The 1000 Project – The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting (collated by Velikovsky)
Hey so when I was studying screenwriting at film school (at the AFTRS) I read all the books I could find on screenwriting – and I summarized each of them into a page – and then published it as a free PDF, as a teaching aid. It’s now used in lots of courses, to teach screenwriting. (You’re all very welcome.)
See: A brief Literature Review:
- StoryAlity #27 – Narratology since Plato – A brief Literature Review
- StoryAlity #28 – Screenwriting Manuals since 1911
And so, anyway – inspired by The 400 Project in the domain of Games (including: Videogames, by the way, among other stuff, I’m also a million-selling game designer and writer – but whatever), I decided to start a list of: The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting.
Actually – even after doing a PhD on it all, and working in it at the bottom, middle and the top of the industry for 25 years, (within the scientific study of creativity, that’s called: immersion in a Domain of culture), I’m not even sure to this day, just how many `rules’ there are in screenwriting!
Maybe there are: TENS OF THOUSANDS!!!! (As there are lots of contingent rules. eg – lots of “IF / THEN, ELSE” rules.
eg: Here’s a generic example of an IF/THEN/ELSE rule.
IF your screenplay is supposed to be in the [Comedy? Satire? Parody? Spoof?] genre, THEN make darn sure it has [FUNNY visuals and dialog and actors and acting-performances, and maybe even – in the actual movie, FUNNY sound design/sound effects and even a funny colour palette] – or ELSE – if it isn’t [FUNNY in some or all those ways] then make it funny in some other way. (Or else, it may get: REJECTED, ouch.)
(And especially, I also don’t know, just exactly how many Rules there are, since `Screenwriting’ also covers: movies / films (or even: filmovies – and yes I made that word up by combining two old things to get a new thing and it works. I totally invented a word, and hey another one I invented using the exact same technique is: humanimals. Seriously! But I invented lots of words… It’s just that – most of them, have never caught on. But that’s how it goes, with creative genius), but anyway – screenwriting includes also TV, games, webisodes, and – everything with a screen story).
But, “1000 Rules” just seems like a nice round number… Besides, some of these so-called `rules’ are actually: not applicable!
But – almost everyone in the Screenwriting Domain seems to quote them as `rules’. (So hmph – I guess, they must be-?)
Maybe even these “Rules” are each a good individual topic for a consilient PhD, as well. (e.g. – Falsifying the sreenwriting`rule’ in each case, with consilient evidence! Just sayin. I only did my PhD on movie screenwriting so we all could get at the truth. So that we have reliable, useful scientific knowledge about: Why some Filmovies succeed, while most (about 70%): Don’t!)
So – on with the show.
I mean I do have, 15 Commandments of Screenwriting, (see my free Feature Film Screenwriters Workbook, here)… but there are lots more. Probably even thousands. Or maybe even, tens of thousands, if you include all of the IF/THENs…
This is why it takes (on average) around 10 years or 10 screenplays (whichever comes first), to really “master” all the elements of movie screenwriting.
So anyway – here we go… Let’s list a bunch of ’em.
i.e. This is just: a start. (Maybe you can add more, in the Comments, below!!)
The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting: by Dr JoeTV – and lots of people
- Write What You Know! (As… If you don’t know a lot about the Field and Domain of culture that you are writing about (eg: a story about firefighting, or time-travel, or the fashion industry, or – whatever “world” your story is mainly “set” in), then – go and research the heck out of it. Reads tons of books on it. Talk to lots of people who work, eat, sleep and play in that Domain of culture. So that, your plot and action and dialog (and Mood and Tone and Atmosphere) all “rings true”! As if it doesn’t – it turns the script reader, let alone the audience, right off! …Remember, all you need to do is: fake, authenticity. And, also – If you want spontenaeity, rehearse it-!)
- Drama is Conflict! (so, aim to put it in every scene in your movie). [All life is problem-solving, as Sir Karl Popper once rightly said.]
- Show, Don’t Tell! (i.e. Don’t use dialog, if you can show it, in images. Silent films are actually more `cinematic’ than talky films. In general, talk is more for TV.) [But – What about Tarantino? And Woody Allen? And Aaron Sorkin? Well if you write dialog that well, go for it. But most people: don’t!]
