Um … maybe. Maybe not. Let’s take a look at some of these so-called sacred interdictions and their rationalizations.
- Never use “We see …” It’s old-fashioned, today’s film execs don’t like it and it shows you’re not up to speed about current screenwriting conventions.
- Never use the phrase “he realizes.” You can’t see what someone is thinking, it has to be a description of something they do, which demonstrates what they’ve realized.
- Never use camera angles, it takes the reader out of the story and displays arrogance, as if you’re trying to do the director’s work.
- If anything can be shown rather than said, always go with the non-verbal alternative. Dialogue is for theatre plays, whereas film is all about telling a story by juxtaposing images.
- Never describe what someone is thinking, or anything else you can’t see or hear. Similar to the previous rule, but with the patronizing qualification: Save that for your novel.
- Never use flowery, literary language. Be concise, businesslike and to-the-point. Any other style will be perceived as you showing off your literacy, rather than your storytelling skills.
There are others, I’m sure you’ve heard and read them too. But what strikes me every time I study any great screenplay (i.e., a screenplay that became the foundation for a beautiful movie), is that really good screenwriters don’t care about these rules.
It’s a bit like saying that Arthur Rubenstein wasn’t really a good pianist because he played with flat fingers, which is not how you’re “supposed” to do it.
I recently finished writing an article for TwelvePoint.com on Knocked Up by Judd Apatow. Now there’s a script that could easily be a stage play. It’s almost all dialogue! But it’s a fabulous film script, too. Witty, moving, and visual (yes). Do you think any producer in his right mind would have rejected the script on the basis of some abstract rule concerning how much dialogue is allowed in a film script?
Or what about The Departed, by William Monahan? Now there’s a nail-biting screenplay, full of double-crossing twists and reveals, action-packed and thrilling to the last page. That script contains plenty of no-nos, such as “we see,” “he realizes,” as well as specific descriptions of what someone is thinking. Somehow I think Martin Scorsese was OK with that.
How about No Country For Old Men, by the Coen brothers? A wild and gripping read, whisking the reader along from one unlikely encounter to the next. But it almost reads like a director’s shot list in places, it’s so full of explicit camera instructions.
I could go on. But the point I’m making is that sticking to a set of arbitrary style guidelines is not going to make a screenplay more likely to be picked up and produced. The thing that jumps off the page in the scripts I mentioned above is precisely the vividness and originality of the writing. Above all, what these screenplays have in common is a unity and consistency of style.
They each have a distinct voice.
The inner cogitations of The Departed would seem out of place in Knocked Up. The deeply ironic and self-ridiculing dialogue in Knocked Up wouldn’t fit in No Country For Old Men. The camera-centred style of No Country For Old Men would feel clumsy in The Departed. And so on.
In other words, the only thing that really counts, is making the script a really entertaining and intriguing read by finding your own voice.