Close

3 Unbreakable Rules of Screenwriting

By Alex Edge · May 5, 2021

Writing a good screenplay is hard.

It takes many years of practice to be able to master the craft, and even then, sometimes your efforts can be directed towards the wrong things.

Knowing the foundation of writing a great story is crucially important, it’s actually the foundational mastery that makes up some of the greatest films that exist today. Once you master these 3 rules, you’re halfway there…

Strong Character Desire

What drives your character?

The protagonist needs a clear burning desire and in the way of that desire an obstacle to overcome. This simple statement rings true across the greatest films that you know today…

  • Billy Elliot (Billy Elliot): To be a ballet dancer in an oppressive, antiquated community.
  • Andrew Neiman (Whiplash): To become a great drummer in spite of his sadistic mentor.
  • Lester Burnham (American Beauty): To become liberated from his dull and meaningless life.
  • Philippe (Untouchable): To feel alive again after becoming a quadriplegic in an accident.

And the list goes on…

Make Your Audience Care

Most importantly, why should your audience care about their desire? How can you make them care? Is your character’s desire to get their nails done on the weekend, or is it to rob a bank to pay for their mother’s life-saving operation?

An active character needs an easily comprehensible target, and it needs to be obvious to the audience too.
A good thing to keep in mind when creating your character’s goal is, people care about things they can emotionally relate to. So make it relatable, make it count.

Billy Elliot

‘Billy Elliot’

Well-Paced Structure

Screenwriting structures come in many shapes and sizes; there is no one method that suits all. Structure is the foundation of storytelling, and although many have claimed to break it, it always exists in the background of every strong narrative.

Let’s take Christopher Nolan’s debut film Memento for example. The timeline doesn’t appear in the typical three-act linear structure, it actually plays backward to make the audience feel a sense of amnesia; similar to that of what the protagonist is going through.

Even when we break this complicated structure down, the progression and plot points still hold a sturdy and traditional narrative pace.

An unstructured film is chaotic and organization is required to ensure it makes sense to the audience. It also helps pace the narrative so as to not become overwrought with information, or conversely, too bare.
Here are some popular structures that are known to be the basis of nearly ALL great stories:

Aristotle’s Traditional Narrative Structure

Syd Field’s 3-Act Structure

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Check out the man himself, Dan Harmon, explaining the Story Circle in the video below:

DO NOT Write a Passive Protagonist!

Let’s face it, who wants to watch a film about a character that is muddling his way through life with no intriguing personality quality or objective… this would be dull!

Imagine you were stuck on a long car journey with your protagonist. Would they be someone that made you laugh/shout/smile or would they be someone that you didn’t even realize was in the car?

Developing an Interesting Character

There are many facets to a well-developed and interesting character, whether possessing desirable or undesirable character traits, they will all be interesting and engaging to watch.

Although courage and selflessness are the best traits to give your protagonist, you can also lace them with complexities by making them neurotic. So ask yourself, what traits are interesting to observe? Here’s a list to get you started:

Obsessive, compulsive, addicted (drugs, alcohol, lettuce?), mentally scarred (PTSD), bluntly nihilistic, impulsive, scared, overzealous…

Now you may have picked up that all these character traits are extreme! The reason for this being is that the more passive traits such as depression or being somber aren’t as interesting to watch.

TIP: Your character’s traits don’t necessarily have to be desirable. But they do have to be courageous or selfless throughout your story or at some point in their character transformation.

Selfishness and greed are always very hard traits to execute if they aren’t fleeting within your protagonist. The reason for this being is that it makes it much harder to inspire empathy within your audience.

Jack Sparrow

‘Pirates of the Caribbean’

Conclusion

All in all if you want to write a solid script, you can’t go far wrong if you implement these rules:

  • Make your characters interesting and unique.
  • Write a strong and relatable character desire that your audience will care about.
  • Structure your story, even revert back to the age-old narrative structure theories if you’re struggling to pace your script – they always work!

The Script Lab 2021 Screenplay Contest is now open and 100% FREE TO ENTER! Regular Deadline ends May 31st.


Alex Edge has worked for companies such as MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. His roles and specialties in these companies lie in production and script consultancy. He currently works at Screenwriters Network as a director. Reading and writing scripts whenever he can!