The Ten Commandments of Screenwriting Excellence
The following is adapted from a blog written by Blake Snyder in March of 2009. As we approach the Academy Awards® (or are they approaching us?), it’s an excellent time to reconsider.
Excellence has rules; what are ours? As screenwriters vitally interested in succeeding, what frame of mind must we assume to rise above the average, push ourselves and our scripts to a higher level, and greet each hurdle as a chance to improve ourselves and our work? What can we do — right now, today — to step up to the challenge, committed to strive for excellence in thought, word, and deed? Here is a starting point:
1. Thou Shalt Use “The Rules,” Not Be Used By Them — Communication on a mass scale requires knowledge of what works and why, but it doesn’t mean we have to rely solely on what worked the day before. Knowing why “the poster” is vital, why targeting an audience is key, and how to be clear in our communication, is our ammunition. We must have a slight smile that comes from insider knowledge, but use that knowledge like a jiu jitsu champion, always in command of what is required, but never subordinate to the demand. Only knowing “The Rules” allows this. It is a system worth preserving — one we will miss if it ever is taken away. We must accept the responsibility to be the masters of it and move it forward.
2. Thou Shalt Always Move The Art Forward — Cliche is our enemy. But to be better than cliche, we must embrace it, know it intimately, and at the last minute, insist on the new. Stories have progression over the years, they are the same… but different for our age. Learning what came before is vital to avoid trodding over old territory. Every genre has its historic high and low points, key turns, breakthroughs in form, and creators who insisted on nothing less than shattering the tired and old. You have a genre, a type of story you love to tell. It is a story that has a long tradition, riddled with cliches which — at the time — were breathtaking new advances. Now is the time to find your contribution, to break with what came before, but to honor the tradition of your genre by knowing it inside and out and respecting its contribution to now.
3. Thou Shalt Insist On Meaning — Ask any writer of genre fiction — or high art — and you will discover the secret of success for both is the same: finding the thing in any story that inspires YOU. And that means insisting that in every story we tell — even an assignment we don’t “like” or is not ours — that we search for, and insist we “find our way into,” what it’s “about.” To do so, we must lay our message into the B Story. Do not proclaim your Good Intentions in the A Story, bury it subtlely and powerfully beneath the surface in the “helper story” that helps your hero, and us, learn the lesson. Billboarding your Good Intentions in the A Story is a bore, but not addressing meaning in the B Story is half-finished work. To find meaning is to find inspiration.
4. Thou Shalt Not Take “Good Enough” For An Answer — There are lots of scenes, ideas, plot points, and motifs that are “good enough.” “That’ll hold ‘em,” you might catch yourself thinking. But if you get the sense you can do better, if you have a feeling your “place holder” is becoming permanent… stop! Try again, push yourself for the better one. All of this is about developing a gut that insists on quality beyond “good enough.” “I can do better!” should always be our motto, no matter how intent we are on “locking down” story points, being satisfied with what merely works, and finishing the assignment. There is always time for making it better, for buffing up, or finding creative solutions that lift the story or scene beyond just “that’ll be okay.”
5. Thou Shalt Disappear From Thy Script — Do not be too cute or too showoffy. If you find yourself thinking, “They’ll really be impressed with my screenwriting here,” you’re wrong. Your voice, yes; your style, sure; your take on the Truth, absolutely. But if YOU are all over your screenplay, intruding on your script because you want to make extra sure the audience knows it was written — by you! — odds are it’s at the cost of the real heroes of your tale — the characters you have created that are really telling this story. “Look at me!” should not be our subtext; “Look at this great story and great characters!” should. If you want to be known, if your desire is fame, the best way to achieve it is as a great storyteller, with a reputation for telling a story, not being the star of it.
6. Thou Shalt Not Suffer — Part of the guide to success is joy. It doesn’t have to hurt to be great work; in fact, often the easy ones come easily for a reason — because they are direct from a Higher Power right onto the page. Even if you’re off, and your work requires re-working, it should be a game — fun, delightful, joyful, always an adventure! Many writers confuse hard work for over work, and hang on to the number of their rewrites as a badge of courage and proof that their suffering makes the work better. Not true. If you are not loving this, if this is drudgery, if you aren’t thrilled with finding new ways to do your job, and learning new tricks to do it better — and being always curious about the process — consider another line of work. There’s a difference between intensity and masochism. Having fun and feeling challenged by the work in a positive way is the only way to know you are on the right track.
7. Thou Shalt Be A Good Listener — Moviemaking is a team sport, and playing well with others is an unsung talent. It starts with hearing feedback. But listening does not mean you discount or discriminate against those giving feedback. “Civilians” are often far more brilliant than seasoned pros who give notes by rote, or by what has worked in the past and may not work now. Listening to them all, and hearing what they say, gives us the perspective to make our work better. This is a gift of unparalleled importance. In the headlong rush to communicate, in the blinders-on mission to get our brilliance down on the page — as important as that is — our job must be tempered by a calmer, “tools down” moment, when we can actually hear how our very important points are going over. Sometimes we are right, but sometimes we are dead wrong, and there’s only one way to find out: listening to everyone who reads or responds to our work.
8. Thou Shalt Mix It Up — I have never been a fan of research. I am a fan of letting our imaginations tell a story that can be more real than anything “accurate.” But I am against the stale life, and a staunch opponent of what I like to call “Bungalow Fever” that many a screenwriter is plagued by, and for which there is only one cure: Get away from your computer, leave the house, and go out and live! Hobbies, service to others, charity work, travel, a sport we love, even other kinds of writing, all contribute to a fuller and better world view — and a head full of fresh and exciting images we can’t wait to talk about when we return to our cursors! The cause of sameness, lack of creativity, and boredom at the Cineplex is the echo chamber that is a parochial POV. Get some fresh air, for the body and for the mind, and fresh scripts will be the result!
9. Thou Shalt Be Pleased When Others Succeed — “There is plenty for everybody!” This must be our mantra and our guiding light. So when we read of a sale of a script in our genre, or learn that a contemporary, or even a friend, has found success, we should feel fantastic! Any time one of our own “takes a dollar from the man,” it is a victory for us all. We must get in the habit of buying and sending lots of Hallmark cards of congratulations to our fellows. Their victory means ours is coming. But more than that, we need to be comrades in arms, to help each other succeed, not secretly be jealous of someone else’s progress. For that way lies the desert, the unfertile and scorched earth life of barren isolation. And it flies in the face of what we are striving for: excellence. Learn from others. Discover what they did that you can do to make your next script better. Admire excellence in others and laud them for it. For excellence in others is ours, too!
10. Thou Shalt Be The Best — One sure way to achieve excellence is to claim it. Be proud of your genre and be a proud spokesman for it because you know you are at the leading edge of its improvement! Whatever one you’ve picked, master it, push the boundaries, bend the rules — or break them. With expertise comes… boredom. Good! So challenge yourself to go beyond, and constantly push yourself. By studying every aspect of your specialty, from the history of movies yours derives from, to how a movie from the ’40s begat the one in the ’90s which begat what you’re working on, you see that pushing the trends comes from formal knowledge of what came before, knowing what worked and what didn’t and why, and to always be pushing to make your contribution, dare I say it, historic. It doesn’t have to win an Academy Award to earn the respect of your peers, those in the trenches who embody real success. The veterans, the steely pros — those who aren’t the Monday morning quarterbacks sneering at Hollywood (out of jealousy) but its working creatives — know what you’ve done and what your effort means. And they’re the ones who count most.
Like I say, we are at a crossroads. We must improve. We must do better. This is our chance!