- Nobody knows anything! (William Goldman 1983.) [But – what about DK Simonton, `Great Flicks’, 2011, ie “What do we know? LOTS!”. See my PhD on Creative (ie SUCCESSFUL) Movie Screenwriting]. ie I am not sure this is a good “rule” at all.
- Theme is paramount! (so, try and put it in every scene, if possible)
- Structure is everything (so, start and end the story at the `right’ time, and – use parallel cross-cutting, and flashbacks, and non-linear storytelling… as and when, appropriate!)
- A screenplay is: A story told with pictures! (see: page 1, Syd Field)
- Raise the stakes! (and – for evolutionary / survival stakes, see: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs!) …Namely – if, what is at stake in your movie isn’t something we care about, then: Who cares? (…Not: us.)
- Make the characters `3-dimensional’ (i.e. real, and believable, and “fleshed out”)… According to me, The 3 `dimensions’ of character are: 1) Biological, 2) Psychological, 3) Sociological, and, 4) Cultural. (…But – hey, who’s counting…?)
- Action is Character! (Characters are `what they do’, and not so much `what they say’!)
- Foreshadow (or, set-up, or `planting’) & Payoff (you can never have too much of this good stuff…)
- All `good’ stories need: suspense, surprise, reversals, twists!
- Don’t ever: be boring! (As: Boring screen stories are: boring.)
- Scenes should be tight: i.e. When writing (and editing) a scene, Come in late, and Leave early! (The movie The Room notoriously has characters come into a room and say “Oh hi Mark!” or whatever. Cut all that boring redundant stuff, just “cut to the chase” in the scene. I do not mean literally every scene has to be a chase scene. But in a way it is, as Boyd (2009) and my PhD on movie story creativity notes, most “scenes” are: characters, with: 1) A goal(s), 2) Planned action (to achieve their goals… 3) Obstacle(s) to that goal (i.e. – a problem!), and finally, 4) Result.)
- For action lines (description): use short, controlled bursts! (Like they say in the movie ALIENS when using machine guns, LOL).
- Dialog: also, use: short, controlled bursts (as lengthy dialog is often annoying and “slow”… of course – there are exceptions!)
- Lots of `talking heads’ scenes in movies are to be avoided, as that’s more like TV, and is not very: cinematic. Compare with early silent movies. (Lots of movement!)
- Use dialog only as a last resort (i.e. the old `Show, don’t tell‘ heuristic!)
- Don’t write the subtext, in the dialog! (ie Avoiding the old `on the nose’ dialog problem!)
- Writing is Rewriting! (especially in a movie script, which, is probably long and complicated)
- Use visual symbols and visual metaphors (rather than: NOT doing so!) See say the opening shot of INTERSTELLAR (the toy space-shuttle on a bookcase), or that spiral-staircase (a DNA symbol!) in GATTACA, etc.
- Use mythical story structures (rather than: not doing so)… As, if it worked before – it might just work again! But – creativity also means: something new, useful and surprising, i.e. Combine two old things to get a new thing. Ask: Can you maybe “bury” an old (classic) myth, under the plot of your story? Without it being: predictable?
- Don’t make the story any longer – or shorter – than it needs to be!
- On Genre: note that – as movies, Dramas tend to do badly (financially), and are very hard to do: well! ( ‘Most moviegoers want light entertainment, not weighty entertainment. Laughs and thrills, not tears and deep sighs.’ (Simonton, 2011, p. 82))
- Your movie story should have a clear Premise! eg Maybe, see: The BlackList Survey Loglines / Story Premises. Or – not.
- Maybe, it should even be high-concept! (Or, not. Depends!)
- Maybe it should even be: high-concept and low-budget at the same time! (As Producers tend to love that stuff, and – Why not?!)
- The story Premise probably should be something that interests people (Hooks their interest, intrigues or fascinates them). See Evolutionary Psychology for topics that interest people! See also my PhD on successful (i.e. creative!) movie screenwriting!
