Do you believe in script writing rules?

Script writing theories are a big cottage industry in itself. I have often wondered why writers accept it when someone says that the first major turning point of your story should happen in around 30 pages or that the hero should reach his obstacle in so and so page but no such rules exist for a novelist or a short story writer (at least no widely accepted rules like that in script writing). Probably reasons are the much more fixed nature of the commercial screenplay with duration clocking around 2-2.5 hours, the fact that the visual elements are much more definable and dividable (you don’t have to deal with a character thinking to himself for 5 pages) and also the strict ‘hit or miss’ nature of the results in terms of financial returns.

I have written an entire article on a film based on the structure format of Syd Field. It was not out of any devotion to him but to just mix with a creative product (whose major undoing was a lack of adherence to structural rules) a format of the extreme opposite. When I think about whatever little screenplay related books  I have read, I realise that whatever I have read was not completely useless to me. It gives you a certain orientation if you don’t take those theories a little too literally. The scriptwriting gurus do help to focus your attention on certain creative aspects of the craft.

My major issue with the ‘formulas’ has been that most of the assumptions are arbitrary. And all these assumptions are retrospective. That is, you are generalising the features of some ‘successful(?)’ screenplays to all screenplays. it is just an assumption that those features that you have identified are the real reason why the screenplay is successful.

And all these assumptions start to break down once you hold them under the magnifying lens. The 1st plot point (story tipping point) in King Kong is supposed to be the film crew reaching the island. Is it so? What if some one argues that the real plot point is where Naomi Watts character is abducted? Or isn’t it where these group of rag tag film makers sets off on a ship in the first place? I can think of a number of arguments backing the position of each of these points as the first plot point. In Bourne Supremacy, the first plot point is supposed to be the overpowering of a field officer in Naples by Bourne. But what if I say it is Marie’s death in Goa? Or may be it is Pamela Landy coming to know about operation treadstone? I can’t help thinking that probably the Naples incident is considered as the plot point because it falls around page 25-30 in the script, which goes well with the theory of 30-60-30 page format for Act 1-Act 2- Act 3 described by these same gurus. If you take Marie’s death as the first plot point, you will have a tough time explaining why the first act is so small.  The same issue with the concept of ‘inciting incident’ of another guru. What is the inciting incident when the story is populated by twists and turns from the first page itself?

Another concept often described is that your screenplay is about a protagonist with a need who struggles to overcome obstacles to achieve that need. A person overcoming his obstacles is the fairy tale generated for the repeated consumption for the masses. But even these masses has shown better sense at times than the scriptwriter who tries to adhere to such a dictum. In the world of such a ‘triumph’ writer, there is no place for losers and failures and people acting or not acting without any apparent rational purpose as characters.

Also one practice that I found very strange is the use of beat sheets. I can understand the wisdom of a screenplay subscribing to specific peaks and troughs at specific points for maximum impact in the audience mind. But if you try to tell a writer that bad guys should close in at page 55 and hero should lose everything at page 75, it is a little too much. And still one thing that I noted when I tried to fit the Blake Snyder beat sheet to already written scripts of mine is that fitting of elements of your story into these beats is also arbitrary. You can fit almost any story into a beat sheet. It’s just about how you interpret every beat in terms of events of your story. ‘Bad guys closing in’ can be anything- like your hero being embroiled in financial debt, heroine’s brother coming after the hero, thugs getting whiff about the hideout of the hero, doctor reporting the lack of response of the terminal illness to treatment etc. A wide variety of human conditions fit under headings like this and naturally there will be something like this in your story around page 55-75 satisfying this definition.

So is there something that I believe in in terms of scriptwriting? Yes, there is. I believe in structure even though I am skeptical towards specific rules and formulas guiding structure. I also believe that there are no shortcuts or easy templates to find flaws in structure. One size doesn’t fit all. It is all about experience and intuition and luck.

By structure, I mean that there should be an uniformity in terms of genre, pace, elements, theme etc between various points of your story with enough sense of direction. I believe 7 Khoon Maaf failed at the screenplay level itself because of the fatal flaw of the repetition of the same story element (7 times!) which could not be salvaged by a flashback mode of story telling. Dum Maaro Dum faltered (despite good writing and great film making) because the writer couldn’t make up his mind till the end whether this should be a single character narrative or a multiple character narrative. Avatar, despite its utter predictability and high cliché density, works on screen because James Cameron is a clever writer who can hit the right emotional and intellectual plot points with immaculate timing. Among other things, that’s a victory of intuitive understanding of structure. A Wednesday works because of the discipline of the writer who could say an emphatic ‘no’ to things that may have impacted the flow of the plot. And you see in Shaitan what would happen if that self control is not in place.

In short, I feel that structure of the story where you can really do home work and save your story from disaster. Once you start writing the script from an outline, it is very difficult to address structural issues. Because you get a little myopic and often miss the forest for the trees.

Photo by aba*boy


3 thoughts on “Do you believe in script writing rules?

  1. It’s often said that you need to know the rules to be able to break them. If you are not aware of the screenwriting rules, how are you going to go beyond them and take your script to a more creative level? James Cameron is not just a master craftsman, he is also a creative genius who knows when to follow the rules and when to break them.

  2. Hi Adite,
    Definitely knowing the rules can’t hurt one. And as I mentioned in the blog itself, a much more important role that these theories and rules play is to give the new writer a training in breaking down and analysing one’s own scripts.

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