Breaking the Screenwriting Rules

Posted by Howard Suber on

Everybody in Hollywood knows the top three rules of screenwriting:

1. Write what you know.
2. Films must have a happy ending.
3. Films must have three acts.

But few people know what these rules all have in common:

They are all wrong.

Rule #1: Write What You Know

There is no writer alive who has not been advised, "Write what you know." And there are few writers who have not, in the course of following this advice, spent months or years producing a personally cathartic but boringly predictable work.

Too often, writers take "write what you know" to mean "write what you've lived." Yet, few writers lead dramatic lives; if they did, they wouldn't have much time or energy for writing. Writing what you know, therefore, can constrict a writer to a very narrow and uninteresting perspective.

What you "know," if you have any creativity at all, is not just what you have experienced. Paul Schrader had no experience as a pimp or a taxi driver when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. He had studied to be a minister at Calvin College, a small fundamentalist school in Michigan, and earned his M.A. degree in academic film studies at UCLA writing about the spiritual dimensions of the work of the Danish director Carl Theodore Dryer.

Mario Puzo wasn't a made man or even a member of a Mafia family, he was a novelist looking for a commercial hit, and what he knew about the Mafia when he wrote The Godfather came mostly from his research in the New York Public library.

George Lucas grew up in rural Modesto, California, where there were no space ships, hyper-drives or even robots. What he knew about "The Force" he got largely from Joseph Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces and popular studies of comparative religions.

If all that a writer "knows" is his own personal experience, it will never be broad enough to sustain him throughout a productive career. Experience, in itself, is never enough. The more one relies on it exclusively, the more one runs the risk of restricting one's imagination, which is where most creativity originates.

Rule #2: Films Must Have a Happy Ending

Here are some memorable popular films that do not have a happy ending:

American Graffiti
Annie Hall
Apocalypse Now
Bonnie and Clyde
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Citizen Kane
A Clockwork Orange
The Deer Hunter
Doctor Zhivago
Double Indemnity
Dr. Strangelove
E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial
Easy Rider
The French Connection
From Here to Eternity
The Godfather
The Godfather: Part II
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
High Noon
King Kong
Lawrence of Arabia
The Maltese Falcon
The Manchurian Candidate
Midnight Cowboy
Mutiny on the Bounty
On the Waterfront
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Pulp Fiction
Raging Bull
Rebel Without a Cause
Schindler's List
The Searchers
The Silence of the Lambs
A Streetcar Named Desire
Sunset Boulevard
Taxi Driver
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Wild Bunch

The press, audiences, and people in the film industry itself all seem to believe that, to be a success, a Hollywood film must have a happy ending, but as this list demonstrates, this is not born out by the evidence. While comedies and musicals generally end happily, a very large proportion of the most memorable popular films (those that were popular in their own day and have remained popular) do not.

The endings of the vast majority of memorable popular films consist of Pyrrhic victories, in which the central characters have gone through such trauma, loss, pain, sacrifice, and suffering that calling their final state "happy" would be a maddeningly insensitive joke.

The Declaration of Independence and every politician who invokes it may speak of the "pursuit of happiness," but happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

Rule #3: Films Must Have Three Acts

What is the authority for this rule? Surely, not empirical observation, for the history of drama and film is filled with great dramatic and filmic works that cannot be said to have three acts. So, why in recent years have so many people tried to force films into this Procrustean bed?

The authority most often cited for the "three act rule" is that oldest of dramatic theorists, Aristotle. In his other works, Aristotle often obsessively numbered things, so had he observed three acts in the works of the great Greek playwrights, surely he would have reported it. But none of the plays Aristotle was familiar with had acts in the modern sense of the term. Not surprisingly, therefore, Aristotle said absolutely nothing about an act structure -- and certainly nothing about three acts.

Aristotle said that drama has a beginning, middle, and end, but he did not make a big deal about it, which is a good thing because when one looks at the statement it is so self-evident that one has to wonder why such a great thinker bothered to make it or why his students thought it worthy of preserving for posterity.

World War II, this article, and your last bowel movement all have a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that takes place in time or space has a beginning, middle, and end. But this is not the same thing as three acts.

Some people suggest that an alternative to three acts is the five act structure they ascribe to Shakespeare. But a large proportion of Shakespeare's works did not have such a structure - it wasn't until nearly a hundred years after his death that a publisher decided to impose the five act structure on all of his plays. So, neither the three nor the five act structures came from the revered source so often claimed for them.

The three act structure was invented two thousand years after Aristotle, when Ibsen and other nineteenth-century dramatists found that their audiences -- unlike those in Periclean Athens -- were unable to sit still for the entire duration of a full-length play.

In Ibsen's theater and most theatrical works since, the audience is aware of acts because the curtain comes down, the house lights come up, and they get a chance to go to the bathroom. In film, the curtains don't come down, the houselights don't come up, and anyone who goes to the bathroom has to miss whatever keeps running on the screen. No one in the audience knows about "acts." Greek, Elizabethan, and contemporary film audiences have not needed and as far as we can tell have never cared about the act structure that so many people say the "rules" demand.

It is useful, of course to remember the self-evident fact that things have a beginning, middle, and end, but is difficult to explain why so many people think this is the same as three acts, or why so many people make up rules about how long they should be and what should take place within them, especially when the results of such rule-making all too often resembles painting by the numbers.

Rules and Writing

What I have learned from more than forty years of teaching a continuous stream of students at UCLA who have gone on to be successful film and television makers is that film storytelling is one of the most difficult of all art forms, and that it usually takes years to become competent, let alone to master it. Such mastery comes not from slavishly following forms and formulas, but from learning the psychology of storytelling, which is ultimately the psychology of human beings.

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