The 1000 Project – The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting (Velikovsky)
So, inspired by The 400 Project in the domain of Games, I decided to start a list of: The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting.
I’m not even sure how many `rules’ there are. (Especially, since `Screenwriting’ covers movies/film, TV, games, webisodes, and – everything with a screen story). But, 1000 seems like a nice round number.
Some of these so-called `rules’ are actually nonsense. (Each `rule’ really depends on the creative problem-situation; see Boyd 2009, Bordwell 2008, etc) But – almost everyone in the Screenwriting Domain seems to quote them as `rules’. So I guess, they must be-? Maybe these are good topic for a consilient PhD, as well. (e.g. Falsifying the `rule’ in each case, with consilient evidence.)
The 1000 `Rules’ of Screenwriting:
- Drama is conflict (so, put it in every scene in your movie). [All life is problem-solving, as Sir Karl Popper once said.]
- Show, don’t tell (don’t use dialog, if you can show it in images. Silent films are more `cinematic’ than talky films. Talk is for TV.) [But – What about Tarantino? And Woody Allen?]
- Nobody knows anything. (William Goldman 1983.) [But – what about DK Simonton, `Great Flicks’, 2011, ie “What do we know? LOTS!”]
- Theme is paramount (so, put it in every scene)
- Structure is everything (so, start the story at the `right’ time)
- A screenplay is: A story told with pictures
- Raise the stakes (see: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs)
- Make the characters `3-dimensional’… The 3 `dimensions’ of character are: 1) Biological, 2) Psychological, 3) Sociological, and, 4) Cultural. (But who’s counting?)
- Action is character (Characters are `what they do’, not so much `what they say’)
- Foreshadow (or, set-up or `planting’) & Payoff (you can never have too much of this)
- All `good’ stories need: suspense, surprise, reversals, twists
- Don’t be boring. (Boring screen stories are: boring.)
- Scenes should be tight: i.e. When writing a scene, Come in late, and Leave early
- Action (description) lines: use short, controlled bursts
- Dialog: also, use: short, controlled bursts (lengthy dialog is annoying)
- 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 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 metaphors (rather than: not doing so)
- Use mythical story structures (rather than: not doing so)
- Don’t make the story any longer or shorter than it needs to be
- Genre: note that – 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.
- Maybe it should even be high-concept
- Maybe it should even be: high-concept and low-budget
- 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.
- The spatial or temporal setting of the story should probably be reasonably familiar to audiences. If it’s all too weird, the audience gets alienated
- The exposition (info about who, what, when, where, and why) should comes early on (mainly so that people can understand what’s happening). But characters shouldn’t speak the exposition in too obvious a way.
- There shouldn’t be too many coincidences, as this annoys audiences.
- Each scene (or story event) should advance the plot.
- Don’t be predictable: The movie story should keeps 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’ to solve
- Character flaws: protagonists are generally more interesting (or `real’) if they have a flaw
- There should be a strong villain or antagonist.
- Heroes are only as `good’ as the villain is `bad’.
- Hero likability – the hero should be likable and/or empathetic and/or sympathetic. But – not always (see: antiheroes)
- Characters shouldn’t behave illogicaly, unless a good reason is provided (e.g. they’re crazy, or, possessed, etc)
- Character arcs – in American big-budget movies, probably, the character should have an arc as these movies are basically just like: animated self-help manuals.
- Endings: in American big-budget movies, the good guys probably should win at the end.
- The story stakes (what the hero or the town, or the world, etc, stands to lose) should be as high as possible.
- Amp up the intensity – as the story progresses, the stakes should get raised
- The ending probably should be satisfying, believable, and not too predictable.
- [etc – please add more `Rules’ in the Comments, below]
See also: Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways To Make It Great (Akers 2008). That has 100 more `rules’…
See also this post, it has 60 more rules:
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; either Do’s or Don’ts…
PS – Also – some of these `rules’ should be attributed to other authors. i.e., I didn’t make them up. They are just rules I’ve heard of, or learned. They are 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, please Comment in the Comments, below. (I am not trying to take credit for stuff I didn’t make up. I just can’t currently remember who said what, and when, in the list above. But who knows, maybe Aristotle said all these things `first’…)
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/
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.