- The Spatial and/or Temporal Settings of the story should probably be reasonably familiar to audiences! (As if it’s all too weird, then maybe the audience gets alienated!) …Though at the same time, “exotic”, can be fine! (Provided you do it right!)
- The Exposition Scenes (the “background info” about the who, what, when, where, and why) should probably come early on (mainly so that people can understand: What’s happening)! But also – characters shouldn’t “speak the Exposition” in too obvious a way!
- There shouldn’t be too many coincidences, as this usually annoys audiences!
- Each Scene (or story event) should advance the Plot!
- Don’t be predictable: The movie story should keep viewers guessing: What will happen next-?!
- Try not to use Flashbacks for exposition late in the story: this can be seen as a `cheat’; namely hiding a key piece of information from the audience until late. Then again, oddly, this can work, if, done right!
- The protagonists of the movie should have a clear goal and motivation, or `problem/s’ to solve! (And this probably should be in your Logline!)
- Use Character flaws to the story’s advantage! (Protagonists are generally more interesting (or `real’) if they have a flaw! Or even lots.)
- There probably should be: a strong Villain or Antagonist! (But not always!)
- Heroes (and – movies) are only as `good’ as the villain is `bad’! (see: Hitchcock. He said this. And he was probably right. In most cases.)
- On Hero-likability – the hero should (probably) be likable and/or empathetic and/or sympathetic. But – not always! (see: Movies about Antiheroes! Or satires! eg American Psycho! Or Napoleon Dynamite!)
- Characters (probably) shouldn’t behave illogically, unless a very good reason is provided (e.g. they’re crazy, or, possessed, or just tricking to throw the bad guys off the scent, etc)
- On Character “Arcs” – in American, big-budget movies, probably, the character should have an “Arc” – as these movies are often basically just like: animated, self-help manuals!!! But ironically, top 20 RoI movies characteristically don’t have these! See my PhD!!!
- Endings: in American big-budget movies, the good guys probably should win at the end! Unless, it’s a Tragedy! But ironically, top 20 RoI movies characteristically don’t have these endings! They tend to be: Villain Triumphant stories! See my PhD!!!
- The story stakes (what the hero or the town, or the world, etc, stands to lose) should be as high as possible! I know I already mentioned this one, but it’s worth repeating!!!
- Amp up the intensity – as the story progresses! (The stakes should probably get raised, progressively!)
- The ending probably should be satisfying, believable, and not too predictable! (A “creative” movie story is – one that is new, useful and surprising!)
- There are also a lots of Screenwriting DONT’S, but right now I don’t… have time to list them! But hey – You could start with this post, on Screenwriting Mistakes (though I see, some of its links are broken…!)
- Okay so from #47 to #147 below, I’m also going to list out the Table of Contents of the really great book: Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways To Make It Great (Akers 2008). And – here is the first one! – “#1. You have not written something you care about!” (Akers 2008) – And I’ll keep the numbers from the Table of Contents. As you can see, this first set below, from “rules” 1 to 6, or #47 to #52 in my numbering system, is on The Idea (behind the Story/Screenplay/Movie.)
- 2. Your idea isn’t vibrating with originality! (Akers 2008)
- 3. You picked the wrong genre! (Akers 2008)
- 4. Your story is only interesting to you! (Akers 2008)
- 5. Your story is about miserable people who are miserable the whole time and end miserably! Or worse!! (Akers 2008)
- 6. You haven’t spent enough time thinking up a fantastic title! (Akers 2008)
Okay I will stop with the bold now, as I think we all get the idea of how the numbering works for this next bit. And these 100 are all Akers 2008! So take it as read! Now, Akers moves on to: Character:
- 7. You picked the wrong main character! (Akers 2008)
- 8. You haven’t constructed your main character correctly! (ditto, Akers 2008!)
- 9. You are not specific about EVERYTHING when you create a character! (ditto, Akers 2008, and down to #147 below! Is, all: Akers 2008! But – as I was a screen reader for 20 years, I can verify, they are all important! So – go buy Akers’ (2008) book, and read it! It’s great!)
- 10. You haven’t made “place” a character in your story!
