The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Rick Suvalle’s List

E.B. White wrote that there are “no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” With this in mind, we’ve asked working screenwriters to share a list of the “un-rules” that they find most helpful in their writing careers.

This week’s list comes from Rick Suvalle (@RickSuvalle). Rick has been a professional film and television writer for over 15 years. He is currently writing and Executive Producing a sci-fi/action web series for NBC Universal. Other recent credits include two television movie premieres: The Hallmark Channel Original Movie Honeymoon For One and the Syfy Original Movie Roadkill (see his interview about writing movies for television here). Rick has also created and produced an original pilot presentation for 20th Century Fox, and he served as the Executive Story Editor on Pamela Anderson’s hit syndicated series “V.I.P.” where he also wrote 15 episodes.

Needless to say, Rick knows this business (like, really knows it) from both the film and television sides. Here are his un-rules:

  • Keep Scene Descriptions Lean – Nothing slows down a read more than long-winded descriptions and pretty words. It may be important to tell us we’re in a vintage home, but is it necessary to say, “There’s an old O’Keefe & Merritt stove with polished chrome” in the kitchen? Usually not. Just tell us what we need to know and move on. That’s not to say you can’t add a little panache to your prose, but try and keep it lean and to the point.

  • Get Into a Scene Late and Leave Early – Or start in the middle! Don’t waste time showing a character enter and exit a scene. Don’t give us mindless introductory chitchat. Get in, get out, and move on.

  • Outline, Outline, Outline – The biggest problem I find with aspiring writers is a lack of form and structure and it’s often because they don’t outline. They just write as they go. They feel there’s a certain magic in the spontaneity. Sure, you might find a great moment this way, but your meandering will show, and more times than not you’ll find yourself stuck, not knowing where to go next. But if you outline, you’ve got a roadmap to follow. And no one says you can’t deviate from that outline. But it’s there to guide you back to your next plot point, if you need it. And just because you make a detailed outline doesn’t mean you won’t find that magic. You’ll find it in the outline AND in the writing. The more you outline, the easier it is to actually write.

  • Structure – I’m a firm believer in the classic three act structure (beginning, middle, end, inciting incident, etc.) but that doesn’t mean you have to hit X beat on page 23 and Y beat on page 86. There are a lot of great books out there that offer “new” and additional beats (12, 15, 20), and they can definitely help you structure your story, but don’t be a slave to those beats. You can get just as stuck trying to force a beat into place. And just because some book says you have to have all their newfangled beats in order to find success doesn’t mean you have to listen to them, but make sure you hit the major ones.

  • Read – Read as many scripts as you can, with an emphasis on recent hits in the genre you’re trying to write. Style and formats change so it’s important to remain up-to-date. I recommend checking out Linda Aronson’s “21st Century Screenplay” because it covers things you don’t find in other books such as multi-protagonist stories and non-traditional films like MEMENTO and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Also check out scriptshadow.net for indispensible daily tips and script analysis.

Learn more about Rick at his website, RickSuvalle.com.

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