Screenwriting Rules: Playing by Numbers

25 Nov 2016

Screenwriting Rules: Playing by Numbers

-By AFTT Screenwriting Tutor Karel Segers

When How To Train Your Dragon was released, some people learned to their horror that the film was written following Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. How could such a successful, critically acclaimed film be written by the numbers??

Creatives hate screenwriting ‘rules’. So they should. But it is also helpful to understand what rules really are, and what they do.


Observe And Study

All Blake Snyder did (and Field, McKee, Seger etc.), was study films and look for patterns, then describe the patterns in successful films.

Many find this approach incredibly attractive, because it creates the illusion that you can reproduce success by replicating those patterns.
Of course it isn’t this simple.

If you ask yourself what vehicles are the fastest, you’ll see that a Ferrari is faster than a bus, and a Boeing 747 is faster than a Ferrari. Now you know that if you want to get somewhere quick, you pick the 747. 
Sadly, this knowledge doesn’t buy you the ticket; let alone build the airplane.

Screenwriting rules show you what is fast, not how to make it fast.

Analysis vs. Creation

Screenwriting rules, theories and books are mostly analytical. They don’t get you anywhere near having a screenplay that works. They give you an understanding of what you need to create to be successful. Not how to create it.

The challenge is to figure out how to use this type of information practically. Let me tell you this: studying these theories by heart to apply them during the writing is not the solution. It may even hold you back ,by causing writer’s block.

Most working writers first come up with a concept. Next, they write an outline, and finally they write the script. At every stage of this process, they look back at the work and reflect on it. Does it work? Where could it be improved?

This is the analytical stage.

Screenwriting Rules That Work

So, does it work?

Your answer to this question will initially be subjective. “Yes, it does.” 

In your head.

The bad news: beginning screenwriters may safely ignore their assessment.
99% of the time they’re wrong. The great news, however, is that you have written something. Now you can apply your analytical knowledge, and make a prediction based on what has worked previously.

If successful screenplays are mostly somewhere between 90 and 130 pages, while yours is 276 pages, perhaps you should consider some cutting.
If successful works have a balance of dialogue and description, while yours has 85% description, there’s a clue as to where to cut.
If you have only one cliffhanger on page 87, and most scripts climax every 10-15 pages, you may have to look at your story’s structure again. Etc.

You may think these are not hard-and-fast screenwriting rules, but many script gatekeepers apply them, every day...


Alternatively, you can ignore all the above, and just follow your gut. Because you’re creating art. And I am not even being sarcastic here.

If you are independently wealthy, and don’t need to draw an income from writing, why would you pander to any audience? Do your thing. Be bold and crazy. What do you have to lose? Ignore screenwriting rules.

But you want to get your script read, right? And no serious producer will read your 276 pages with endless blocks of description, or improper format.

Of course there are exceptions, and if you want to bet on those, go for your life.

The bottom line however: it makes perfect sense to try and understand what qualities are present in most successful works. Whoever blanket-rejects the notion that there exists a set of common sense principles, is an idiot.

Does this mean you need to aim and replicate all of these principles? No. But you may want to be in the ballpark … if you want to be in the industry.

How To Write

Guess what is the one thing that keeps wannabe writers from breaking through the glass ceiling. Hint: it is not a lack of knowledge of rules or principles.

What holds you back is the discipline to read scripts and write – every day.
Those who are successful have managed to create a routine that allows them to deliver work, consistently.

No amount of books or courses or gurus is going to help you overcome this challenge.

The tools or programs that will ultimately get you the closest to your goal, are the ones that help you do what you need to do on a regular basis.



Make the most of your time here, take chances, make mistakes, and love learning 🌟 #Careerquote

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The 3-Act Structure

What about the Mother Of All Screenwriting Rules… The 3-Act Structure?

Writers have rejected the 3-act structure based on what I say above: it won’t help you come up with a great story. What the 3-act structure does help you with, is an understanding of structure. And structure is one of those areas where almost every successful film seems to align to a large extent.

At the end of the 1970’s, Syd Field decided to stay vaguely in the realm of Aristotle, and divide a screen story in three parts. He gave it a label: the 3-act structure. A paradigm was born.

Inherently, there is no value to this approach. Only because professionals need to be able to talk about story, do you need to understand their lingo.

It’s Academic

You can perfectly develop your own system, and write amazing scripts. But once you’re pitching – or working with others on development – they’ll all need to know your custom-built system. Imagine every writer did this. Can you see the problem? We need a common framework.

I would argue that it is better to have a bad understanding of the 3-act structure than none at all. At least you can enter into a conversation, and learn from the people you speak with.

The 3-act structure is no more than a tool to communicate about stories.

Pick Your Label

Sure, not everyone sticks to the 3-act tool box. Some talk about Hero’s Journey, Dramatica, 4 Parts,  22 Steps, 6 Stages, etc. You know why? Because each guru needs a point of difference to get their stuff sold.

Only a very few have really added anything of note to the existing screenwriting rules; they simply change the labels. Lazy, I know.

When all is said and done, the 3-act structure ends up being the most commonly accepted dramatic language for the screen.

Learn it.

- By Karel Segers, AFTT Screenwriting Tutor

Keep an eye out on the News section of our website for upcoming articles about the 3-Act structure. 

Find out more about studying Screenwriting, Directing and Producing here at the Academy of Film, Theatre and Television.