3 Myths You Probably Believe About Screenwriting
If you're a prose writer, someone who dabbles in short fiction or novel writing, then you might have also thought about writing a screenplay. The idea can seem appealing, especially when you think about adapting your own novel into a movie one day to ensure that the story translates perfectly, but for one reason or another, you haven't yet attempted to write your first script.
If you've kept up with my site for long, you'll know that I can give you tons of reasons why you should try writing in new mediums – I even have a post about why all novelists should write a screenplay! But my guess is that if you're reading this post, there are probably a few myths you believe as a storyteller about screenwriting that are holding you back.
I know because I used to believe in all the myths I talk about below when I was studying screenwriting at my university! It was my major and yet I still had these strange misgivings about screenwriting that made me think fiction writing was the only "real" type of storytelling.
It wasn't until I was in my final screenwriting course that I came to understand how to really write a good screenplay and use the medium well. I let go of the myths I had come to believe – and that I know so many other people still believe – and was able to write a literary, artistic story that I was proud of.
But I couldn't do this until I stopped believing these myths that had been ingrained in my mind since before I even began writing screenplays.
For that reason, I've laid out the myths for you below to help you stop wasting time focusing on the wrong things about screenwriting, things that are holding you back as a writer and storyteller and potentially keeping you from trying out screenwriting at all!
Because if you know me, you'll know that I truly think everyone should give every storytelling medium a shot. But in order to do that, you'll have to get over these common myths.
Myth #1. Screenwriting has a ton of rules.
One thing that I often heard classmates stressing out about in my creative writing courses was the rules of writing a screenplay. So many of them would talk about how they really wanted to try writing a script, but that they didn't know the rules.
More than likely, they'd heard about things like the rules about capitalizing your character's name when you introduce them or how you aren't allowed to describe anything. While the first rule mentioned exists to make things easier on the production team, the other rule mentioned is a HUGE exaggeration, but one that I've heard more than once.
Truth: There are some rules to screenwriting, but you don't have to memorize them or stress out over them.
In my post on how to write a screenplay as a newbie, I talk about how the rules are really not something to stress over. Sure, there are definitely some rules you should follow, but if you get them wrong from time to time, it's really no big deal until you're editing and revising your script.
Think of stressing out over screenwriting rules the same way you would stress out over grammar rules in a novel. You just don't worry about it, right?
Sure, the rules in screenwriting can be a bit stricter when they exist to help the transition from script to screen, but other rules about how you describe characters – yes, you can describe them – and how you give voice to your vision are dated rules that are fading away now, making room for creative use of the script and allowing each writer to define their unique writer's voice without worrying about rules.
(Pssst. My course, Swank Up Your Script, is all about breaking the right rules as a screenwriter. So if you're still wary about rules, this course is perfect for you!)
Myth #2. Screenwriting is formulaic and doesn't allow for creativity.
In addition to all the rules many prose writers worry about, there's also the fear of a formula. This fear is completely justified at first, especially when you consider how every movie is constrained by a certain time limit.
Couple that with Blake Snyder's minute-by-minute approach to writing a film, the guidelines for a scene length, and all the other factors that make up a "perfect" Hollywood blockbuster, and it can certainly feel like the fun in storytelling is stripped away and all screenwriters are allowed to do is plug a story into a formula.
However, what you'll find is that the typical "formula" to writing a script is about as typical as the three act structure and therefore far more flexible than you might think. (Trust me, if it weren't, there wouldn't be something called the "second act sag.")
(Trust me, if it were as formulaic as you think, there wouldn't be something called the "second act sag.")
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Truth: Some screenplays follow a formula, but a lot of them don't.
Whether you use the three-act structure in your writing is completely up to you. A formula isn't bad unless it makes your story feel formulaic and it can even yield some wildly entertaining stories that work because it's the timeless storytelling mechanic we are used to.
However, just like with novel writing, in screenwriting, there is plenty of room to stray from the typical structure and formula. The only constraint to screenwriting is the time you have on screen, not an abritrary formula that dictates when you should end act one and hit the midpoint.
Take Moonlight, for example, this year's Best Picture winner at the Oscars. This movie was everything but formulaic, divided up into three mini-narratives that each focused on a different point of Chiron's life. The film was brimming with creativity and a testament to the fact that some of the best scripts in the business break a lot of the rules!
If you don't believe me – or just want more examples – check out these five films from A24, the company behind Moonlight, that demonstrate movies going against the typical Hollywood formula in the best way possible. While of course they might follow some tropes of the three act structure, they each demonstrate ways in which a film goes beyond the typical minute-by-minute formula Blake Snyder's Save the Cat has come to define Hollywood with.
Myth #3. Writers cannot have a voice when they write screenplays.
To someone who hasn't written a screenplay before, the idea of a writer's voice may seem impossible because you know your script is going to be turned into a movie, not read by someone.
But even if you believe screenwriters have a voice, Hollywood certainly makes it seem like there's no room for a creative voice with their constant cycle of remakes focused on nothing but making money.
However, as mentioned earlier, the recent Oscar-winning film, Moonlight, once more is a testament to the idea that people want to see different movies from different people and that the iron fist of Hollywood no longer is crushing people's creative voices.
You'll know this is true if you've ever read scripts from different screenwriters, regardless as to whether they write the script and direct the film, or just write without directing.
Truth: Every screenwriter writes and formats a script differently.
The voice of a screenwriter is a bit more complex to describe than that of a novelist, which is part of the reason people assume these writers are not permitted voices at all. This is due in part to the fact that if you are just a screenwriter, and not a director, you have to hand off your script to someone who will potentially change your story.
But whether your story changes or not, your script and the film it is adapted to are still imprinted with your screenwriting voice. The primary and more obvious way you have a voice as a screenwriter is in how you write your story. Whether your story is zaney and wild like Charlie Kauffman's work or filled with lengthy and impressive speeches we all wish we could make like in Aaron Sorkin's, every screenwriter has a voice that the audience can pinpoint, no matter who directs their work.
The second voice screenwriters have that is less obvious is the voice that translates the script into a movie. By that I mean, the voice that provides the blueprint and lays everything out.
If you're confused by what that means, you'll understand more as you write more scripts. However, it essentially refers to how a screenwriter conveys things like editing, shot composition, and other directions they think the director should take in their script. Namely, this voice is how the screenwrtier provides the instructions.
A great example of this type of voice occurs in 20th Century Women, where Mike Mills uses a different style and voice in his script to convey visuals. To see what I am talking about, look to at the first page of the script, found here, and you'll see Mills's screenwriting voice as an instructor.
Once you understand that as a screenwriter you have a voice – a different version of the one you use to write prose – and get over these myths we discussed, you'll find yourself writing better screenplays focused on your strengths as a writer instead of wasting time and energy thinking about what you may be doing wrong.
Not only is that focus just a downer on your storytelling process, making it difficult for you to use the screenwriting medium well, but it also just has you dwelling on things that really aren't a big deal! And nobody wants that!
So with that – make a point to get rid of these myths from your mind!
If you need an actionable way to get rid of those myths, my free email course, Speedy Screenwriting, walks you through your first short film, jumpstarting the process for you and only covering exactly what you need to know to write your first three-page short film!