Last summer another list of writing rules popped up, this one in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.
The comfort of rules can be very important to a writer’s motivation because telling them the truth (there are no rules and nobody knows anything) is for most people not useful and a little intimidating.
Here’s my list. It’s designed for screenwriters writing screenplays, but all kinds of dramatic fiction and nonfiction can be invigorated by the same rules. Or not. Equally.
1. Writers write. And rewrite.
Everybody’s got a great idea for a screenplay. “All I need is someone to write it down for me,” says my neighbor, my barber, my UPS guy. Nope. Coming up with great ideas is part of the job, and I certainly spend a portion of my “writing” time on the sofa and in the shower; but most ideas tend to look fully formed and perfect until you actually try to write them down.
If you are a writer, you are actually writing things down. And then we rewrite. Getting to the end of a 120-page feature film is huge, and I often print it out and spend the rest of the day just picking it up and feeling its heft. I did that! Yes I did! But getting to the end is not the same as finishing. Most writing takes place after the initial basecoat is laid down.
2. Show it, don’t tell it.
Anybody can create a character who opens his mouth and tells us everything that’s on his mind, and some people can even make those words funny or poetic or heartbreaking. But movies are first and foremost a visual medium, and the strongest screenplays take advantage of that. What can a character do to show us how they feel or what they are thinking about? What scenes can you create and in what order can you arrange them in order to show us a routine or an intention or a memory? Dialogue is most amazing and powerful in a movie when it is not forced to carry the burden of exposition. Concentrate on showing and the telling will take care of itself.
3. Write what you know.
This rule is very true and very stupid. I’m guessing that you have never been to the moon, but does that mean you should avoid writing about it? Maybe from the depth of your ignorance you find something within yourself, something you do know, e.g. your understanding of isolation and loneliness; your understanding of fear, or stubborn will, or patriotism, or trust in technology. You won’t know what truths about yourself or what commonalities with others you may discover until you have gone somewhere completely foreign to you.
It is easier and sometimes more fun to write from familiarity. You know details about the people and the lifestyle that no outsider would know. This is great. But to write fantasies, or science fiction, for example, is to create worlds that nobody can know. Yet we often find our greatest truths in these kinds of explorations. Write what you know? How can you not?
4. Economize. Less is more. Small is large.
The best screenplays are not loaded down with redundancies, but instead are elegant structures characterized by efficiency and economy. Why give a speech when a nod will do? Every aspect of a screenplay is available for simplification, from the twists and turns in plot to the number of characters and scenes to the lines of dialogue. Good screenplays gain power from their simple efficiency. Clever multiple agendas, plotlines, and parallel meanings, for example, may be intellectually satisfying but can often clog the emotional impact of a story. Our ambitions tend toward the large, but know that dramatic success tends to rest with the small. Sometimes the tapping of a finger or the raising of an eyebrow can be more devastating than an explosion.
5. Know your structure.
Most screenwriting courses rest heavily on the teaching of structure. It is vitally important for a screenplay to have a clear, understandable, well-realized structure in order to stand, just as with a building or a bridge. The exact nature of that structure for a screenplay is debatable, and I do think that the growing tendency to teach to structure has led to greater homogenization of screenplays. Still, if you don’t know who your protagonist is or what they want or why they can’t get it or why we care, then you will never be able to fix what’s not working in your script.
6. Raise the stakes.
Whether a story we are watching is vital to us may depend on how vital it is to the characters. If the consequences to Johnny of losing his football are nil (“Don’t worry, Johnny; just take another football out of the game closet”), then watching a story about Johnny losing his football will be of little interest to us.
You don’t have to put a gun to person’s head in order to make the stakes life and death. It can be a spiritual death. Getting a pimple on the morning of the prom can be life and death for a teenager. Whatever your stakes are, try raising them and see what happens.
7. Action happens on the screen.
As the screenwriter, you are the storyteller. Not the characters in your story. You. If you hear your characters begin to tell a story (“You won’t believe what happened in school today…” or “I just had the most amazing day…” or “I was just robbed!”), consider for a moment that the story they are telling might be more interesting to watch than watching somebody telling us that story. You are a dramatist, so dramatize.
8. Make it believable.
We have two processes in pursuing dramatic fiction. One is to tell the truth. The other is to lie. On the one hand the entire enterprise is a lie, a fiction, something that doesn’t exist but is made to represent something that does. On the other hand it is all a pursuit of truth, of what is real and resonant and relatable. Otherwise we don’t understand what it has to do with us, and as a result we don’t engage.
So it doesn’t have to be true, but it does have to feel true. It has to be believable. Like a good lie. Even if you know a true story, something truly extraordinary and fantastic, and use that for the basis of your screenplay you could still lose your audience if the story isn’t believable. The fact that it really happened is irrelevant. Managing the viewer’s ability to believe is part of the screenwriter’s job.
9. Eat your ego
Sometimes, particularly in the creation of the first draft, the writer can follow his/her talent, integrity, and style in creating a very personal work.
But somewhere you will come up against it. Somewhere your uniqueness will be challenged and you will be faced with a choice—stick to your guns or eat your ego.
If you always stick to your guns, you will encounter a world of pain. For one thing, your characters may naturally want to go somewhere you didn’t intend. They may be proving a point (e.g. that people are good) even when the whole point of your story was supposed to show your worldview (that people are despicable). Can you adjust your worldview to the one presented by your characters? Do you believe your children when they tell you that you are wrong?
And remember that film is a collaborative medium. You will encounter many people with many agendas, and your job may be to incorporate ideas that are not your own, to make tonal shifts that do not feel like “you,” or to make story choices that insult your intelligence. Can you do that? Always giving up your ego is called being a hack. Never giving up your ego is called being unemployed.
Figuring out when to stick to your guns is part of being a writer. But don’t forget, sometimes eating your ego is the only way to see the greatness in other people.
10. Character will save your life
When encountering a story issue that is keeping you from moving forward, the tendency is to look to plot for your solutions. How can he have a crowbar with him when he gets to the warehouse? How could she know about the baby at this point in the story? How did the car get from the impound lot to the airport? This kind of logistical thinking can drive you crazy and will often lead to some very convoluted plotting in order to get the result you want.
Or you could tinker with your character. What skills do they have? What happened in their background that might make them prepared for the challenge you’ve given them? What are they willing to do? Character in our leaders, our family members, and ourselves is where we find answers and inspiration. Remember this resource in your screenwriting as well.