If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

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  • If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

    ...could those rules be wrong?

    My whole question, and it is a sincere one:

    If a popular, much-beloved, and commercially successful film is judged wanting according to a set of screenwriting "rules," is it not reasonable to assume that perhaps those rules are questionable, not that the film is questionable for failing to conform to them?

    I assume that various screenwriting rules exist because they're supposed to make films better. But so many of the rules that I've come across seem to be flagrantly broken by films that have been been popular and commercially successful -- not to mention films that I personally love -- that I am beginning to sincerely question the merit of those rules.

    After all, where do screenwriting rules gain their legitimacy? On what basis do they have authority?

    They don't come from a divinity. No fiery finger wrote them on a tablet.

    Therefore, they can only derive legitimacy if they are borne out by being extrapolated from successful films.

    "This always works" -- therefore it's a rule. "This always fails" -- therefore it's a no-no. That makes sense.

    Thus, I could understand applying rules to failed films in order to see where those films might have gone wrong. They broke the rules and suffered as a result.

    But if we're talking about a film that millions have loved, that was successful when it was released, and that continues to be popular . . .

    . . . are we really supposed to think it's "flawed" because it doesn't conform to screenwriting rules?

    Maybe it's not the film that has flaws. Maybe it's the rules that have flaws.

    If a film is successful and has a hero who, at times, is passive, maybe the rule that "The hero must always be active" is an illegitimate rule. Maybe it's, at best, a guideline -- sometimes a plus, sometimes not -- and if a film works fine with moments of passivity on the hero's part, then so be it. Good film, bad rule.

    If a film is successful and the hero doesn't learn that he needs something different than what he wants, then maybe the rule that "The hero must begin by wanting something, only to learn that he actually needs something else" is an illegitimate rule. Maybe that too is just one possible way of telling a story, but certainly doesn't need to guide every story.

    Or this: Is every moment in a story only justified if it "pushes the story along or augments the theme"? Really? According to what divine order? A movie is not an essay. A movie is entertainment. If a movie indulges in something purely for aesthetic reasons -- from an eye-candy moment when an attractive actor or actress partially disrobes, to a wonderful musical number that isn't necessary to the plot but gives the audience great enjoyment and increases the pleasure that they derive from the film -- then the rule that says that such an aesthetic interlude is wrong would seem, to me, to be an illegitimate rule.

    And the idea that a film is in any way flawed because it doesn't follow an arbitrary three-act structure if it's a popular and commercially successful film seems ludicrous.

    In a nutshell, my thought is this:

    Here's a famous film that is commercially successful, much beloved, and continues to be enjoyed by present-day audiences.

    Here's a list of all the ways it supposedly falls short, according to a set of screenwriting rules.

    That doesn't make me think any less of the film.

    But it sure makes me think less of those rules.

    Because we're not trying to make movies to satisfy rules. We're trying to make movies to satisfy audiences.

  • #2
    Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

    What "popular and commercially successful" films don't have a three-act structure?

    Genuinely curious.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

      OP, you've forgotten the catchall Shoehorn Rule: If a successful film doesn't follow the rules, it is interpreted such that it is deemed to have followed the rules.

      So, for example, consider Notting Hill. The protag is pushed and pulled and invited and urged and chastised and driven (that is, he is taken by a car that is driven by someone else) and everything but buggered to get him to do something. And so, I say he's passive.

      Oh, but under the Shoehorn Rule, he is "active". How can that be? Well, the movie worked, and therefore - through the rear-view looking glass - he is necessarily an active protag.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

        Originally posted by karsten View Post
        If a movie indulges in something purely for aesthetic reasons -- from an eye-candy moment when an attractive actor or actress partially disrobes, to a wonderful musical number that isn't necessary to the plot but gives the audience great enjoyment and increases the pleasure that they derive from the film -- then the rule that says that such an aesthetic interlude is wrong would seem, to me, to be an illegitimate rule.
        Hello, Bollywood.

        Jodhaa Akbar (2008, Aishwarya Rai) is 3.5 hours long. I fast-forwarded through so. much. dancing. And I bet a lot of Americans would do the same.

        But that's a product of cultural preferences -- the dancing sequences on the production end, and my lack of patience for them on the consumption end. So those cultural preferences spawn rules or guidelines or whatever you want to call them because they are what seems usually to work.