- 11. We have no rooting interest in your hero!
- 12. Your opponent is not a human being!
- 13. Your Bad Guy isn’t great!
- 14. The opponent is not the hero’s agent of change!
- 15. The Bad Guy doesn’t feel he’s the hero of his own movie!
- 16. You don’t give your bad guy a Bad Guy Speech!
- 17. Your characters do stupid things to move the story forward, a.k.a., they do stuff because you make them!
- 18. Your minor characters don’t have character!
Now Akers moves on to: Structure…
- 19. You worried about structure when you came up with your story!
- 20. You don’t have enough tension!
- 21. You have no time pressure!
- 22. You don’t give the reader enough emotion!
- 23. You bungled your story structure!
- 24. You have not done, and then redone, and REDONE, a one-line outline!
- 25. You have not done a “random thoughts” outline!
- 26. You have not used the Kerith Harding Rule of Drama! (Actually, Blake Snyder in his Save The Cat stuff also has this “rule” (or guideline, or heuristic, whatever you wanna call it)… Namely, try to structure in “alternating” plot events – i.e. so – scene by scene – things are great; next scene, things are terrible; next scene, things are great; next scene, things are terrible, and – repeat this pattern! etc)
- 27. Your B story does not affect your A story!
- 28. You don’t use Set Up and Pay Off to your advantage!
- 29. You haven’t buried exposition like Jimmy Hoffa! (this is funny. I like the guy! Go read the book to get the details -JTV)
- 30. You don’t withhold surprises until as late as possible!
Now Akers (2008) moves on to: Scenes
- 31. You haven’t pounded each scene enough!
- 32. Your scenes don’t turn the action!
- 33. You don’t have enough reversals!
- 34. You have not shouted at each scene, “How can I jack up the conflict?!”
- 35. You have not used the incredible power of rhyming scenes to your advantage!
- 36. You haven’t cut the first and last lines from as many scenes as possible!
- 37. Your character does research when she could be talking to somebody!
- 38. Your characters talk on the phone too much!
- 39. You have not made every scene memorable!
Now Akers moves on to: Dialogue
- 40. You don’t keep a log of overheard dialogue!
- 41. You haven’t separated the characters’ voices!
- 42. You haven’t worked your dialogue hard enough!
- 43. You didn’t A-B the dialogue!
- 44. You have Q & A dialogue!
- 45. You have characters speaking text but not subtext!
- 46. You did too much research!
- 47. You didn’t do enough research! …And now Akers goes to Act II: Physical Writing, and “Welcome to Writing”…
- 48. You aren’t educated in your chosen storytelling medium!
- 49. You’re using the wrong writing instrument!
- 50. Your prose is not CRYSTAL CLEAR!
Now Akers moves on to Format
- 51. You don’t understand screenplay format!
- 52. You have naked sluglines or no sluglines at all!
- 53. You over-direct your actors!
- 54. You use parentheticals wrong!
Now Akers moves on to: Characters
- 55. You change character names on us!
- 56. Too many of your characters have names!
- 57. Character names begin with the same letter! Or WORSE, they RHYME!
- 58. You do not describe main characters with a concise, telling, two (or so) sentence character description!
Now Akers goes to Scene Description
- 59. You use novelistic language!
- 60. You poisoned your scene description with “to be”!
- 61. You haven’t cut as many “thes” and “thats” as possible!
- 62. You don’t put the most important word at the end of the sentence!
- 63. You describe dialogue in scene description!
- 64. You have not paid attention to image order in scene description!
- 65. You haven’t cut scene description to the bone!
Now Akers (2008) moves on to: Rewriting
- 66. Don’t repeat! Anything! Ever!
- 67. You rewrite while you write!
- 68. You do a rewrite by reading the whole script at once!
- 69. You don’t have a killer first page!
- 70. You blew your first ten pages! ARGGGGGHHHH!
- 71. You haven’t ripped out the first twenty pages!
- 72. You haven’t cut every bit of extraneous action!
- 73. You think your first (or ninth) draft is perfect!
Now Akers moves on to: Picky, Picky, Picky
- 74. You don’t know the meaning of every word in your script!
