On Free Will in Screenwriting – Can I write, whatever I like?

So. If you decide to write a feature film (movie) screenplay…

Screenwriter Lafayette

The Earl of Screenplay, inventor of the sandwich, shortly before his wig caught fire.

You have (at least) 3 choices:

1)    Write a `spec’ feature film screenplay: i.e.

  • —  Write to the Hollywood “paradigm” (using guidelines in the `screenplay guru’ books)
  • —  You can (possibly) ignore the film budget… (this is not advisable: expensive films are always less likely to get made)
  • —  But – note that: only 2% of all screenplays submitted get produced (Macdonald 2004: 190)
  • —  Note: you’re also competing with established Hollywood writers… (see, for example, The Black List of as-yet-unproduced but most-liked scripts in Hollywood: http://blcklst.com/)


2)     Write whatever you feel like


3)    Write a screenplay based on principles derived from: High-Return On Investment / High Audience-Reach films (in other words, the films that have been the most viral)

  • This strategy is Highly Recommended, as the probabilities are then stacked much more in your favour.*
  • Note also that the lower the film’s production budget – the easier the film is to finance, in general.
  • Note also that the average budget of the top 20 most viral films is under USD$2m (and some are just USD$7k)

Actually – there is also a 4th option. You can procrastinate about writing – and decide instead to solve the Philosophical problem of “Whether or not we have free will”.

Another Day at the Office for Philosophy Dude

Another Rough Day at the Office for Naked-Philosophy-Guy

Here are some good links on Free Will:

  1. Bibliography on Free Will (maintained by David Chalmers)
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. The Determinism And Freedom Philosophy Website

Anyway, the point is, it’s about 50% Agency (i.e. – Choices) and about 50% Structure.

You are born onto a planet with 4 forces (strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic and gravity). Also matter / energy / information. You also have a biological structure, and probably social structures (unless you live in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond with an axe, like I do) and cultural structures you are born into – and exist as part of.

About half the time, you are making choices – and the other half you’re just “doing what they tell you”. (The choices are actually infinite, but – who has time to think of them all? It’s lunchtime already.)

You “flick between” agency and structure so quickly, most of the time you don’t realize it…

One way to view it (not necessarily a scientifically-accurate way, but it’s a metaphor.) So, let’s say an electron flicks between an actual position (structure) – and all the choices it has to choose from (using its agency). This might all happen so fast (hysteresis) that it gives the `outer shell’ of the atom the illusion of a hard `structure’. Note that we still don’t really know how electricity works; and yet, if that’s true, then why does it cost so much?

This is why, when you are writing a screenplay, it’s also good to think of: Agency and Structure.

With screenplays, Structure gives you the freedom to be Creative.

…More on that, soon… (update: actually – here)

On Scientific Paradigms, and on Free Will, and on `Agency and Structure’.

  1. StoryAlity #41 – On Scientific Paradigms – and Screenwriting `Paradigms
  2. StoryAlity #42 – On Free Will – and Screenwriting
  3. StoryAlity #43 – On `Agency and Structure’ in Screenwriting
  4. StoryAlity #43B –  The `Creative Practice Theory’ online Agent-Based Model
  5. StoryAlity #43C – Creative Practice Theory – The Game

Thoughts / Comments / Feedback welcome,


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/


* Or – alternately: you can also just write a novel – or a play or a poem or song, I guess.

(Haiku is perhaps empirically the best, in terms of the `cost/benefit’ ratio, given that: Time Is Money.)



Macdonald, Ian W. (2004), ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-making’, (PhD dissertation, Leeds Metropolitan University).

Story Notes From Hell (NB – profanity warning) http://storynotesfromhell.tumblr.com/

Rotten Rejections http://www.writersservices.com/mag/m_rejection.htm

TV Network Notes: https://twitter.com/TvNetworkNotes

5 thoughts on “StoryAlity #16: On `Free Will’ in Screen-writing – Can I write whatever I like?

  1. A well-thought out piece. However, I’d disagree with one of your bullet points under point 3. While 4-figure budgets are unarguably easier to raise, there’s a wide band within micro-low budget filmmaking where funding is actually more difficult to raise than it is on 7 or 8-figure budget films.

    The reasoning is this: despite the astronomical ROIs you’ve identified in your top 20, the risk (or possibly perceived risk) is much higher for a film with no known factors. After all, there are many thousand other films with no stars, name directors or recognised story source where all the financiers lost their shirts. Sometimes rightly so. Investors tend to be risk averse, particularly nowadays, and many just prefer a good return on a more easily justifiable risk.

    As a filmmaker, even as a cinema-goer, I wish this were not so. I love original stories that were conceived for the big screen and have never been told before. Nor does this observation undermine the central argument of your piece.

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #53.2 – Patterns in the Top 20 ROI Films: # of Scenes vs Film Duration/Screenplay Length – and: Elliot Waves | StoryAlity

  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #56 – Patterns in the Top 20 ROI Films: # of Scenes vs Film Duration/Screenplay Length – and: Elliot Waves | StoryAlity

  4. Pingback: StoryAlity #64 – Why Transmedia Is Destiny | StoryAlity

  5. Pingback: StoryAlity #76 – The `new’ Film RoI numbers at The-Numbers.com | StoryAlity

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