Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Screenwriting Is Neither Science Nor Religion

At the moment I’m reading Your Screenplay Sucks, by William M. Akers. I highly recommend it. It’s a very entertaining and educational compilation of the most common screenwriting conventions, presented as advice on how to get your screenplay read by the people that matter. However, apart from being a useful checklist with which to critically assess your writing, it’s also a reminder to me of the dangers of taking screenwriting conventions too literally.

The film industry in Hollywood is constantly inundated by spec scripts, most of which are not good enough to become produced movies. As a result, there is an extensive system of “filters,” such as agents and script readers, who sift through the mountain of screenplays in search of viable material. These people, by necessity, employ rules of thumb to make their work easier. So, for example, if you don’t format your script according to the accepted conventions, it most likely won’t be read. That’s one very good reason to adhere to formatting conventions.

But what about conventions that govern the content of your story? Here’s where it gets a whole lot trickier in my opinion … Screenwriting isn’t a science. There’s no way to replicate empirical findings. What makes one script tick may not work in another. And screenwriting isn’t a religion either. There are no divine laws that you must accept with blind faith.

So I’m a little uncomfortable with Akers’ numerous must-mantras such as “you must have an active protagonist, or “your protagonist must change by the end of the story,” and “your antagonist must be stronger than your protagonist,” and so on. These are all basic Hollywood story conventions as presented by popular teachers such as Robert McKee, John Truby, Syd Field and which are always disingenuously qualified as not being rules at all but merely guidelines distilled from successful movies.

In fact, these are rules, and they sound very Thou Shalt Not-ish to me.

I get the notion that these rules are formulated to help you avoid giving anyone a reason to stop reading your screenplay. The trouble is, follow these rules too closely and you end up with generic, boilerplate writing. Plus, presenting these rules as if they’ve been unequivocally proven by numerous experiments and studies, can lead to some pretty strange mental gymnastics.

For example, Akers criticizes blockbuster box-office successes such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien for not following the rules. On page 40 he literally writes, about an inconsistency he perceives in the actions of an evil pirate,

"It should have been infuriating, at least, to somebody."

To me this just confirms how impossible it is to dictate in detail how (not) to write a screenplay. I mean, it’s not really a convincing argument to claim that a hugely successful blockbuster movie was not actually as good as everyone thought, because the bad guy wasn’t written according to the rules.

In fact it’s evidence of precisely the contrary: Even if you don’t follow all the rules, your script can still be a killer.

To my mind, screenwriting is like any art or craft or skill: You first need to learn the techniques before you can subvert them and find your own voice. The same way an artist needs to study the effects of light and learn basic drawing techniques before he can experiment with new forms. Or like a musician needs to master her instrument by endlessly practicing scales and arpeggios in order to be free to improvise.

In other words, books like Your Screenplay Sucks are hugely useful for learning basic screenwriting techniques and conventions. But the real art of writing only kicks in once you stop thinking in terms of articles of faith or proven laws. The magic really starts when you open your mind and let your characters lead you wherever they choose.


Kim H Peres said...

I would venture to say the "rules" are attempts at explaining the essence of screenwriting and you are right: if followed slavishly they tend to dilute the work.

The principle behind the rule is something I always strive to understand.

Like the "your protagonist must be likable" rule. The principle is your protagonist must be *compelling*... which can elicit hate or love. But Hollywood prefers love so that's likely why that rule spreads.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Well put.

I think the principle behind the rules is something like "finding your story" or "finding your voice" and articulating it in a format which the movie business can relate to.

I like the phrase Karl Iglesias uses: Your screenplay has to be "uniquely familiar."

In other words, the only thing you need the "rules" for is to present your unique and hopefully original screen story in a way that doesn't frighten potential producers and actors off.