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Friday, May 2, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Absolutes (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill



I hate people who speak in absolutes. (Ironic, I know.)

When I was learning how to write, a lot of other writers would speak in absolutes when offering their critiques. “You absolutely can’t do this,” and “You absolutely can’t do that.” Some of these things included:

  • You MUST start with FADE IN:.
  • The inciting incident MUST happen by page 12. (or 10….or 15…or 8)
  • You CAN NOT have any orphans in your script. (single words on a line)
  • You CAN NOT have more than 3 lines in a paragraph.
  • You CAN NOT interject any witty asides for the reader.
  • You MUST always show, never tell.

The list goes on; trust me. And you know what I found when sending my script out? No. One. Cares. No one cares about most of these supposed rules. You know what the #1 rule really is? Be entertaining. If you’re boring them, then yes, they might start to care that you’re breaking a “rule” or two, but if you’ve grabbed them with your story they won’t have time to care.

Awhile back I started religiously reading professional screenplays and found that almost every single one broke a whole host of “rules”. “But P.J., those are established professionals. They are allowed to break the rules.” Ok, then crack open the Black List and start finding those scripts. You know what you’ll find when you read them? Rule breakers! All of them! And these are writers who, with the exception of a few, are NOT established, but are catching the eyes of a lot of heavy-hitters in Hollywood.

Side Note: Speaking of the Black List, a game screenwriters like to play is to take another writer’s sold/optioned screenplay and tell you all the stuff that’s wrong with it. (It’s half the reason Script Shadow exists – a website that traffics in absolutes) Whenever the Black List comes along, you’ll find numerous writers tearing apart the works contained within. It carries into other industries too. I used to work for a trailer house, and I would always be amazed at how much negativity was thrown at other companies’ finished trailers. And to me, with screenplays and trailers alike: why not look at what WORKED in the scripts/trailers and think about why that particular item sold? It’s way more productive than bitterly ripping it apart. It sold. Figure out why.

Back to absolutes: Blake Snyder (RIP) said in his book Save the Cat that something huge ALWAYS has to happen on page 25. Always. In fact, he even said he would flip scripts open to page 25 just to see if something big was happening, only to close them if there was nothing. What kind of wack-a-doo policy is that? I’m not going to be so bold as to say that Blake Snyder’s structure is garbage, because it’s not. His structure and beats are solid, I just don’t think they need to be as strict as he laid out. I think when you start arguing about specific page numbers, you’ve run out of useful things to say. (Unless your inciting incident is on page 50…then you should probably re-write it.)

When you speak in absolutes, it can have the tendency to stifle creativity. There are lots of DON’Ts, CAN’Ts and NEVERs thrown around. When I was in the re-drafting stage of my screenplay, I sat down with a professional, working writer and asked for his notes. He told me that my script was a “dark comedy farce”, and that you can’t do that. He said you can have a dark comedy, or a farce, but you can’t have them together. It won’t work in this market. I was devastated, because this was the story I wanted to tell. A month later I optioned the script.

I’m not naïve. I know you need some rules. And you could run into the same bitter script reader I talked about in the last entry who’s tossing out scripts that don’t have a catalyst on exactly page 12. So maybe it IS better to play it safe. But the next script reader could think it’s page 10, and then you’re really screwed. You just don’t know. And anyone who tells you that they DO know is trying to sell you something; be it a service or themselves. When we all start trying to uniform our scripts to the strictest degree, we run the risk of pulling our own voice out of them. They become stale, predictable, and most of all boring to read. But if we mix things up, we keep the field interesting and have the potential to be the next “little script that could”. Maybe the reason a dark comedic farce would work is because people aren’t expecting it. Or maybe I’ll fall flat on my face. But at least I’ll have my integrity. That’ll feed my family, right?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

2 Comments so far


May 3rd, 2014 at 6:01 am

Thanks for that article, I really enjoyed reading it. It something I’ve suspected for a while. I just read ‘What Lie Did I Tell’ by William Goldman (loved it) and it more or less totally contradicted a lot of the stuff I read in ‘Save the Cat’. Every famous script I’ve read seems to break some of these rules.

I think the rules are important to help you start out and learn script formatting, then you need to find your own voice and experiment. There’s always the danger that you’ll submit your script to some festival or a studio and the judge/producer has had a bad day reading hundreds of scripts. They see a missing ‘FADE IN’ or an orphan on the first page and just dump your script without giving it a chance.


Val Bass
May 5th, 2014 at 12:23 am

Great read and I completely agree. I think there are some basic and general “rules” that serve only as guidelines. I think of it sort of as the same as how we learn the English language. We are taught all of these rules to remember when writing and they even teach us little limericks like “I is for E except after C”.. and all is fine until you have to write a script about a NEIGHBOR on a HEIST dressed in a BEIGE VEIL.

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