        You can break the "rules" or buck the guidelines if you want, and if you know what you're doing and you're being intentional, then you might come out just fine on the other end and turn out to be more than a one-hit wonder.
        "You have idea 1, you're excited. It flops. You have idea 99, you're excited. It flops.
        Only a fool is excited by the 100th idea. Fools keep trying. God rewards fools." --Martin Hellman, paraphrased

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

          I'd say the rules about what to do are guidelines about what usually works, and the rules about what not to do are cautions about what may be dangerous because a technique like voiceover or flashback or a less-than-active protagonist often goes wrong in inexperienced hands. But what counts is how a movie works for the audience. When the Pixar people were working on their first films, the studio got nervous about whether or not the story was coming together properly, so they asked a famous lyricist for the older types of Disney movies, the musicals, and he explained there has to be a villain, there have to be songs, there has to be a happy village song and an "I want" song, and all the rules they'd been following that had worked so well in Broadway musicals and previous Disney animated films. But the Pixar people did not want one villain -- they wanted their characters to take turns causing problems in the script according to their flaws. And they didn't want songs. The suits were worried, but the movies worked, and now there are musical rules, and there are Pixar story rules. And when something else works, that way of doing things will also become the rule.

          Comment


          • #6
            Screenwriting Rules

            Originally posted by karsten View Post
            They don't come from a divinity. No fiery finger wrote them on a tablet.
            Oi! Yes, they were!

            Pardon my rough translations from the Tabernacle rendered unto St. Cecil B. DeMille:

            "Thou shalt not have any Deus Ex Machina.

            "Thou shalt use no other fonts except Courier.

            "Thy screenplay shalt not exceed more than six-score of pages.

            "Honor the present tense, with active verbs, as if it is holy.

            "Thou shalt capitalize all the letters of character names, when first identified, if the character has any dialog.

            "Thou shalt divide thy screenplay into Three Acts, with a Beginning, the Middle, and the End, with an inciting incident within the first ten pages.

            "Thou shalt not commit voice-over narration, as any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

            "Thou shalt bind thy screenplay with no more than two brads made of brass.

            "Thou shalt not put any information on the cardstock cover except the title of the screenplay.

            "Thou shalt not steal any other writer's ideas and graven images, just re-imagine them."
            JEKYLL & CANADA (free .mp4 download @ Vimeo.com)

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

              1) There are no rules.
              2) There are only tools - things that have been proven to work most of the time.
              3) That doesn't mean other things can't work, only that they are much less likely to work.
              4) Exceptions are exceptions because they are exceptions. They are not the norm.
              5) When someone points out some problem with your script that involves one of those things you call rules, it means - your script does not work.

              - Bill
              Free Script Tips:
              http://www.scriptsecrets.net

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                A gold star to Bill Martell for bringing this back to reality.

                "The fact that you have seen professionals write poorly is no reason for you to imitate them." - ComicBent.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                  Originally posted by ComicBent View Post
                  A gold star to Bill Martell for bringing this back to reality.
                  I think all of the responses have been interesting.

                  Originally posted by wcmartell View Post
                  1) There are no rules.
                  2) There are only tools - things that have been proven to work most of the time.
                  3) That doesn't mean other things can't work, only that they are much less likely to work.
                  4) Exceptions are exceptions because they are exceptions. They are not the norm.
                  5) When someone points out some problem with your script that involves one of those things you call rules, it means - your script does not work.

                  - Bill
                  Number 2 and 3 fall in line more with my own way of thinking about rules, that at best, they should be presented as "just one possible way of telling a story, but certainly don't need to guide every story."

                  In addressing #5, in this case, the discussion was actually not brought on by any criticism of a script of my own.

                  Rather, it was a case where a film that did work (i.e., it was popular, remains beloved, and was commercially successful -- which, after all, is the measure of whether or not a film works) was judged to be flawed because it broke a number of screenwriting rules. That doesn't make any sense to me. On what basis do the rules trump the success of the film?

                  I think a more fruitful reaction to a case of a successful film that breaks the rules would be something like, "How interesting, this is a film where this or that rule is broken, therefore perhaps the rule is not as airtight as we thought it was."

