Rules, Rules, Rules: Screenplays

Rules, rules, rules! In the world of writing there’s a ton of them. Some are factual, industry standard, and some are preferential, personal guide lines. We all follow them, well at least most of us do, in one way or another. Some go by the book, others make up their own rules, and there are those who use a mixture of both.

If “The Rules” could all be put into one book, not only would it be gargantuan, but it would be in a constant state of revision, because as the world changes, the industry changes, which in turn changes the rules. That, and given the fact that there is always something new to learn, is the main reasons why I believe, we as writers, keep a list, a cheat sheet if you will, of rules that we follow individually.

As I mentioned in my previous post “Rules, Rules, Rules: Story Development”. I’m in no way interested in trying to tell someone how they should write, I’m interested in how other writers write period. The individual list of rules that other writers follow to get their work done.

In my other post, I briefly wrote about the rules of story development. That is the rules I use to develop a story, and another poster chimed in with her own set of rules. This time around, I’ll talk about the set of rules that I use to actually write. This week, I’m editing the spec script for “Things People Do”, so this post will be focused on script writing. I’ll do Manuscripts next week.

Though, I love books, and my first attempt at writing was in manuscript format, I grew up on film and can say that it is my true “first love” creatively. Most of my journey to becoming a writer has been focused on writing manuscripts, which I think has been beneficial to me now that I’m also learning to write stories for the screen. Mainly because, through learning to write books, I came to learn and understand the basic elements of how to put a story together, developing characters, and creating the world in which the story takes place.

In the beginning, I didn’t think there was much of a  difference when it came to writing a book or a film. Actually, most of the basic concepts translate quite nicely between the two formats, but there is a grand difference between the two. That difference is the actual writing itself.

The best way that I can explain it at this point in time, at my current skill level, is that from a “Novel Writers” stand point, you have to pull back a lot when writing a spec script/screenplay. Scripts are really slim and trim, or so they should be. If an element is not key to telling the story, cut it out. That goes for everything, descriptions, character actions, dialog, and even scene setting.

In a book, you may describe a forest setting with tree leaves blowing in the wind and shafts of sunlight breaking through the tree branches. In a spec script, unless your description is key to the scene or the story overall, it’ll be reduced to : EXT. FOREST – DAY – SUNNY

The same thing goes for writing character actions. If a character’s actions are not key to the scene or overall story don’t bother writing them. Reason is because, based on how an actor/actress my feel “in the moment” of a scene they may do something else that feels more natural than what you wrote.

In a book, the characters do and say only what you tell them to. The environment looks exactly how you say it looks. With screenplays, its different. It definitely took me some time to adjust to such a difference.

Anyway, back to the focus of this topic. Below I have listed the rules that I currently follow when I’m writing a spec script. Once again, these are my personal focuses.

[1] Visual – Show, do not tell.

[2] Key Components – Scenes, Characters, Actions, and Dialog.

[3] Scene – Every scene must be key to telling the story.

[4] Characters – When first introduced always relay Name and Age.

[5] Description – Only describe elements needed to relay the scene.

[6] Action – Action must convey an intellectual, physical, or emotional state.

[7] Dialog – Dialog must be informative to the audience.

[8] Shots – Only use when needed to relay a key element to the story.

[9] Transitions – Only use when switching to a totally different place and time.

[10] Parentheticals – Only use to point out a specific action in a scene, other wise, NEVER USE.

So, for my screenwriters out there, what rules do you write by?

4 thoughts on “Rules, Rules, Rules: Screenplays

  1. I try to pare my screenplays down as much as possible, much as you’ve described here. Condense, condense, condense. Even “she is sitting” becomes “she sits”. Actors will trip over unnecessary fluff, and that’s what screenwriters often forget – other people have to be able to understand and use the script, because it is other people who are going to be taking the script and turning it into a film. The words can’t really be up for the same kind of interpretation that novels are.


    1. Yes, you are defiantly correct, Hannah!
      I had to realize that a lot of the descriptions that I naturally want to put into a script, outside of key details, really isn’t up to me. Like wardrobe, furniture, and overall setting. Unless its key to the story, it’ll be “someone elses” job to figure out how everything will actually look if the script is ever made into a film. It kills the novel writer in me, lol!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!



    Other then the industry standard rules, that’s my simple rule of screenwriting. For me it’s all about the story and how the character is trying to achieve their goal and what’s stopping them.

    Also I recently come up with an interesting analogy for what a script essentially is.

    A writer has a similar job to an architect who is trying to draw up a plan to build a house. He has to make sure it’s unique and that it’s structurally sound.

    The director is like a builder/foreman. He reads the blueprints and tells all the other ‘labourer’s’ how to build the house.

    The producer is the money man who gets all the finance and supplies.

    A script is a blueprint to build a movie. And you want the blueprint’s ‘instructions’ to be written concisely as possible. No room for fluff.

    No. 9, Transitions is an interesting one. Don’t think I’ve ever needed or used one. Although I think that’s more of director kind of thing.



    1. Hey, Long

      My Number 9, Transitions, is more or less to remind me of that script element, and although I know that I really shouldn’t use it in most situations, an exception may arise. Kind of like with Parentheticals.

      At any rate, your analogy is dead on.

      Screenwriters are architects. I think looking at it like that is a good way to keep yourself “within the lines”. That’s a good one.

      My equivalent to your path Characters–>Obstacles–>Goals in stashed in my Character development process: Goals–>Motives–>Conflict–>Risk–>Attempt–>Resolution

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your rules and outlook on writing screenplays!



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