The word “rules” stirs up a lot of debate in the University of Screenwriting. Some believe there should be no rules when you write. Others believe rules are the lifeblood of a screenplay. I fall somewhere in between. You definitely need to know the rules. Whether you choose to use them, however, is up to you. The thing is, most great scripts break at least a couple of rules. Why? Because if you follow ALL the rules then your story will be predictable, average, and boring. You need to take those chances in order to stand out. The problem is when these deviations get celebrated and writers erroneously believe that that’s proof rules aren’t important (“Quentin Tarantino writes 10 page dialogue scenes, so why can’t I!”). Rules are extremely important. David Mamet uses them. Aaron Sorkin uses them. Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) lives by them. The key is knowing what rules you’re breaking so you can adapt your screenplay to absorb the breakage. Here are 7 memorable movies, the major screenwriting rules they break, and why they still worked.
The Social Network
Rule Broken: Page Count 162 pages
Why It Didn’t Matter: 162 pages! I get mad at people who write 122 pages. Who in the world gets to write 40 more pages than THAT and still get a pass? Why Aaron Sorkin of course! The man who could write a script in comic sans on discarded wallpaper and still get away with it. Well, before you think about reinstating that 30 page subplot about your hero’s blind Nazi mistress who’s just come down with a bout of scurvy, let’s take a look at the content of this behemoth. Go ahead and open up The Social Network right now. What I’m betting you’ll find is dialogue. Lots of dialogue. I’d go as far as to say that The Social Network is 95% dialogue. That’s important for two reasons. One, dialogue reads a LOT faster than action, making a 162 page script fly by like it’s 110 pages (Fincher actually shot the draft word for word and it ended up being under 2 hours). And two, dialogue is this particular writer’s biggest strength. If the reason your script is too long is because you have a lot of dialogue and you’re a dialogue master, then it’s not going to read like a script that’s too long. Now does this mean you get to write a 160 page script if it’s all dialogue? Hell no. Learn to be great with dialogue, put a few hit shows on the air famous for their dialogue, get a dialogue driven-script near the top of the Black List, THEN maybe you can write that 160 pager. But I’d still stick with the good old 110 page rule. That’ll force you to learn one of the most important skills in screenwriting, cutting out the pieces of the story that don’t matter.
Rule Broken: The inciting incident doesn’t happen until 2 hours into the story.
Why It Didn’t Matter: The inciting incident is the incident that throws your hero into peril, that forces him or her to go on their journey. It usually happens around 15 minutes into the story (In Shrek, it’s when his swamp is invaded). Some might say that the inciting incident in Titanic is Jack meeting Rose. Some might say it’s Rose meeting Jack. And you can probably make a good case for either of those. But to me, what really incites this story is when the ship hits the iceberg. And that doesn’t happen until a full 2 hours into the movie. That means we’re stuck watching two people diddle around a ship and fall in love for two hours! Doesn’t that sound boring to you? And yet it works. You want to know why? Because Titanic has one of the most unique and powerful story advantages in the history of cinema – a built in super-dose of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when we the audience know something about the characters and their situation before they do, preferably something that puts them in danger. Remember in Die Hard when McClane gets stuck up on the roof with Hanz, who pretends to be a hostage but WE KNOW he’s the villain? That scene is exciting because of the dramatic irony. *We* know McClane is in trouble. But he doesn’t. Well Titanic has the mother of all dramatic ironies. We know that the Titanic is going to sink, and our poor characters don’t. So we watch for 2 hours with baited breath, wondering how they’re going to handle it, what they’re going to do when it happens, and specifically what will happen to Jack, since he’s unrepresented in the modern day storyline. Cameron could’ve added a whole extra hour in front of the iceberg collision if he wanted to because he had the single biggest case of dramatic irony on his side during the story. I don’t know if there can ever be another movie with this advantage. But I do know that a solid dose of dramatic irony will allow you to push key story points back if need be.
Lost In Translation
Rule Broken: No character goal
Why It Didn’t Matter: Lost In Translation is a story that wanders. Which makes sense because it’s about a girl stuck in a city where she doesn’t understand the language or know anyone. So the fact that she doesn’t have a goal stems organically from the situation. But make no mistake, if you’d had Scarlett Johanson, voluptuous as she is, wandering around Tokyo and riding trains for 2 straight hours, we would’ve killed ourselves by minute 40. If you don’t have a goal, you need to create a dramatic question that will drive the story. That question almost always comes in the form of a romantic interest. Bring in another character and now your dramatic question is posed: “Will these two end up together?” Or “What will happen between these two?” But Coppola takes it a step further. Had the person our protagonist met been some suave-ish good-looking 20-something who’s also stuck in Tokyo for a few weeks, that would’ve been a boring question. Because we’d already know the answer (“Yes, of course they’ll end up together”). Instead, she introduces an offbeat, older, weird guy who’s about as opposite from her as they come. Now that question has some real meat to it, some real uncertainty. I still recommend giving your characters a goal AND adding a dramatic question (in the recently discussed spec, “Seeking A Friend At the End Of The World,” about two people who meet a few days before the earth is to be struck by an asteroid, the couple is trying to reach a certain location (goal) and we’re wondering if they’re going to end up together (question)). But if you can’t add that goal, like Lost In Translation, you better add an interesting question to the mix or else there’s no reason for us to watch.
