The Rules

I’m slowly coming to the realisation that very few of the producers or directors I deal with have any idea about ‘the rules’ of screenwriting.

Very few, bordering on none.

Passive tense, camera angles, we sees, wrylies – they just don’t care; and don’t even know they’re supposed to care. Not that this is a bad thing, it means they judge a script purely on the story it tells rather than the way it’s laid out.

So if they don’t care who does?

It seems to me the only people who know anything about these sort of things are writers who either make the effort to find out or attend courses; which, judging from some of the poorly formatted scripts I’ve been reading recently, is a very small percentage.

Or perhaps, they do attend, but don’t pay any attention?

I find myself bending over backwards trying to describe a scene without resorting to a camera reference which is shorter, punchier and much more descriptive, only to have a director or a producer suggest I add a tracking shot here or a pan there.

And I think to myself, what is the point? If the only people who care about this are other writers who have zero influence or power, why bother trying to stick to these ‘rules’? Whose fucking rules are they anyway? The people who care don’t make the decisions and the people who make the decisions don’t care.

Or at least, they don’t at the level I’m working at.

Here in the shallow end of the pool, none of the people I work with use readers – they can’t afford/don’t need them. The people I work with tend to read scripts themselves. They don’t care about format, they just want it vaguely readable, yet I am very strict with myself about sticking to ‘the rules’.

Well, okay, not very strict, but fairly strict. I tend to look the other way every now and then.


Well, as I get better, my scripts get shown to more and more people. Casting agents are getting hold of my scripts and sending them out to actors, so who fucking knows where they’ll end up? I know it’s not important at the level I’m working at, but higher up the tree – no idea. Maybe companies with more money are more strict about these things? I really don’t know, but I’m not prepared to take the risk.

With dozens of copies floating around cyberspace, I don’t want one landing on the desk of someone who might dismiss my work for being incorrectly formatted. A well formatted script takes little more effort than a poorly formatted one, so why not just do it anyway?

Personally, I think it’s great that the guys and gals I deal with don’t care, but sooner or later I may hit someone who does and I want to be prepared. On the other hand, when I see writers on forums arguing over minor format issues, it just makes me giggle – it’s not worth getting bent out of shape over, just make it vaguely legible and move on.

Categories: Industry Musings | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “The Rules

  1. As most of us will have have to go past a reader at some point, be it for an agency, competition or prodco, is it worth risking it? I don’t think so.

  2. I agree with you; but at the same time, it’s not worth getting wound up about. I just received a pile of example scripts from this BBC show I’m submitting to – not two of them are formatted the same – different fonts, different layouts, some bits are bold, some italic – they just don’t care.

    I spent ages (okay, not ages – a bit) setting up Final Draft to match the format of the initial scripts I saw – and it was all a waste of time.

    Again, that’s not to say I won’t stick to the format I think is right, but it’s worth mentioning that everyone does things slightly differently.

  3. i keep telling newbies: if it *looks* like a script (Courier 12pt, 2.54cm margins, etc) and follows the basic formatting rules consistently, then worry about the freaking *story*, man.

    there are people here (in New Zealand) who airfreight in Letter-size paper and brass brads just so their scripts look Amerikan. it confounds me that people expend their time and energy on such things. (then my evil competitive side points out that whatever energy they’re using on such fripperies *they’re not using on their WRITING*.)

  4. I think importing paper’s a bit excessive, unless you’re submitting to the States – then maybe it’s just a nicety.

    I do think sticking to acceptable format is a good thing, I just think it’s funny I keep working with people who don’t know or care.

  5. English Dave

    ”Passive tense, camera angles, we sees, wrylies – they just don’t care;”

    Phill I would seriously suggest that you care less also. Most of these so called ‘rules’ are completely ignored by most pro writers. Pick up any pro script to see that. They are the fodder spewed forth by teachers and gurus who mostly haven’t written anything worth a damn . The name of the game is getting the story across in the best possible way.

    As an experiment I just picked up the Script for Basic Instinct 2. Not a great sctipt I admit, but that’s more to do with story.

    I randomly opened on page 84. Here is an action line

    ”Andrew wakes. His legs entangled with hers. A momentary panic where he is. Then he remembers”

    Guru logic and rules would say ”you can’t write that. You can only write what you see. How can you shoot someone remembering? ”

    It’s called acting.

    Wrylies – pro scripts can be loaded with them. Yet another ”rule urban myth” Camera angles – if it helps get the story across then go for it. Moderation is the key.

    It’s all about ‘selling’ the story. I’d be really worried if a producer did pick up on the use of wrylies or camera angles or a host of so called rules. I’d reckon they didn’t know what they were talking about and were ”technoratti’ guru schooled fakers rather than true creative execs.

  6. I will always avoid passive tense because it makes for a fucking dull read. Camera angles just aren’t my job and annoy the piss out of me – I don’t see that they’re necessary, unless the director specifies one. We see – fucking redundant. Wrylies, I use a few – everyone I work with tells me to put more in.

    All in all, I’ll stick as close to ‘the rules’ as I can without being anal about it – purely because you never know and it doesn’t hurt. I’m aware that most pro writers don’t, but I wonder if they got to where they are before readers and graduates got obsessed by these rules. Would they get to the same level today or would some over-zealous reader block them?

    Don’t know, probably isn’t worth taking the risk. It’s the old ‘write in black ink only’ instruction – most reasonable people wouldn’t dismiss an application form for using blue ink, but the odd moron would and since it’s just as easy to use black as to use blue, why not cover your arse?

    As for the ‘he remembers’ instruction – I see nothing wrong with that and I would use it. Anyone who would describe that as an unfilmable is a twat. If it said ‘he remebers the little blue dog he had when he was six and smiles wistfully about the time he and the girl next door used to …’ then I’d agree, that’sa lot for one actor to convey.

    One final word: I’m not a genius scriptwriter – I’m fairly mediocre (don’t tell anyone) but producing presentable work helps fool people who don’t know what they’re looking for.

  7. English Dave


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