I’m going to tell you a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret since I’m going to tell it to you, so pretend you never heard this if you’re planning to give me money. My contained thriller sucks. No, it really sucks. I didn’t realize how badly until it got a 3 and a 4 on The Blacklist site. I know I shouldn’t advertise this but I haven’t written on the blog in a while and I need to use this information to make a point damn it.
When I got those scores back I was super bummed. I knew it wasn’t perfect but a number you could show on one hand was a stab in the heart. After falling on my knees crying, “Why, Lord? Why?” while fanning myself with the church bulletin, I racked my brain to figure out what was wrong with it. The notes were close in content. They each wanted a fuller exploration of the love story and why the woman fell in love with this man who is a killer. It’s a contained thriller, not a romantic comedy, so when I cut the cord on the love story at the end of Act One I didn’t think anyone would care if I left the umbilical dangling. At first, I grumbled to myself about male readers not being able to understand a woman being able to fall in love with a man simply because he’s nice to her. (Sexism, defensive crutch to the wounded for centuries.) Then I ranted about how they didn’t seem to see that as soon as she found out he’s a killer all romantic feelings left her. I mean, after Act One this guy couldn’t make her wet with a fire hose. When I stopped blaming others long enough to tell myself to stop being a sexist asshole I realized something. Even though the majority of the notes were about the relationship between the killer and the victim that’s not what they were really talking about. They were about the rules.
You can find screenwriting rules in every how-to book or website. Rules on structure, description, format, dialogue, etc. You can also find exceptions to every single one of these rules on any top ten list. I realized that without meaning to, I had bashed the rules over the head and thrown them down the stairs. In a fit of love for my killer character I had overthrown the usual horror victim protagonist to tell the story from the killer’s point of view. Through this and many other choices, I had sucked the surprise out of my story and made my characters anemic. By wanting to tell all aspects of the story without paying attention to the rules I broke I had made my script too complicated. I distracted my readers from what was important.
Screenwriting rules are a way of saying Keep It Simple Stupid. Breaking rules is fine just as long as you do it with intention. They’re a way to keep your creative self from dirty dancing with your grandmother. Usually, no one wants to see that but in the right circumstances it could be epic. Rules keep you from adding too many flavors to the pot. Coming from the buffet of a prose writing background, I’ve realized that screenplays are one of the simplest forms of writing. No, I don’t mean in effort. Only poetry further distills narrative through words. We are impressionist not realists. When you look at a screenplay you should see what is intended even though not everything is there.
After polishing a script that got much better reviews, I will rewrite that contained thriller with an eye on the rules. Whether I follow them or not I will do it with intension. Really looking forward to scores that two-year olds would have trouble showing me on their fingers.