A few weeks ago I posted a rough version of the first few scenes of my latest spec thriller and found myself surprised at the backlash on Facebook focusing on the above two topics. I've already explained the reasons for publishing an unproofed selection of my first draft on the web and I won't go over those again, but I do want to discuss formatting rules and why you CAN break them if you so wish.
First of all I must point out that to break the rules you first need to know what they are. For those of you who are now thinking what's the point if you're going to break them anyway, you have to understand that to know how and where the rules can be broken you need to have a good understanding of how they work. Only then can you play and mess around with the reader's, or audience's perceptions and expectations. Not knowing the rules will lead to a very messy and incomprehensible screenplay.
I'm not going to go over the rules here, you can get that information more comprehensively elsewhere, but I am going to use examples of produced screenplays from two films, both of which impressed me, to illustrate what I mean; *LOCKE and *PHONE BOOTH.
SHOW; DON'T TELL:
This is a biggy, obviously because film is a visual medium. LOCKE (2013) is a brilliant example of how to break that rule and impressively so. The screenplay is about a construction manager Locke who walks out on his job and his family when the woman he had a brief fling with is about to give birth to their child. The majority of the screenplay is set in his car in real time, as he attempts to deal with the fallout of his decision by car phone, as he travels up the motorway to the hospital to be with the woman as she gives birth.
Obviously, with the main character confined to such a small space it meant the screenplay was always going to have to rely more on the dialogue than the action description, the 'SHOW' coming from the main actor's performance. Knowing this the writer used the action description as a guide for the actor to the main character's thought process. Consequently the screenplay reads more like a novel in places.
3 INT. LAND ROVER/EXT. CITY STREETS 3
Ivan will now drive through city streets toward the M6 motorway, a couple of miles away. We will not blink as we study him as he drives...
Ivan is now confronting the crisis in his head. On the site he was in a familiar place but now he is on a journey and must necessarily begin to consider the destination and the place he is leaving.
His first decision is to make a phone call on his hands free car phone. This is an important component of the story so we should take some time establishing the mechanism. He has a long list of speed dial numbers, identified by names or locations.
He speed dials a number labelled ‘Bastard’...
Hello, can I speak to Gareth?
Only because the writer knew the screenplay formatting rules could he break them to make the film he wanted to. The resulting movie is better for it.
TOO MUCH DIALOGUE:
As writers we're always warned against using too much dialogue - again, 'SHOW; DON'T TELL'. The PHONE BOOTH (2002) screenplay not only breaks this rule but completely destroys it and becomes a master class of dialogue writing.
PHONE BOOTH is about a slick New York publicist who picks up a ringing receiver in a phone booth is told that if he hangs up, he'll be killed and is forced to participate in the destruction of his life and all that he holds dear, as the hidden marksman stares at him down the sight of his high powered rifle. As with LOCKE the main character's confinement to a small space is key to the story, so how does the writer get around this obvious obstacle and make it more cinematic? The answer is he breaks the 'TOO MUCH DIALOGUE' rule and uses it to convey the main character's predicament, rather than using action description to do so.
What surprised me most about this script is that there is very little action description. It's almost entirely dialogue. Pages and pages of it occasionally broken by a line or two of action. In fact if you added up all the action and scene description I doubt it would total more than five full pages. The scene and action description is sparse and only used when absolutely necessary, flipping the rule on its head and swapping the roles of action description and dialogue.
The screenplay's dialogue is a masterly example (if you know of a better one please let me know) of how words can convey action, emotion and atmosphere. The writer uses every single word of dialogue so carefully and expertly there is little or no need for action description. As a reader you don't need great swathes of action and scene description to describe what's happening and how people react both physically and emotionally to events. By doing this the writer creates an incredible, frenetic pace, under pinning the tension and urgency the publicist experiences trapped in the phone booth by the unknown sniper. The dialogue literally puts the reader in the phone booth with publicist, forces him/her to feel exactly what the character feels. It really is a spell binding screenplay.
They're all lying. Nobody saw it because it didn't happen.
A man is dead but it didn't happen.
Not on account of me! This is like some bad dream.
You're walking through a bad dream and you can't
wake up. Do you want to wake up?
And in this dream, you killed that man. He was
bothering you so you iced him.
Then who did?
Don't tell him, Stu. Or it'll be the last thing he
ever hears. His blood will be on your hands.
I don't know.
But you saw it happen?
You were the closest one to him. You must've seen who did it.
I particularly love the above scene as you can literally sense the publicist's (Stu) panic as he tries to talk his way out of the murder of a pimp shot by the sniper holding him hostage in the phone booth. The cop (Ramey) believes Stu did it and tries to talk him into surrendering, while the sniper (Voice) puts pressure on Stu and denies him the ability to prove his innocence.We're trying to be honest with each other, aren't we?
As long as you are familiar with the rules of screenwriting there is no reason why you can't bend or break them to tell your story in a unique way that defies the reader's expectations. Ultimately this will make you stand out and above from all those other writers continually trying to pimp their formulaic screenplays.
*Excerpts of screenplays used for educational purposes only and copyright remains with the original writer, production company and studio, etc.