THE RULES OF THE SCREENWRITING GAME: Truth or clichés in a couple of screenwriting tropes


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scream laptopThere are two sayings about rules that I hear quite often when it comes to screenwriting and I think it’s time to take a closer look at both of them and consider whether they are actually correct, or whether they are more something that we say because, well, people who write books say them, and all these gurus say them, and all my teachers said them, and all my friends say them, and hasn’t everybody been saying them since people have been saying things?
I mean, sometimes I think that if screenwriters were told that to write a good screenplay you have to jump off a bridge, they’d do it.
The two sayings are: “Rules are made to be broken” and “you have to know the rules to break them”.
The first one, rules are made to be broken, is actually one I have no strong issue with. In fact, I often say, as soon as someone creates a rule, break it. Let’s face it, if you don’t, someone else will.
At the same time, I do think in many ways that’s the wrong way to approach it. I think there is a better way to look at that attitude, something more beneficial to you as a writer.
As for the second one, “you have to know the rules to break them”, this is one that I’ve never really understood or bought.

For one thing, it starts with an axiom: that there are a certain set of rules that are absolute, have always existed, and everyone agrees on what they are.

My response: I don’t know who died and made someone the rule king, but I challenge everything about that. Yes, there have always been rules, they’re part of our evolutionary nature to create them. They are beneficial (though they can also be destructive) and generally serve a practical and necessary purpose.

But that doesn’t mean that these rules are absolute or that they have always existed and that everyone agrees on what they are.

In fact, it sometimes seems that every time someone tries to codify something, someone comes along and ignores it (doesn’t even break the rule, just ignores it, as if they never knew it existed) and creates something new and vibrant, even to such an extent that it can cause a whole new set of rules to be created.

Not only that, often as soon as someone tries to codify something claiming it has always been thus, some annoying asshole comes along and points out numerous examples from the past where these rules had no bearing on what was being written and made.

So if someone says that you have to know the rules to break them, I say, which rules, whose rules, from what time period and cultural background?

I do not except the premise that there are these things we call rules that have to be recognized and kowtowed to before we decide to ignore them.

So I am going to suggest a different way of looking at rules when it comes to screenwriting.

I suggest that a screenplay shouldn’t be a work of art (or whatever you want to call it) that is built according to a preexisting set of rules.

A screenplay should be a work of art that discovers its own sets of rules, that creates them as the screenplay is created, that is made up of a set of rules that work for the vision and goal of the author for this particular screenplay.

And because of that, they would vary from screenplay to screenplay.

In other words, the rules shouldn’t determine the screenplay, the screenplay should determine the rules.

This doesn’t mean you wouldn’t use some rules that already exist. You might find even find them useful. But what I mean is that you shouldn’t codify your rules before writing, but let the rules be codified by the screenplay.

In order to make this a bit clearer, I am going to ramble on about another area of life in which rules play a large part.

And that is the world of games.

Games have rules. But each game has its own set of rules. And when someone creates a game, they often will create them without using a preset set of rules, but will discover the rules as they create the game.

I mean, there are all sorts of games. There are card games (poker); word games (anagrams); parlor games (charades); board games (Monopoly); role playing games (murder mystery games); video games (Pac-Man); and many, many more.

There are games that only need one person to play (solitaire, Pac Man); that can only be played by two people (War); by four people (Bridge); by a variety of a number of people (Careers, Clue); by as many people as you have (scavenger hunt).

There are games that take a few seconds to play (Rock, Papers, Scissors); half an hour (checkers); an hour (chess); a few hours (chess); days (chess); a lifetime (chess); or an indeterminate amount of time (video and pin ball games).

There are games that are based around eliminating all the other players (The Weakest Link); by having more points or money than other players (Monopoly); by getting to the end of the game first (Life, Snakes and Ladders); that require you getting all the other players on your side (Red Rover).

There are games in which only one person wins (Jeopardy); in which more than one person can win at the same time (Spades); in which no one wins (The Ungame); in which no one can win because the system is ultimately set against you (Space Invaders).

So there really isn’t a way you can really set up a standard set of rules that covers every single kind of game.

And I think it’s the same for screenplays. There are all sorts of screenplays that have different goals and these goals require different rules. You don’t always know what these rules are until you create the screenplay.

I think this is a better way to approach writing a screenplay, rather than starting with a pre-determined set of rules.

Let’s look at a few types of games that might give some idea of what I am trying to say.

For example, let’s start with Parcheesi, a game that has been around for I don’t know how long. The basic game requires someone to start at a home base, travel around the board and get all their pieces to a middle section first.

The game itself is one of the iconic games, one from which many other games grew from.

And it is a very useful basic model when it comes to games. I remember when I was a child and was a big fan of cartoons, there was a game called Caspar the Friendly Ghost. My parents bought it and I soon realized that this was basically Parcheesi, under a different name. It had all the same rules.

Because of this, it wasn’t a particularly interesting game. It didn’t have much that was new or original about it.

But along the way, some people came up with enough of a variation to make a variation on the original that was individualized enough to become something successful on its own terms. First, there was Sorry! and then there was Trivial Pursuit, both of which are basically variations on Parcheesi.

And many screenplays are written this way. They take some basic rules of screenplay writing and just change some of the ingredients, getting Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Others take the same rules and come up with Sorry! and Trivial Pursuit.

But then others just don’t pay any attention to Parcheesi and just make up their own game completely.

I mean, just think if that was the way all games were made, that In coming up with a new game, you were told you had to follow the rules of Parcheesi, because, well, Parcheesi is just the way games have to be made.

You know, write the same, but different.

Thankfully, that’s not the way all artists and writers work. Some have ideas and visions of their own games with their own rules.

As another example, let’s look at some card games that have some similarities: Hearts, Spades, Bid Whist and Bridge. All are variations of the same basic game. But they have nothing to do with Parcheesi.

And you have games in which your goal is to conquer your opponent by removing all of their pieces, like checkers, chess and Stratego.

Again, they are their own thing, rather than variations on Parcheesi and the aforementioned card games.

And in the same way that you wouldn’t play Monopoly using the rules of Bridge, you wouldn’t want Tarantino to write a screenplay according to the rules of Fellini, or Allen according to the rules of Godard, or Tarkovsky according to the rules of a Marx Brothers movie.

In the end, my point is that in writing a screenplay, don’t get a rule book and then create your own game. Rather, create your own game that will eventually be included in that rule book.

At the same time, don’t throw the rule book away. In writing a screenplay you can tell when the rules are working and when they aren’t. And that’s when other games can come in useful. Because a rule from another game, or from more than one game, might just be the thing that will make your game work.

So I say write your screenplay based on your vision, your unique insight into life, your own personal style. And as you create, discover the rules that govern your own personal creation.

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