Breaking Rules

Written by Matt Lathrom

Breaking Rules feature image

If you're a part of any online screenwriting community, then you've seen the disagreements about the rules of formatting in screenplays.

You may have seen that one page from No One Will Save You or the Oppenheimer script written in first person. Some say a great story shines regardless of format, while others stress the importance of adhering to rules.

Like all things, the truth is nuanced.

Yes, the Rules Matter

The screenplay, like the entertainment industry, is a mix of art and science. A properly formatted screenplay should translate to roughly one minute of screentime per page while communicating the practical needs of the production. A well-written screenplay should ignite the imaginations of the artists and technicians that bring the story to life.

Yes, You Can Break Them

When you know the rules, you can break the rules.

That one page from No One Will Save You is a big block of text with bolded snippets describing the tense moment when the alien ship captures Brynn in a beam of light.

Page 72 of the script on top of a shot from the movie

The block of action captures the feeling of being captured, surrounded, unable to move. While unconventional, this still communicates things to the filmmakers. The visual effects team might note that the events on this page will require VFX. It communicates to the cinematographer that the scene feels claustrophobic and tense. It communicates to grip, electric, and gaffers that the scene requires a lot of light to simulate the alien ship's beam.

Apps Do the Heavy-lifting

Most screenwriting apps handle the formatting for you. Unless you're like George Lucas and write your first draft on legal pads, you don't have to worry about fonts, margins, and spacing. Apps like Fade In, Celtx, and Arc Studio Pro have sensible defaults and shortcuts for the various elements of a screenplay. In fact, that one page is still properly formatted.

Context Matters

You've heard it before. The staunch adherents to the rules will say, "Of course he can write Oppenheimer in first-person. He's Christopher Nolan."

Shot from Oppenheimer with a clipping of text from the screenplay in first person

And they're right.

His movies make a lot of money for studios. More importantly, he's the writer as well as the director. The vision exists in his mind, so he has flexibility in how he communicates that vision in the script. Nolan even considered shooting Dunkirk without any script at all. Producer Emma Thomas talked some sense into her husband, but he could have done it.

Prove Yourself

As an aspiring screenwriter, you have a lot to prove. You have everything to prove. First and foremost, you have to prove that you understand of the technical aspects of filmmaking. You do that by writing an engaging script that communicates the requirements to make your vision a reality.

Once you've made a few hundred million, feel free to go full George Miller and make a script entirely in storyboards.

Scripts in this Article