBPLOTS
This is a rule completely opposite to the rule given above – being negligent about the elongated length of the screenplay, due to concocting a dragging subplot or a plot.
Most of the rules provided here that have been found as a daunting, overlooked mistake are consisting of lengths of the screenplay.
Nobody wants to read a story that will be too short to care about, and nobody wants to read a screenplay that has tens of pages of a story that is heading nowhere with no sense of direction.
There is no need to be audacious with the writing of the story because, even if you have created everything from scratch to seed to fruition, you have to be your own worst critic.
Audiences are tricky to appease, along with the script readers – we need a near-perfect length of the plot, each mini act’s page accommodation, and of course, a really riveting story that will give you a commendation on your manuscript.
Being a zealot for writing away can cause a serious dent on the story – if you write a stunning paragraph describing the surrounding of your character or write a monolog that doesn’t relate to the character at all, it will be nothing but a filler, which you read about in rule three.
The only way you can get rid of the heavyweight of the dragged story is at the end. There is no need to sweat about it as you write.
Editing is a divine tool of carving and shaping your first screenplay draft that will metamorphose your 140-page screenplay into a 96-page, slimmed, effulgent story. You will realize how much word-weight you had added to the screenplay.
And a screenplay should have more white space than words in black Courier Font. You get a new perspective – free from all the writing stress and viewing your writing material with serene equanimity.
RULE #5 – SPOON FEEDING STORY
Don’t consider me as a boor – as I am just stating some rules to avoid, but this is the one that is present in almost every mainstream film ever.
“Spoon feeding” is known as making something easily digestible, whether it be food, story, agendas, etc. And this can wreak slow-burn havoc in your screenplay.
The most relatable metaphor for spoon-feeding is “You can bring the horse on the field, but it is the horse’s job to bend its neck down, grip the grass with its teeth and chew it up.”
In the same way, you can present them with the most enticing, mysterious, subliminal story that can get the audience scratching heads and look for theories and rack their brain for a while to find out what is the purpose, the core story, the takeaway, the universal meaning of the film.
But, if you spoon-feed the audience with naked hints, flashbacks to a scene to let the audience know what they are getting into even though they watched the particular scene before, but you remind them, and that is where it becomes embarrassingly easy for the screenplay to just be a children’s storybook.
The story shouldn’t be a block of just secrets either – you can make it complex as much as you want, but the screenplay requires its four pillars to keep the story upheld and within the reach of the audience or the reader – the story’s theme, universal meaning, core value, and message.
We will take ‘Parasite’ by Bong-Joon Ho as an example for explaining the four pillars. The screenplay and the story were brilliantly executed with interesting metaphors and theories, but the four pillars are as clear as the sky.
The theme of the story – class division, familial bonds
Universal meaning – The Duality of Capitalism
Core value – Never desire something that already belongs to someone
Message – Greed only leads to chaos and annihilation.
RULE #6 – GIVING MANDATORY HAPPY ENDINGS
Here, ‘mandatory’ is the italicized impression for this rule. It has been a tradition for years to give huge, commercialized films that are on a large-scale production a happy ending.
Since the birth of medieval folklore, plays, and epics, written by the most scholarly around the world, with nothing in common except one single factor – a happy ending, a satisfying closure to appease the hearts of the audience.
Of course, not all stories, especially dark lore, have the characters dancing in the rising sun at the end. Tragic endings, cliffhangers, open endings have scattered around as the audience is craving something more than just decadent, sweet-toothy endings.
There are stories that stick to one genre and then there are some that lie on a spectrum of drama, comedy, thriller, and all sorts of themes. But, the genre-mixing should never be a messily done craft.
Like a stealthy, skilled feline, it should leap or transition into the genre smoothly. And genres come with respective endings – if your screenplay is a thriller, a conventional ending would be the protagonist finally escaping the antagonist or the villain.
If it is a comedy, it can be a concoction of laughter with drama, with some emotional climax in the end. This way, everybody wins – including repeated conventionality.
To break out of the loop of happy endings, search for the reality around you. Cinderella, after getting married, doesn’t live happily ever after (sorry to burst your bubble), because life is not only sunshine and rainbows.
And a lot of stories fail to convey that realism in their screenplay endings. The climax of the story finally decides the ending and sets the feelings of your characters before it all fades to black and the credits begin to roll.
A meticulously planned third act of your story outline can make or break your screenplay. If you have decided on a happy ending, then it doesn’t concern you because as said, some genres suit their respective endings, but if you want to surprise the audience, swim against the tide.
RULE #7 – CRAMMING TOO MANY IDEAS IN ONE SCREENPLAY
Believe it or not, this rule is a problem to all budding screenwriters everywhere.
Walking back and forth in your room, trying to come up with an idea, a spark to set ablaze your machine of creation.
Going on a trip, walking in nature, hanging out with other writing peers, experiencing an incident – after a series of innumerable activities to get going to write, you finally come up with something! Not something, but some things; some really innovative ideas fizzling in your frontal cortex.
You rush to your writing desk and type or scribble those ideas on a fresh document. There is a considerably long list of ideas currently simmering into stories in your mind. Why not use them all?
With a story planner, you write out the whole detailed storyline and finally sit with a satiable smile on your face. But, extremely sorry to tell you the hard truth, but it is the idyllic silence before the storm.
Your screenplay will end up being a spoiled manuscript if you refrain from cutting back on your use of too many ideas and incorporate them in a 90-page screenplay.
Just like the idiom “too many cooks spoil the broth”, your story will just remain as a simple text stringed by the expansion of your ideas into scenes and characters with dialogues.
Not only will the story be confusing and unreliable due to too many things happening at once, but your manuscript reader will also lose his engrossment.
So, before you start planning your screenplay around your set of ideas, take a step back and choose the most suitable creation of yours to flesh out as a screenplay.
And then, choose a comparatively lesser complex idea that you can use for your subplot that can be woven in with your main plot.
RULE #8 – NOT TAKING ENOUGH RISKS
The last forbidden rule that overrules every writing rule – writing with risky structures and storylines. It is a completely 50-50 chance regarding this rule, so you can ignore it or use it.
The risk-taking regarding the screenplay is on nobody but you, the writer. Taking risks has proven to be the sweetest fruit sometimes.
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, which takes a big risk of breaking away from the normalized three-act structure and goes into a less beaten path of non-linear storytelling. There are a lot of story structures that are available to be used because those are foolproof types of interesting writing styles.
And to the darker side, experimenting with the story can lead the audience to become dumbfounded and uninterested in your film. This is a blind game, but not completely. When you finish writing your outline or synopsis, gather your friends, and get their feedback on it.
The close ones do not hold back on giving criticism, always wanting the best for you. But if you want professional feedback and full coverage for your screenplay, check out the best script coverage services available.
If you believe in your structure, your outline and yourself, then go for it. Again, risks are a blind game. Write cautiously.
Hollywood and other cinema production places put out a large number of films in a year. But only a couple stand out in this monotonous rollout of films. Some may stand out due to a famous actor starring in it, and some will stand out for independent, completely different stories.
Finally, these eight rules will decide the fate of your screenplay. Not based on how well is your story written, but on how original and indigenous it is. So, keep these rules in mind and don’t forget that you should avoid them, not use them. If you want to stand out from the dull genericism of screenplays, then you have to let go of every rule, every quote from every famous screenwriter and start writing for yourself.