20 Screenwriting Myths

Having evaluated hundreds of scripts and coached hundreds of screenwriters over the years, Dave Trottier shares 20 screenwriting myths that don’t square with reality.
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20 Screenwriting Myths

Having evaluated hundreds of scripts and coached hundreds of screenwriters over the years, I’ve noticed common beliefs that don’t square with reality. Below, I’ll succinctly address 20 of these myths. Some of these may surprise you.

Selling myths

1. The key to success is to get an agent. It is less difficult to get a mid-sized or small producer who has deals (relationships) with larger producers to read your script…than it is to entice an agent to read your script. Many of my clients have found agents through producers who loved their work and who referred them to agents. Incidentally, managers are generally less difficult to approach than agents.

2. A query letter is the best way to sell a script. It is just one way. Look for pitching opportunities at pitchfests, expos, and festivals. Build a platform so that professionals can discover you and you can make contacts. A platform may consist of a short film (as the Duplass Brothers and Jared Hess did), a web series (Erin Cardillo), becoming a reader (Sherry Lansing, Paramount CEO), working as an assistant (Michael Arndt and Wendy Calhoun), winning contests (Vince Gilligan), blogging (Diablo Cody), writing for magazines (Aline Brosh McKenna), video games (Tim Carter), and/or interning (David O. Russell and James Gunn). Find a creative way; one client got a script to an actor through her yoga studio. Yoga anyone?

3. Think big! The great majority of beginning screenwriters try to break in with a blockbuster or big-budget screenplay. Maybe you should think small. Before Robert Towne wrote Chinatown, he wrote the low-budget screenplay Last Woman on Earth. Writers that broke in with low-budget Roger Corman films include John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. Get in the game! Don’t dismiss possible opportunities writing for cable TV, direct-to-TV, regional markets, and streaming services that produce (like Netflix). Streaming has a bright future. Try online services (like Inktip). Getting writing credits and making contacts is part of building your platform (see #2 above).

4. You must live in L.A. to break in. You can break in outside of Los Angeles. Lynelle White, M. Night Shyamalan, Diablo Cody, Michael Arndt, Alan Donahue, George Lucas, and many others did. Yes, there are advantages to living in L.A., but don’t let that discourage you if you don’t live there.

Writing myths

5. The three-act structure is dead. Some screenwriters think in terms of four acts, with the first act being the beginning, the second and third acts being the middle, and the fourth act being the end. A five-act structure (think Shakespeare) and the old seven-act TV movie structure are still beginning, middle, and end. All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

6. Camera directions are necessary so the director will know how to shoot the scene. The scene is not going to be shot the way you wrote it. After the producer and production manager determine the budget and location, the director blocks the scene and decides on the number of camera “set ups.” He or she must also work with actors who may have their own “contributions.” Thus, it’s unlikely that your scene will be shot the way you wrote it. Your job is to present a clear vision of what you have in mind, so that other professionals “get” your scene, even though elements of it may be changed.

[Script Extra: Why Not Use Camera Directions For Screenplays?]

7. The plot is king. I have read many action and sci-fi scripts with flat characters. If it’s a sci-fi script, I ask the writer why he or she likes Star Trek. The answer is always “Oh, it’s Kirk, Bones, Spock, and Scotty.” And I say, “Precisely.” It’s the characters. Whether your script is plot-driven or character-driven, create fascinating characters. Notice how well drawn the two Lethal Weapon partners are. And note the contrasts between them.

8. The character’s goal is the key. Actually, the goal is not likely to draw the audience in unless there is a personal motivation for the goal. I remember watching the Crucible with my daughter for a school assignment. I was familiar with the actual history, and I told her there was no affair between John Proctor (who was actually in his 60s) and Abigail Williams (who was actually 11 or 12). My daughter asked why the writer created the affair. “Motivation,” I said. “The motivation involves the audience.” In other words, the goal is important, but it needs a motivation to be dramatically effective. In some movies, the inner need for love, identity, belonging, being appreciated, or finding happiness is stronger than the goal. Think of a traditional romantic comedy or any Hallmark love story as examples.

9. The story is built on the protagonist. If by protagonist you mean the “good guy,” then realize some movies are built on the antagonist. In Amadeus, Salieri is the bad-guy central character with Mozart as his good-guy opposition. G.H. Door is the central character in Ladykillers. In Falling Down, the protag becomes the antag. I like to think in terms of a central character as the one who has the goal or need that drives the story. Those who oppose him or her are opposition characters. For me, the terms matter less than the acquisition of the principle.

10. You must follow the paradigm. Whether you follow McKee, Truby, Hauge, Field, Snyder, me, or anyone else, films that don’t precisely follow anyone’s paradigm include Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, A Beautiful Mind, Crash, Sliding Doors, Psycho, and many more. Think in terms of guidelines more than rules. Of course, there is one rule that is written in stone: don’t come drunk to a meeting.

11. Don’t use any adverbs. As we learned in high school, adverbs and adjectives are “helping” words—they help verbs and nouns. Thus, it makes sense to write specific verbs and nouns first and then see if they need any help. Here is a weak sentence: He is walking to the boat. It’s lifeless and vague. Some writers will try to fix it with adverbs and adjectives: He is walking slowly to the big yellow boat. That’s not much better. First, create specific verbs and nouns and then determine if they need any help. How about this: He staggers to the yacht. You can visualize that and it characterizes. No helping words are needed. Of course, there may be times in your writing where you will need an adverb. Don’t be afraid to use it.

12. Aaron Sorkin did it, so why can’t I? Aaron Sorkin is established, paid in advance, and working within the system. He can even go over 120 pages, open a movie with an eight-page talking-heads scene (The Social Network) and break formatting guidelines. You are writing a spec and need to grab the attention and admiration of a reader, which brings me to our next myth.

Formatting myths

13. A script is written for a producer, agent, director, and/or actors. Once any of these receives your script, he or she does not read it, but hands it off to a story analyst, also known as a reader. The reader writes a coverage and if that coverage does not recommend you or the script, then the agent, producer, director, or actor does not see your script. Thus, you write primarily for a reader; and the reader wants readability and clarity. He or she wants to visualize the action and feel the emotion.

14. Formatting is not important. Established pros can get away with more than writers without credits can. Your reader must be entertained and impressed by your script. (See #13 above.) He or she wants to see your script written in the language the industry understands—correct format. Properly formatting your screenplay is like dressing it up for a job interview.

[Script Extra: A Crash Course in Formatting Scene Headings]

15. Formatting must be perfect. First of all, no one thinks of formatting in exactly the same way. There are a few who don’t want a dot after INT or EXT. Second, if your script communicates well, is clearly and consistently formatted so that the reader isn’t lost or confused, and effort has been made to properly format it, then little mistakes won’t matter at all. As Dr. Format, I would benefit from saying this myth is true. The fact that I don’t carries a little weight.

16. Shooting script format and spec format are the same. The basic conventions are the same, but a spec script does not include camera directions, CAPPED props, scene numbers, and the word CONTINUED at the top and bottom of pages. There will be very few transitions (editing directions) in a spec. A spec may contain secondary scene headings that you seldom see in a shooting script. A shooting script may be written in an informational style for the shoot, while a spec should be written in an entertaining, unencumbered style for the reader. A shooting script is a production tool; a spec is a selling tool.

17. For a pause, use the term “beat.” It’s perfectly okay to use the theatrical term “beat,” but when you do that, you often miss an opportunity to characterize the character or the moment. In a dialogue exchange, the parentheticals “nervously,” “strokes her gun,” and “picks his nose” are more engaging than “beat.” And they imply the beat (pause) you want.

[Script Extra: The Wide Margin - (Parenthetically Speaking...)]

Personality and attitudinal myths

18. I wanna write a blockbuster script, sell it for a million bucks, and retire on a farm in Vermont. Screenwriting is not the lottery or a sweepstakes deal, and the days of beginners selling specs for a cool mil are gone. Agents are looking for writers who want to write all the time, not one-hit wonders. Screenwriting is a profession and should be treated as such.

19. I am God’s gift to Hollywood. Producers and agents are looking for people they can work with, not for people with over-inflated egos.

20. I will never write like William Goldman. That actually may not be a myth. But William Goodman could never have written like you. You have your own place in the writing universe. Don’t compare yourself with others; focus on your progress. And keep writing!

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