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Meet the Reader: Apples and Oranges

Readers aren't trying to steal your creativity. It's just that if you make the process of reading your script far too arduous and time-consuming, then all you are doing is giving development people — all of whom are always pressed for time and always have a million other scripts to read -- an excellent excuse to give up on your screenplay and move on to the next one in the pile.

Whenever I write a column in which I lay out the guidelines that spec script writers should follow when crafting their screenplays, I am inevitably deluged with responses from readers, citing all of the great movies and scripts that have violated these “rules:”

  • For example, if I point out that a spec should never be longer than 120 pages (which, as we all know, equals approximately two hours of screen time), someone will bring up The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy — very long movies whose scripts presumably far exceeded the 120 page limit.
  • If I talk about issues of format (for example, that scene slugs need to be inserted into a script whenever there is a change in location or time frame), people will immediately point out terrific scripts that have deviated from standard formatting (with one of the most popular examples being that William Goldman didn’t use any slugs at all when he wrote Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid).
  • If I advise writers not to include camera moves or detailed shot descriptions in their scripts, or to avoid the excessive use of voiceover and flashbacks, or if I tell them not to write about a character’s thoughts or feelings or backstory in the action line, then I will receive volumes of missives informing me that that great screenplays such as Inception or Pulp Fiction or The Tree of Life contain variations on all of these things (I don’t actually know if they do or not, but these scripts are three of the most frequently mentioned “rule breakers”).

Of course, besides seizing the chance to put me in my place (“Not as smart as you thought you were, are you Mr. Know-It-All Script Reader Guy?”), the respondents’ purpose for pointing out all of these exceptions to generally accepted screenwriting protocol is to let themselves off the hook for not adhering to it in their own work (“If Christopher Nolan/Quentin Tarantino/Terrence Malick can do it, well then so can I”).

Unfortunately, while I certainly agree that most of the scripts cited by these readers are terrific in spite of (and many times because of) the fact that they have violated many of the usual tenets of screenwriting, my response is invariably the same: Just because they did doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to.

Why? Because, none of these examples began life as original specs written by new writers trying to break into the industry.

  • The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, and The Lord of the Rings were all adapted by established screenwriters from best-selling novels. As with all of the pre-existing properties (books, TV shows, comics, games, etc.) that Hollywood options, they came with enough built-in commercial appeal (due to their prior success and large fan bases) that the studios were willing to tolerate any commercially problematic elements (such as excessive running time).
  • Butch Cassidy was an original spec, but it was penned by a man who had already written several very successful screenplays (and novels), so the powers-that-be were willing to cut William Goldman some slack on matters of format; they knew he was going to deliver a superior piece of work.
  • Nolan, Tarantino, and Malick are all writer-directors who — due to their impressive creative and commercial successes — have earned the freedom from their backers (who are eager to be in business with them so that they can share in the bounty) to make any film that they want in any way they want without having to go through the usual development process. As a result, these auteurs are all free to stylize their scripts however it suits them, because they’re the only ones that have to interpret them.

Original specs written by new writers have none of these advantages — they’re unknown concepts with no proven commercial appeal created by authors without track records. They are as different from the “exception” scripts as apples are from oranges, and so have to do something that none of those cited screenplays ever had to do: make it past the industry’s screenwriting gatekeepers — the script readers and the story editors. And, like it or not, these folks (of which I am one) demand a certain uniformity in form and format.

To understand why, you need to recognize the two primary functions of a spec script, written by an unknown writer. The first is to present a story in order to demonstrate both its creative and commercial potential to prospective buyers. You will have a better chance of doing this if you utilize standard Hollywood formatting, because everyone in the business understands standard formatting, so any script that conforms to it is easy to read (which is especially important when you consider how many people have to read it as it makes its way through the development pipeline). If, however, you format your ream-length piece in some unconventional manner filled with self-devised terminology; if you weigh it down with a lot of extraneous style (a convoluted structure, overly detailed descriptions of sets, characters, shots, and edits, etc.); or if you make it too long, that means the reader has to spend a lot of time and energy trying to comprehend how you are telling your story, rather than comprehending the story itself. If you make the process of reading your script far too arduous and time-consuming, then all you are doing is giving development people — all of whom are always pressed for time and always have a million other scripts to read -- an excellent excuse to give up on your screenplay and move on to the next one in the pile.

The second purpose of a spec is to serve as a writing sample — a way of demonstrating your talent and abilities to someone who might want to hire you. To do this, you need to show that you have what it takes to be a professional screenwriter and the best way you can do that (besides coming up with a dynamite scenario) is to show that you have mastered the fine points of crafting mainstream commercial movies in accordance with accepted industry standards (this is one of the reasons the length thing is so important — in addition to the simple fact that no reader wants to slog through an over-long script, the inability to deliver a script between 90 and 120 pages demonstrates an inability to properly craft a screen story in the 90-minute-to-two-hour format that is the mainstay of commercial cinema). If you ignore the “rules” and go too far afield, you might be, as some writers seem to think, demonstrating that you are a brilliantly unorthodox artistic genius who dares to work far outside of the box, or you might just be showing that you are an undisciplined dilettante who is unwilling or unable to master your craft. And if you do that, most development people might just decide that you’re too much trouble and move on to someone who is professional enough to acquire the tools of their chosen trade.

So, when folks like me advise you to conform your work to accepted standards, we’re not trying to stifle your creativity or ruin your fun — we’re just trying to help you grow the biggest, juiciest orange possible: one that will allow you to wow the business with your great story and your expert professionalism.