Monday, May 26, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #1

I know what you are thinking: "Movies that follow the rules are boring. I'm an artist. I want to make movies that are DIFFERENT."

If you want to be a poet and write a haiku, you must follow the rules. I have read haiku poems that follow all the rules of haiku poetry, but which manage to blow my mind with their quality of artistry and thought. It is the same with movies. If you want to write a movie, learn what one is - learn the rules. That said, all rules are made to be broken. There have been some absolutely fantastic movies that have broken all the rules and succeeded beyond all expectations. Yay for them. But I guarantee that those filmmakers learned the rules first, they knew exactly which rules they were breaking, and most important, they had a very good story-based reason to break them. What is the message here? Learn the rules first, then break them as soon as you have a damn good reason to!

Okay. So what exactly are these "rules" anyway? Well, let's begin here:

1. Movies are obvious!

Number one rule. Movies are obvious. Obvious. Movies are really obvious. Yes, it is annoying, sometimes, how very obvious movies are. Be obvious.

The following is the entire first line of dialogue from THE BREAKFAST CLUB:

Saturday...March 24, 1984. Shermer
High School, Shermer, Illinois.
60062. Dear Mr. Vernon...We accept
the fact that we had to sacrifice a
whole Saturday in detention for
whatever it was that we did wrong.
What we did WAS wrong. But we think
you're crazy to make us write this
essay telling you who we think we
are, what do you care? You see us
as you want to see the
simplest terms and the most
convenient definitions. You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.

Before we've even met the characters, before we've seen any of the story, Brian (the brain) TELLS the audience exactly what the movie is, what world it is set in, who all the characters are, why they are there, and exactly what the ending is. All in the first line. He's telling us that these five different stereotyped kids are all going to spend the day in detention together, against their will, and by the end of the day, they will have learned right and wrong, dropped their stereotypical views of each other, and focused their collective angst on a mutual enemy - Mr. Vernon. The screenwriter is making it completely OBVIOUS to the audience exactly what movie they are seeing, so how do the filmmakers get away with it? Why don't we audience members walk out of the theater, eject the DVD, or change the channel after the first line? We might as well stop watching now because we know how the movie ends, right? Ah... but the pleasure the audience receives from the story is not in finding out WHAT is going to happen, but HOW it is going to happen.

Did anybody go to see WHEN HARRY MET SALLY for the surprise twist ending where she clubs him to death with the karaoke machine? No. People know Harry and Sally are going to end up together happily ever after. That's OBVIOUS from the poster! If she had clubbed him to death, the movie wouldn't have delivered what was promised by the poster, and audiences would have rejected it. Similarly, did anyone go to the movie expecting Titanic to arrive in New York? No. They went to see HOW the characters deal with the fact that the ship sinks.

In the first minutes of the movie AMERICAN BEAUTY, the main character tells the audience that he will be dead within a year. Right off the bat, the audience knows the ending of the movie, but that bit of obviousness is a great thing. Why? To the audience, that character looks young and healthy. Since he's he's not likely to die of a heart attack, now the audience is wondering HOW it will happen that he will die, and they're willing to sit through more of the film to find out.

Even THE SIXTH SENSE is completely obvious. In the second scene of the movie, the main character is shot and killed in front of our eyes. Then, he spends the rest of the movie hanging out with a kid who sees dead people. Hello? The reason the movie worked so well is that audiences are willing to turn their brains off as to the obvious nature of movies as soon as they go into the darkened theater. They're willing to let completely obvious things take them by surprise. However, if you don't feed your audience a steady supply of OBVIOUS, you will quickly lose them.

Chekov apparently said "If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third." He was right, but Checkov was writing about play-writing. His technique is not obvious enough for a movie. If it's a movie, that gun is in CLOSE-UP in the first act. Somebody must be doing something with the gun while talking about it. Then, it can go off in the third act. In fact, since it's a movie, that gun is likely to go off in the first five minutes. Did I mention that movies are obvious?

All that said, the very best movies manage to be obvious while also being subtle and full of surprises.

Average movies are just plain obvious.

The very worst movies are neither subtle nor obvious.

1 comment:

Chris Durham said...

Nice post sir. Followed your link from Rebel Cafe. 2 things I dig right off the bat: Breakfast Club references and the Haiku analogy. I've been using that one myself for a while and thought I was unique. Oh well. But yeah, film is a structured format. You don't discredit Haiku because it's formulaic. The Chekov thing can also serve as an admonishment to folks who have screwy endings: Don't kill someone with a gun in Act III unless you've seen it in Act I. I disagree that it has to be too horribly obvious though. At least not as obvious as a closeup. Making things obvious and spoon-feeding the audience are different things.