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THIRTEEN SCREENWRITING RULES
THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN

(except when they’re broken really well)


1. Keep writing, writing, and writing, but unless you are God (or in conversation with God), don’t write without a beginning-to-end skeleton of the story. If it works out without a skeleton, you are very lucky. If it doesn’t, you are like the rest of us (crying about not having a skeleton).

2. The more flesh and vital organs on the skeleton, the better. Details get the skeleton on its feet. More details make her dance. Great desire (subtle or overt) give her reason to live.

3. Add to the skeleton deep knowledge of the characters.  These are the major organs. Ask a thousand questions about the characters and know the answers. In this you play God.

4. Always know what the story is really about—deeply—and know how every scene relates to what it is about. Every scene. Every line. Keep trying to refine this process.

5. If a scene doesn’t shift and change direction at some point, it’s not a scene. The change in the scene is what moves the film forward. I write too much dialogue. Generally, action is better than dialogue.

6. I’ve never heard this said before, but never write a scene that you wouldn’t want to watch, direct or act in. Take this to heart and a lot of unnecessary scenes will be cut. Think of the actors and make the words shine and the situation tremble with possibility, and shift with surprise. Check over scenes with this in mind.

7. Always ask what the characters really, madly, deeply want. Then ask if that’s interesting, and ask what the sacrifice of getting or not getting what the character wants will be. Don’t get lazy with these questions. Between this and knowing what the characters are all about, potential begins to grow.

8. What a character wants or how a character changes should almost always be seen through action—what the character does, responds, chooses—is character. I know this, because I write a lot of dialogue.

9. If the best-friends and side-characters are more interesting than the lead character, the script may have internal bleeding. Try giving the most interesting, compelling, original traits to the lead character. We want to follow the most interesting and compelling characters—in life and art.

10. The possibility of losing love or getting love builds tension and drama and pay-off even more than conflict without love. Don’t get me wrong: a great, three-dimensional antagonist is wonderful—but particularly when pitted against a person with a soul, desire, and good (yet confused) intentions.
 
11. Redemption is not necessarily cliché or sentimental. It is a condition that says life, no matter the outcome—even death—was and is worth the struggle endured (or celebrated, for that matter).

12. Redemption requires love as an underlying force. Love requires being honest about what the character wants—and all interesting, non-sociopathic people want love.

13. Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” So are some of my hundredth drafts (and final drafts). You have greatness in you. Keep asking questions. Keep writing.

 

 

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack