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Talentville Bar & Grill : Ask the Expert
When to break rules?

Catherine Ashford
Posted February 7, 2017 10:51 AM

As a new screenwriter I have heard the following... a lot:  show don't tell, write in active not passive voice, don't have more than three or four lines of action grouped together, same with dialogue, etc.  I agree with all of this, however I struggle with accepting these guidelines as absolutes.  People act like it is truly anathema to break any of these guidelines, at all.  However, when I read scripts such as Breaking Bad which is beautifully written, it breaks all of these rules, often.

I'm not trying to disregard the guidelines that help to make scripts great.  I'm trying to figure out how much we can bend the rules in an effort to find our own voice??  Needless to say, I'm quite confused.



Billie Harris
Posted February 7, 2017 10:29 PM


I'm one of those who've mention the show-don't-tell, active vs passive voice, short action lines, crisp dialogue and there are reasons for each one of those although there's nothing set in stone that says these things absolutely have to be done. The decision on whether and how much to do them with your screenplay is your decision.  However...

We need to keep in mind that what we write are spec scripts, not shooting ones as "Breaking Bad" which you read.   Established writers such as Quentin Tarentino, Doug Richardson, Diablo Cody, Oliver Stone and others can break all the rules they want because producers will read their scripts regardless.   We're not that fortunate.  If we want to get our scripts past the gatekeepers - the people at production companies who determines whether to toss the script in the waste paper basket or pass it on to the producer to read, then we should adhere to the guidelines as much as possible.   Sure there's leeway we can take.  For example lengthy dialogue because of a radio announcement.  And when introducing an individual for the first time, we can tell a little about him or her so the actor will know better how to play the part.  But the movie's taking place now and we're writing in present tense, not past so the active vs passive voice is best.  Dialogue should be short and crisp, otherwise long pieces can bore the audience to the point they start squirming in their seats.

Dave Trottier who wrote "The Screenwriter's Bible" and has optioned many scripts, has a good article in "At the University" here on Talentville which you might read.    "What Makes A Script Readable?  And Why Is That Important?" 

Hopefully someone else will respond with a better answer than I have.  I guess what I want to say is that you'll need to feel your way and if you  want to bend the rules to find your own voice, and how much you bend those guidelines, that's something you'll have to figure out.  I don't believe any of us can tell you that.

Catherine Ashford
Posted February 8, 2017 9:07 AM

Thanks so much for all of your input.  

It is a harsh and unforgiving journey, trying to find one's writing voice.  I have wrestled and wrestled with these issues.  For my purposes, I view these rules/guidelines as a fence around a preschool playground.  You don't want little ones wandering into a busy street or away from the playground, much like a young writer might wander into boring dialogue or verbose action description.  The older the child/adult, the less you need the fence.  Currently, I'm a young writer and I think I definitely need to stay inside the fence for awhile.  I might step a foot out every now and then to try and discover my voice or style, but for the most part I trust the rules to keep me safe and sound.   

My struggle is knowing when I can step outside, just for a bit, and how often I can do that.


Dianne Barnes
Posted February 8, 2017 1:27 PM

Catherine, you seem to have a grasp of things.  I just wanted to mention that what Billie wrote, I'm in agreement with.  Some comments from me:

Although some will tell you "rules are to be broken", and to some degree you can go with that, I'd recommend infrequently.

Long dialogue?  There will be a time (or two) when you can't get around that--just don't lace your script with them.

Action line guidelines "if it can't be filmed it doesn't belong" is pretty much non-negiotiable.  Yes, some writers are great at writing picturesque action lines, but doubtful they make the script more sellable.  But often those lines do make a script longer, and bog down the essence of the story/concept (personal opinion).  Remember the audience isn't reading those lines so what you put in them has to be "shown" to them.

Alternative styled for formatting? I've seen a few writers making their scripts stand out by bolding and/or underling scene headings (sluglines).  Maybe that is the "norm" of the future, but for me those using it makes reading their script very distratcting.  It takes away from other areas that are just as, or more, important (the characters being introduced, the dialogue, the action lines, certainly these are major parts of your script, so what makes the sluglines "more important" that they must be highlighted?).   It may be the wave of the future to do so, but I personally hope not.

The only other comment I'll make is always write your action lines in the present tense.  I've read articles and umpteen websites and have never, never encountered one saying it is okay to use past tense.  Yes, people ignore that "rule" (guideline) but the only people that seem to get away with it are those authors who are already successful and/or have the "name" which will get their script in door to a director's office. 

Good luck writing!

David L. Williams
Posted February 14, 2017 7:26 AM

Hey Catherine, this is a pretty cool topic. And the discussion never gets old. I heard somewhere (and from my experience, I have to say I agree), that you can break the rules if somewhere in your writing it's clear that you know them. While you don't want to turn a reader off with a sloppy script that doesn't showcose professional formatting, you also don't want to pit yourself with a class of other average writers who are obviously playing it safe. Basically, in my opinion, having a voice is more important than not having one in the name going by the book. That said, if you're starting out, then you should get to know the craft. Make sure that your script is "readable" -- as mentioned earlier by Billie. People can slog through rulebook writing if it's still easy to get through.  I'd argue that pros do their own thing because their script is very entertaining, more than anything else. 

Also, it might be different depending on the genre you're writing. If you're writing a horror, over-the-top action, or comedy, the more chances you take, the more it might work in your favor. If you're writing a suspense, mystery, or drama, these things ask for less personality in the writing. And thus, you're better off sticking with the basics. 

Hope I made sense.