- 75. You use numbers instead of words!
- 76. You call shots!
- 77. You call specific songs!
- 78. You didn’t run your spellcheck, you moron!
- 79. You trust your spellcheck! Ha!
- 80. You think longer is better!
- 81. You didn’t read your script out loud!
- 82. You used a crummy printer!
And now Akers moves on to Act III: What Now? And “Don’t Be a Jackass, Be Professional”
- 83. You want to be famous more than you want to write!
- 84. You think your script is special and rules don’t apply!
- 85. You put the wrong stuff on your title page!
- 86. You haven’t done a table read!
- 87. You’re dying to send the script out before you’re really, really ready!
Now Akers moves on to: The Industry
- 88. You haven’t the first clue how the business works!
- 89. You don’t know what time they eat lunch in Hollywood!
- 90. Your sense of entitlement is in overdrive! a.k.a. “Don’t fight the notes!”
- 91. You don’t know what a decent query letter is!
- 92. You made boneheaded demands in your query letter!
- 93. You don’t want to sign their release!
Now Akers (2008) moves on to: Angst-O-Rama
- 94. You think Hollywood will steal your idea!
- 95. You don’t understand Hanlon’s Razor!
- 96. You don’t know the difference between Natalie Merchant and Patti Smith!
- 97. You don’t know you can write your way out of a hole!
- 98. You don’t know how to get an agent!
- 99. You get excited when they say they like it!
- 100. You’re confusing hope with denial! …And – anyways, so – that’s Akers’ (2008) 100 rules, so – definitely, see (and preferably, for the author’s and publisher’s sakes – buy!!!): Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways To Make It Great (Akers 2008). As, that really great book has all the details, on all of these last (i.e. the above) 100 `rules’…!!!
- There are also lots and lots more “Rules” (or Guidelines, or Heuristics) but – I don’t have time to list them all right now! So read all of the Screenwriting “How To” manuals, as they (the guidelines) are basically, scattered throughout them…! Also, I suggest, read my PhD, as it critiques a lot of them (the so-called “rules of screenwriting” – by testing many of them, for their truth-value, against the top 20 RoI and bottom 20 RoI movies!)
And – see also this post, it has 60 more rules!!! The Script Reader’s Checklist: 60 Things That Will Land Your Screenplay in the Trash
23 Reasons Why Your Script Was Rejected, in SCREENCRAFT – By Ken Miyamoto – October 19, 2015!
- Comments always welcome. Especially if they are Rules of Screenwriting, namely either Do’s or Don’ts…!!!
- And even, “IF/THEN”s! eg IF you are writing an independent, alternative movie, (screenplay) then by all means break or ignore lots of these “rules”! But you have to break them in a good way, so we still like your story, irregardless of “the rules”…!!!
- Yes I know “irregardless” isn’t a real word, I just find it: amusing.
PS – Also – some of these `rules’ should be attributed to (many) other authors. i.e., I didn’t make them up! They are just rules I’ve heard of, or learned over 25 years of screenwriting. They are also viral memes! But – as Dan Dennett says: a meme (idea) does not have to be true, to go viral!
So – if you know who said what first, please Comment in the Comments, below! (i.e. – I am certainly not trying to take credit for stuff I didn’t make up! I just can’t currently remember exactly who said what, and when, in the list, above! But also who knows, maybe even Aristotle said all these things `first’…! But I doubt it, as Movies weren’t invented in 335 BCE when Aristotle wrote Poetics!! And either way, see my PhD!)
And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication
Comments, always welcome!
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/
Lots of Screenwriting How-To Manuals!
Velikovsky, J. T. ( 2011). The Feature Film Screenwriter’s Workbook.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema: A comparative study of the top 20 return-on-investment (roi) movies and the doxa (orthodoxy) of screenwriting’. PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.
Velikovsky, J. T. (2018). Darwin & Kubrick, Joe Campbell & Me: Eminent-Genius and Everyday-Joe Heroes on a Journey. The Journal of Genius and Eminence, 2(2), 55-69. doi: 10.18536/jge.2017.02.2.2.06