Monday, April 20, 2009

Screenwriting's Only Rule: Find Your Voice

I often see advice to screenwriters couched in very normative language. Screenwriters are admonished by authors of how-to books, by professional script-readers, know-it-all bulletin posters anyone else with an opinion on the matter, NEVER to break certain cast-iron rules that will absolutely, definitely ensure that your material is never read.

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 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.


Zack Mosley said...

"Above all, what these screenplays have in common is a unity and consistency of style."

With pre-Departed Monahan perhaps being the exception, what these writers have in common is that they could write a grocery list and people would be falling over themselves to read it.

For writers trying to break through with specs, I think it's probably a smart idea to follow as many of these formal "rules" as possible, however annoying they may be. The less reasons you give someone to stop reading your screenplay the better. There are people out there that will see a "we see" or a camera direction and stop reading instantly. Who knows how many people might come across your screenplay, it is rare to have both money and taste. You could write the best script in the world, only to have a producer pass on it because he read you shouldn't use "we see" once in some book on the subject.

In the end, creative alternatives are not that difficult to come up with, including replacements for stuff like "we see", "he realizes", and camera directions.

On the other hand, I've always been opposed to the warnings against "literary language". It's almost as if these screenwriting gurus are implying that literary language automatically becomes purple prose. If the goal is to write visually then it makes sense to use a line that would fit right into a piece of poetry, if that's what's going to create an image for a reader. The flowery excesses of poetry aren't part and parcel with language that isn't "business-like". If anything, writing this way can sometimes help to reduce an image or an idea to its most succinct and precise expression.

The main point you are making about finding your own voice is a good one. A voice is more important than any of these rules on their own, and so is telling a good story. I think every writer should probably find their own response to these "rules", as well. What I don't think any writer should do is take a blasé attitude to these types of conventions. It's like formatting, a good story is a good story but if the writer hasn't formatted it like an actual screenplay then how serious are they? I find most of the time that if a writer can't be bothered with the small stuff, they probably don't have a lot of the big stuff down either.

Just my long winded two cents, breaking another important screenwriting rule: Use as few words as possible.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

Got a question for you...

I looked at that my old scripts(drafts). Wrote them 5 years ago - I had my voice then.

Then as I recall - I listened to these READERS/SCRIPT CONSULTANTS -- and lost my voice for a good 4 years.

Why do script consultants always try to jam their voice don't my throat...

Leave us alone.

I went back to my old scripts and used the old drafts to re-discover my voice and I enjoy my life and my writing aspirations.

I will never listen to them again.

I know my voice and I will tell the world my style of stories....

Is this common Dave?



Raving Dave Herman said...


Thanks for your comments, you make some valid points.

I absolutely agree with you that track record (or lack of such) can bias readers. However, that doesn't detract from the talent some A-list screenwriters have for brilliant writing (in my opinion).

I'm also not suggesting that it's a good idea to ignore accepted screenplay conventions such as format, precisely for the reasons you mention.

On balance, I think producers and studios are generally on the lookout for great stories and obvious storytelling abilities rather than one generic screenplay style. And to my mind this has everything to do with finding your own voice rather than trying to second-guess what people want to read.


Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi Anonymous,

I don't think either extreme is the right place to be.

On the one hand, feedback from readers can be very useful, as long as you regard it with a critical and selective eye. For that you need to adopt the attitude that it's all about the script and not about you. Whatever works best is what works best, whoever suggests it.

On the other hand, never listening to any feedback at all is not wise, because every writer has their blind spots. I don't think you ever stop learning how to write better, no matter how much you've already written.

So, sure, get writing again, and don't worry too much about conventions until you're ready to show your work to professionals. Then it might be time to get someone else's opinion, even if it's just to confirm you're on the right track.

Good luck!


Drew Turner said...

Dave, great article. Zack, excellent reply. Dave makes a grave point that in the end, it's about the writing and voice. And both Zack and Dave, bring home the point that some readers may turn away from scripts with "we see" and "he realizes" in it. I just finished writing a feature, and the first page has three "we" phrases, such as we move across the water, we descend from the sky, and we move in closer. Having read about the we don'ts, I'm busting my butt to change these. It's not easy to change it after you've grown attached to it. Nothing seems to be a good direct replacement. I think in the end, I'll have to settle for a slightly different meaning...hopefully something that improves on the original(s).