Learn the Unspoken Rules of Screenwriting (So That You Can Break Them)

WriterDuet is a platform that empowers writers to find a process that works for them. Of course, while there are technical and workflow-based things that make the act of screenwriting easier, there are countless less easily defined parts of the process as well that mystify even the most seasoned writers. As a filmmaker who has written screenplays for the last decade, I still feel like I am learning just as much as I did as a high school student reading Syd Field and Robert McKee. That said! Here are a few of the “unspoken rules” that I have run into over the years.


Character Names

A simple but important one that may come up in your first page, all the way until the end: how do you introduce character names within a script? Do you introduce them simply as MAN, YOUNG GIRL, SHADOWY FIGURE? Do you give the name right away? What I have found useful is to just play the “movie” in your head: are we meant to think of this character first as an insignificant figure or do we want to be placed squarely in an emotional connection with them right away? Depending on how you’d like their first scene to play out, you could always hold out on the first time another character refers to them by name. But as the norm goes, you might just want to give the character name right away.


Quick Tip: While it may seem like a good idea to have characters address each other by name in order for the on-screen viewer to know who’s who, think carefully about when this would be most natural. Nothing feels clunkier than characters who call each other by name at the start of a line.


Scene Transitions

Read a handful of screenplays and you will see the choice to have “CUT TO” in between each scene is anything but certain. This is more something you would find in a shooting script as it is a technical note more than anything. However, as a writer, you should constantly be thinking about the flow and rhythm of your story and how each scene goes into the next. If a dissolve or a black screen in between sections is what feels best for your story, write it in.


Quick Tip: Like many other technical aspects of a script, don’t include a CUT TO simply because you feel you need to. Think of all the clutter this adds. Page space adds up!


Scene Headings

How do you know how to properly designate the times of day and specific areas/rooms of a location? Again, it’s best to read other scripts that you think have a similar sense of geography as yours. Some writers hold that there should only be a designation between DAY and NIGHT, but if you feel a more specific time of day is essential to the plot or atmosphere of your scene, then by all means go for it!


Page Count

Perhaps the most important and confusing of the unspoken rules, a carefully calculated page count can be a writer’s best friend and worst enemy. You never want to feel like you are just filling space to reach an 80-page target range, but you also never want to cut things out because you’re crossing that 120-page territory. Ultimately, your story defines the scale; use your intuition and think long and hard about the kind of film you are writing. Don’t be afraid to go short, sometimes something barely crossing the 60-page range is enough to evoke the scale of a short feature film with emotional impact. But if you feel your story is compelling enough with the right structure and payoff to warrant something over 120 pages, go for it and revise your script as many times as needed to get it somewhere.


Quick Tip: Readability is key when starting out as a spec writer. Think of all the scripts from friends you haven’t read yet — and think about how enticing a brief page count might look to you when choosing what to read next.

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