The Un-Rules of Screenwriting: Joe Gazzam’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.

Our list of un-rules this week comes from Joe Gazzam (@JOE_GAZZAM), the talented screenwriter/novelist who graced our pages with an interview about what it’s really like to be a screenwriter.

Joe gave us a list of five random rules (more like soft guidelines, he said.) “Let me preface this,” he told us, “by saying that I’m a working writer pounding out mainstream studio films.  If you’re an indie type, if your dream is to write “My Left Foot,” you should probably ignore everything I’m about to say.”

With that in mind, here are Joe’s thoughts:

  1. If you can’t pitch your idea in a sentence, toss it in the garbage. There’s a very good chance the person who has the power to buy your script will never read it.  They will simply ask the exec underneath them (that did read it), “What’s it about?”

  2. “No one knows anything.”  My god, was William Goldman right. I can’t tell you the number of ideas I’ve been talked out of writing (by agents, managers, and writer friends) only to see a similar — or the exact same idea — sell months later. “You can’t sell a time travel script!!!”  That’s a favorite around here in Hollywood.  Truth is, there are a ton of time travel scripts in development and yet, every single year, a bunch of them sell.  I was told four years ago, “Never write an alien invasion movie.”  At last count, I think ten gazillion alien invasion specs have sold since then.

  3. Make your first act SCREAM.  I was talking to an exec the other night and he told me he had 25 scripts to read that weekend.  This is a guy DYING to toss your script in the garbage and move onto the next.  Don’t give him a reason. Hook him hard in the first 30 pages and he probably won’t risk putting it down.

  4. ALWAYS be writing original material.  It’s the only thing you can control to get ahead in Hollywood.  Writing assignments pay the bills, but are a trap.  First, they almost never get made.  Studios make only make a few movies a year and they have a good idea which ones they are – so they give those projects to David Koepp and Scott Frank. Assignments also freeze your quote.  If you just go from assignment to assignment, your quote stays the same.  The only way to get a bump is:  a) if you get a movie made or  b) sell a hot spec. Another great benefit of writing an original spec is that everyone and I mean EVERYONE in Hollywood HAS to read it.  People get fired for not reading a spec that sells.   So if you write a good script, everyone will know — and you’ve helped yourself.

  5. Turn off all the noise.  There’s being informed and then there’s immersing yourself in the Hollywood nonsense.  Who’s sold what, what studios are looking for, what are the trends, blah, blah, blah.  There’s no better way to paralyze yourself. Find an idea that you think is cool that and that has a solid hook/logline.  Then tell everyone else to keep their opinions to themselves.  It’s really easy to have too many voices in your ear.  Everyone in town is quick with advice that sounds like fact.  It’s all opinion.  I’ve been married six years; I can’t even guess what my wife wants for dinner.  You think I can tell you what’s going to sell?  Do you think anyone else can? If you love it, write it.  If you don’t love it, it’s not going to be very good anyway.

Find Joe on Facebook here.

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