Rule Broken: Audience already knows how the story ends.
Why It Didn’t Matter: I don’t’ know if I’d call this a broken rule per se, but it is something that a lot of famous real-life stories have to deal with, and Apollo 13 was one of the more famous ones so it’s worth exploring. How do you make a disaster movie work when everybody who sees it knows that your main characters get out alive? If dramatic irony is the audience being ahead of the characters in knowing something bad is going to happen to them, isn’t this the opposite? Which would then create the opposite effect? “Oh, well we know they’re going to be okay, so who cares?” Writers Broyles Jr. and Reinert, under Ron Howard’s direction, did two things to combat this problem. First, they made sure you loved these characters more than anything. That was key. Once we love the characters, we’re going to care about any threatening situation they’re in. And second, they always kept the focus on THE HERE AND NOW. Apollo 13 hits its characters with one obstacle after another, each one bigger and with larger implications than the last, sometimes compounding these obstacles on top of each other (they need to get the navigation data while coming up with a way to conserve air). Their journey is so battered with obstacles that all we’re focusing on is the RIGHT NOW. They’re so focused on surviving that so are we. If they didn’t have all these things to do up there. Had the obstacles been less challenging or not as many, there’s a good chance we would’ve seen through the charade and said, “Hey, don’t these guys all live? Who gives a shit?”
Rule Broken: Derivative story execution
Why It Didn’t Matter: Being derivative is one of those mistakes that 99.999% of scripts can’t overcome. If we’ve seen it before, we will not want to see it again. Yet Rush Hour has one of the most derivative stories you can imagine and still works. This script is 48 Hours. This script is Lethal Weapon. This script is Beverly Hills Cop. It doesn’t even try to be anything else. So then why does it still work? Because the central relationship/dynamic is unique. We’ve never quite seen the pairing of an African American and a Chinese cop before. And so while everything that’s going on around them is shit we’ve seen a thousand times before, we excuse it because we’ve never seen this particular dynamic before. Now the screenwriting purist in me will beg you to write an original story AS WELL as have an original central relationship. However, if your buddy cop film (or romantic comedy, or road trip comedy) has a ho-hum storyline, make sure your central relationship is new/interesting/fresh/exciting in some way. You just might be able to cover-up the fact that your story is been-there-done-that.
Rule Broken: No urgency (no ticking time bomb)
Why It Didn’t Matter: On its surface, Big is one of those scripts that seems like it follows the Hollywood formula to a tee. Well, yeah, concept-wise, it does. But the next time Big is on, fire up some popcorn and pay attention to the plot. What you’ll see is that there’s no urgency to the story at all. There *is* a time frame (I believe it’s six weeks until the wish-machine shows up again) but Hanks isn’t in a hurry to accomplish anything in the story. Contrast this with another high-concept comedy, Liar Liar, where Jim Carrey must figure out how to lie again before the big trial that night. So why does Big still work even though Tom Hanks’ character isn’t in a hurry to achieve anything? Because Big exploits its high concept premise better than almost every high concept comedy in history. From him playing on the giant piano with the boss to becoming a top toy company executive to being with a woman for the first time. Big gives you everything you want to see when you think of a kid getting stuck in a man’s body, and that helps us forget the fact that Hanks doesn’t have anything to actually do in this world.
Rule Broken: Main character isn’t introduced until 15 minutes into the story.
Why It Didn’t Matter: These days, if you’re not introducing your main character in the very first scene, then you sure as hell better be introducing him in the second one. Anything beyond that, and it’s no soup for you. The hero is the person the audience identifies with. We want to meet him as soon as possible. So then how does one of the greatest movies in history introduce its main character fifteen minutes into the story and get away with it? The answer is simpler than you think. It doesn’t matter that it takes so long for our hero to arrive because AN EXCITING STORY IS HAPPENING IN THE MEANTIME. Characters with immediate wants are tracking down characters with harmful plans. People are being killed to retrieve information. There’s mystery. Excitement. High stakes. Why would we be thinking about our main character when so much story awesomeness is going on? Had we started with Darth Vader chilling out on his throne back on Coruscant casually inquiring if his cronies had located the Death Star plans yet... Had we cut to R2 and C3PO casually landing on Tantooine, in no rush to find Obi-Wan… then yeah, we probably would’ve been like, dude, where the fuck is the main character?? But the intensity of the story, the immediacy of everyone’s actions, the mystery behind why it was all happening, kept us engaged to the point where we just weren’t thinking about it.
And there you go. Seven movies. Seven broken rules. Seven reasons why those movies still worked. Remember, no rule is carved in stone. Any rule can be broken. But if you’re going to break it, know why you’re breaking it and make sure it’s for a good reason. Otherwise, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. I’m still waiting for the first great script that isn’t built on a foundation of solid storytelling. I don’t think that script is coming any time soon so best to stick with what’s worked for thousands of years.