// February 4th, 2013 // On Writing
How to write a movie script – break all rules!
by Glenn Magas
So screw the rules… um… shhh! That’s a secret to writing. Rules bind you bound you prevent you… jail break time! Break em and let yourself go! But here’s the most important part – know them and respect them. That, my fellow screenwriter, is how to write a movie script. Well… part of it.
Okay… there are many so-called ‘rules’ on how to write a movie script that a writer needs to know. And the following listed here are 3 rules that every screenwriter must know. Most would say they aren’t so much ‘rules’ per se, but guidelines. The problem is, neophyte writers take these guidelines and believe THIS is the formula to success. Nope. Your voice, your willingness to face your fears, and your ability to craft a story despite ‘the rules’ is the true formula for success!
These rules are to be learned, understood and preached to every screenwriter out there who is trying to make it into the ‘biz’. Here’s the drama – once you know and understand them, go ahead and break them all you want; just make sure you break them so that they seem like they aren’t even broken. The goal is to tell a compelling story that engages the audience from start to finish even if you throw all the rules out the friggen window!
Okay, what the heck am I saying. Here’s what I’m saying. If your script breaks the rules and rocks, guess what, they probably fall into some sort of ‘rule’ category that you learned that you thought you broke.
Contradictory isn’t it?
The point of all this is to simply go out and write without any bounds. By doing so, you’re not thinking about the rules, but in the end, you’ll be within them without being held by them.
Whew… does that make any sense at all? YES IT DOES!
And then, I come up with…
…here they are… Roll em’…
The 3 most important rules on how to write a movie script!
1. Do not use camera directions in your script.
2. Keep your script to no more than 120 pages.
3. Write what you know.
The words “Do not use camera directions in your script” is written on a placard
She shakes her head.
The word “PASS” is written in read ink by the READER. Then a hand stamp slams onto the title page with big red words-
CU TITLE PAGE
The words: “Rule #1. Do not use camera directions in your script.”
BACK TO ARTICLE
Of course you are just the writer. The glory goes to the director and actors. They are the ones dealing with the emotions that you cleverly crafted on the page and taking your inspiration to come up with their own visualization.
So RULE #1 – do not add any camera directions into your script – ever.
Unless you absolutely need to!
A well-placed camera direction can nudge, push, or even influence the whole vision of a script or scene for the reader or director. It can set the tone, the theme, the drama, and the effect of everything you want to say: all with a simple camera direction. But wait – it can also be absolutely distracting! So use it sparingly. This should be RULE 1-a.
Of course, again, you are the writer, not the director. This is a rule you need to follow, but if you are going to break this rule, break it as good as you’re going to break it! Then, read your script again, analyze it, rewrite it and eventually – take out the camera directions!
Did I mention contradiction is a good thing?
You read me right – put it in, then take it out! Yes, you just broke the rule, and broke it brilliantly! And upon your 5th rewrite of your spec, you found a better way to tell your scene/story without them. Heck, maybe you just leave it in. It was a great, needed camera direction that accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish. Just ask yourself if it absolutely needs to be in your script during rewrites and see what else you can come up with.
Rule #2. 120 pages? Are you kidding? What about “Titanic?”
What about some epic feature? What about a romantic comedy where you need 130 pages to tell the story?
Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) used to turn in 120+ pages. When asked for a rewrite and to edit it down he’d write an additional 30 more pages; then it turned out to be 160; then 200! If a story is good enough, you can write forever. The problem is: it will never be read by a ‘reader’ and if it does not get read, it is not going to get to a producer.
I just heard a rewrite of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” came to him 500 pages long!
90-120 pages is your hard-fast rule. 120 is a maximum length for a two hour film; as 1 page equates to 1 minute of screen time. How many times have you sat in your seat and thought the movie was getting just too long? A great script will keep both a reader and eventually the audience engaged. So 120+ pages might work for your epic. But 99.99% of the time, it will not work for any other genre. If you cannot eventually tell your 130 page romantic comedy in 105 pages, you need to spend more time cutting and sprucing the script.
I don’t know anyone who wants to sit through a 130 page (or minute) romantic comedy even if it was staring Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts.
Yes, break the 120 page rule! That’s what this article is all about! Breaking things!
But ask yourself if you can tell the story in less than 120. If the answer is yes – and it better be, then get back on Final Draft 8 Screenwriting Software or Movie Magic Screenwriter Download Edition and rewrite, cut, and rewrite some more, damnit!
(yes I’m plugging two programs and if you buy them from my site you support me! Thanks in advance!)
If you are going to break this rule break it. But those extra pages past 120 better be the best pages you have ever written in your entire life!
Rule #3. Write what you know even if you don’t know.
This is the best starting point for your screenplay. But then how can you write about a dog from outer space if you have never met a dog from outer space? How can you write about the Civil War if you did not experience it yourself? Sure, tons of research will help and eventually you’ll write what you know, but if that’s the case, where does the actual creativity for your fiction based screenplay come?
You can assume how a dog from outer space would bark, or even how a prince turned into a beast would feel, or even how a tin man would act and react without a heart. You can make it up, but you probably don’t really know do you? So, yes, write what you know. Then write what you don’t know and make it seem like you know what the hell you are talking about!
I love it (and hate it) when people say, wow, Tarantino’s dialogue is so real. What? Real?
It’s not real! Come on now!
Tarantino’s dialogue rocks, but its far from ‘real’. Real is boring. Real is long, tedious, with a ton of ‘ums’, too much ‘ands’, and way to many, ‘basicallys’. Are those words I just used? What’s the plural of basically?
Seriously now! Movie dialogue is clean, acted, and well thought out. Real dialogue is off the cuff, unscripted… REAL – and most of the time – boring!
Writing what you know is not really what you know. It’s a glorified, edited, and a fantastic version of what you know. And most of the time, you really don’t know! You’re a writer – you’re good at it – and you just created something real that isn’t real! What a concept! Movies would be boring if everything was real.
So there you go: 3 of the most important rules you must know and how to break them once you know them. That’s how to break rules and make your good script great! But you will find that your great script will adhere to most of the rules above if you want it to be great. The one point to remember: If you are going to break any rule, it better be rock.
Now that’s how to write a movie script!
“Make the first 10 pages of your script rock!“
About the author: Glenn Magas earned his screenwriting certificate at UCLA and has written and produced several short films.