Everyone has tips and advice for aspiring screenwriters. Some tips, like bad rumors, spread so far and wide as to become hard certain truths, even if they’re just the opposite. Here are just five myths of screenwriting that are patently false, as fake as the name of most movie detectives.
Myth #1: One Page = One Minute of Screen Time
The famous page-a-minute rule isn’t really a rule—it’s a guideline. Guidelines are good. Guidelines are our friend. Guidelines are like a solid GPS—keeping us on track and in the right direction. But it is not an infallible rule that must be obeyed at all costs. After all, even your GPS sometimes tells you to make a left into a river.
While the page-a-minute guideline is true for your average screenplay, your page count can actually vary wildly. The script for Academy Award-winning Gravity, a film with sparse dialogue, lengthy complicated action setpieces, and lots of quiet tension, is only sixty-eight pages long. A Tarantino screenplay, loaded with back-and-forth dialogue that could be spit out in seconds but take up several pages of print, will typically be well over 120 pages.
Of course, aspiring screenwriters don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as people like Tarantino and Alfonso Cuarón. But if your story is complete, with no extra fat and nothing missing, then it should be as long as it needs to be. The people reading your screenplay will be far more concerned with your narrative than with your page count.
Myth #2: Exposition Is Bad
Somewhere along the way, exposition got a real bad rap. But unless you’re like Terrence Malick and making some visually poetic mood piece, your story’s going to need some context. Bad exposition is bad—that’s no myth—and bad exposition is when characters explain something to each other that, in the reality of the film, they should already know and shouldn’t need to be said.
Good exposition, which is not only totally okay, but preferred, gives the audience a background to ground your story. If you can’t show-not-tell your exposition, then tell it in a way that makes sense. A character new to the situation can be an audience surrogate, asking questions and getting answers for us. A general can update the President in his or her daily briefing. A protagonist can check her or his voicemail. Etc.
If done well, exposition can be fun and seamless, a natural part of a scene. The exposition laying out the bank robbery in Reservoir Dogs just comes off as another classic Tarantino dialogue between Mr. Orange and Mr. White and ends with them getting a taco and the audience informed on the gangster’s plan.
Myth #3: Mailing Yourself Your Script = Copyrighting Your Script
Nope. The best way to copyright your script is to register it with the Writer’s Guild. There’s even a handy-dandy option built right into Final Draft that lets you do this. It’s official, it’s legal, it will protect you if anyone ever does in fact steal your idea.
Mailing yourself your script and keeping it sealed is very weak evidence proving you wrote a given screenplay first. For one, it only works with the very first judge who opens it, and copyright cases often drag on and go through several levels of the judiciary system. Secondly, it doesn’t legally count as evidence of copyright—it’s more circumstantial proof than anything.
Thirdly, have you ever used the post office? Chances are your package will arrive as beat up as your protagonist. And if you’re moving around a lot (which you probably are because paying rent is a lot harder than paying a one-time WGA fee), your package will take that much more wear-and-tear. By the time you get it to court it’s going to look like a crazy person’s manifesto and will be scanned for bombs and white powder.
And if you’re a prolific writer, those packages are going to eventually take up more space on your bookshelves than the Song of Ice and Fire series.
Myth #4: Keep the Camera Directions Out of Your Script
Keep the directing to the Director, people will tell you. This is generally true, and you don’t want your unproduced screenplay to look like a shooting script. But some camera directions should be included, especially when a given scene only works with a specific angle or move.
You’re not writing a play after all, a sparse set with lots of options. Movies can be extremely specific, lines and moments can be tied directly into the way we view it. Try to avoid the phrases “We see” or “The camera pans” but if you’re smart you can hide directions into the way you word your action lines. Phrasing your action the right way will make your intended shot, like a POV or a landscape wide shot, inevitable for the filmmakers who shoot your screenplay.
“The whites of Mark’s eyes turn red with anger” is telling us it’s an extreme close-up without ever using the words extreme close-up. The director will see this when she reads it and choose the right shot. She might think it was her idea but we savvy screenwriters will know better and give yourself a pat on the back for the great shot.
Myth #5: You Have to Use a Screenwriting Program for Formatting
Okay, sure, this one is true, you do have to have standard formatting for your script if you want people to take it seriously. But only the final draft!
Writers are a diverse bunch (besides the insecurity and constant loneliness—that’s all of us). Writers write in all sorts of ways, and all of them are write. Er, right. If you’re like me, you do your best work with a pencil and marble notebook while sitting on the beach. Or maybe you don’t find your true groove until you’re thumbing it in your Notes app while on the train to work.
Whatever gets your creative juices flowing—that’s how you should be writing your script. Just because your story will end in Courier New does not at all mean it needs to start that way.
Writers forge their own paths. It’s part of our DNA. And while rules were indeed made to be broken, it’s more important to remember that some rules were never actually rules to begin with. Just bad rumors.