                  Would the film in question have been better if it had followed those rules? Well, that's speculation, but all I could think of, when suggestions were made as to how it could have followed the rules were, "No, that would have made it worse!" So ultimately, IMO, it comes down to taste and individual opinion -- but thus, not any kind of rule.
                  Last edited by karsten; 06-05-2013, 03:40 AM.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                    Originally posted by Joaneasley View Post
                    I'd say the rules about what to do are guidelines about what usually works, and the rules about what not to do are cautions about what may be dangerous because a technique like voiceover or flashback or a less-than-active protagonist often goes wrong in inexperienced hands. But what counts is how a movie works for the audience. When the Pixar people were working on their first films, the studio got nervous about whether or not the story was coming together properly, so they asked a famous lyricist for the older types of Disney movies, the musicals, and he explained there has to be a villain, there have to be songs, there has to be a happy village song and an "I want" song, and all the rules they'd been following that had worked so well in Broadway musicals and previous Disney animated films. But the Pixar people did not want one villain -- they wanted their characters to take turns causing problems in the script according to their flaws. And they didn't want songs. The suits were worried, but the movies worked, and now there are musical rules, and there are Pixar story rules. And when something else works, that way of doing things will also become the rule.
                    Very interesting, and very much on point. To me, the ideal of retroactively criticizing a popular, much beloved and commercially successful musical film according to Pixar story rules is not fruitful. It's a bit like criticizing an orange for not being an apple.

                    The Pixar films weren't flawed for straying from the musical rules, but the musical films, in turn, have not now somehow become retroactively flawed for not conforming to Pixar rules.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                      Someone listened to yesterday's Scriptnotes...
                      Sent from my iPhone. Because I'm better than you.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                        We all say we're against the "rules," but then we read some crazy amateur script from a certifiable nutcase and we quickly find that our only chance to breakthrough that insanity is to cite that certain things don't work. The nutcase asks why. Then we have to fall back on certain "rules" and back out of the room.

                        Or, it's not a nutcase but a well-meaning nice person with an illogical or uninteresting story and the "rules" are a way to keep feelings from getting hurt by saying, "It's not me saying this, it's the 'rules.'"

                        In other words, the "rules" are just short hand for "No, idiot." Or bascially what wcmartell said.
                        On Twitter @DeadManSkipping

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                          Originally posted by Mr. Earth View Post
                          We all say we're against the "rules," but then we read some crazy amateur script from a certifiable nutcase and we quickly find that our only chance to breakthrough that insanity is to cite that certain things don't work. The nutcase asks why. Then we have to fall back on certain "rules" and back out of the room.

                          Or, it's not a nutcase but a well-meaning nice person with an illogical or uninteresting story and the "rules" are a way to keep feelings from getting hurt by saying, "It's not me saying this, it's the 'rules.'"

                          In other words, the "rules" are just short hand for "No, idiot." Or bascially what wcmartell said.
                          Agreed. That's why, in this thread, I stipulated that it makes sense to apply rules to a failed film (or, if you prefer, a failed amateur screenplay) to see why it doesn't work.

                          But faulting about a popular, beloved and commercially successful film because it doesn't follow those supposed rules -- that sooner shows that the rules are flawed, not that the film is flawed, because the film has abundantly proven itself.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                            Originally posted by karsten View Post
                            Would the film in question have been better if it had followed those rules?
                            I'm guessing the film was made before self-advertising gurus swamped the bookstores and the screenwriting collective consciousness.

                            As WC said, there are no rules. Only someone with something to sell (yet usually lack the credentials to appoint themselves as an expert) says otherwise. And the noobs who swallow up the BS and perpetuate it.

                            and if the film was made after Syd Field and co came to the fore, the makers probably didn't read it. For the above reasons.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: If a popular and beloved film is judged wanting by screenwring "rules"...

                              Rules are by definition a construct of a community. Their validity and enforcement is determined by the same community.

                              Screenwriting rules are not formally codified or rigorously enforced. You can digress from them as you wish. However, there are consequences for doing so.

                              The primary consequence for the aspiring writer is that gatekeepers, who may have no meaningful grasp of how to write or assess a screenplay, do have knowledge of whatever "rules- they've come across. So you play by the "rules- to the extent that you wish or need to gain the approval of people who value those "rules-.

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