Everybody in Hollywood knows the top
three rules of screenwriting:
1. Write what you know.
Films must have a happy ending.
3. Films must have three acts.
But few people know what these rules all have in common:
They are all wrong.
Rule #1: Write What You
There is no writer alive who has not been advised,
"Write what you know." And there are few writers who have not, in
the course of following this advice, spent months or years producing
a personally cathartic but boringly predictable work.
often, writers take "write what you know" to mean "write what you've
lived." Yet, few writers lead dramatic lives; if they did, they
wouldn't have much time or energy for writing. Writing what you
know, therefore, can constrict a writer to a very narrow and
What you "know," if you have any
creativity at all, is not just
what you have experienced.
Paul Schrader had no experience as a pimp or a taxi driver when he
wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver
. He had studied to be a
minister at Calvin College, a small fundamentalist school in
Michigan, and earned his M.A. degree in academic film studies at
UCLA writing about the spiritual dimensions of the work of the
Danish director Carl Theodore Dryer.=
Puzo wasn't a made man or even a member of a Mafia family, he was a
novelist looking for a commercial hit, and what he knew about the
Mafia when he wrote The Godfather
came mostly from his
research in the New York Public library.
George Lucas grew
up in rural Modesto, California, where there were no space ships,
hyper-drives or even robots. What he knew about "The Force" he got
largely from Joseph Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces
and popular studies of comparative religions.
If all that a
writer "knows" is his own personal experience, it will never be
broad enough to sustain him throughout a productive career.
Experience, in itself, is never enough
. The more one relies
on it exclusively, the more one runs the risk of restricting one's
imagination, which is where most creativity originates.
Rule #2: Films Must Have a Happy Ending
are some memorable popular films that do not
have a happy
Bonnie and Clyde
The Bridge on the River
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
A Clockwork Orange
E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial
The French Connection
From Here to Eternity
The Godfather: Part II
Gone with the Wind
Grapes of Wrath
Lawrence of Arabia
The Maltese Falcon
The Manchurian Candidate
Mutiny on the Bounty
On the Waterfront
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Rebel Without a
Silence of the Lambs
A Streetcar Named Desire
To Kill a Mockingbird
of the Sierra Madre
The press, audiences, and people in the film
industry itself all seem to believe that, to be a success, a
Hollywood film must have a happy ending, but as this list
demonstrates, this is not born out by the evidence. While comedies
and musicals generally end happily, a very large proportion of the
most memorable popular films (those that were popular in their own
day and have remained
popular) do not
endings of the vast majority of memorable popular films consist of
Pyrrhic victories, in which the central characters have gone through
such trauma, loss, pain, sacrifice, and suffering that calling their
final state "happy" would be a maddeningly insensitive joke.
The Declaration of Independence and every politician who
invokes it may speak of the "pursuit of happiness," but happiness
has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something
heroes learn to live without
Rule #3: Films Must
Have Three Acts
What is the authority for this rule?
Surely, not empirical observation, for the history of drama and film
is filled with great dramatic and filmic works that cannot be said
to have three acts. So, why in recent years have so many people
tried to force films into this Procrustean bed?
authority most often cited for the "three act rule" is that oldest
of dramatic theorists, Aristotle. In his other works, Aristotle
often obsessively numbered things, so had he observed three acts in
the works of the great Greek playwrights, surely he would have
reported it. But none
of the plays Aristotle was familiar
with had acts in the modern sense of the term. Not surprisingly,
therefore, Aristotle said absolutely nothing about an act structure
- and certainly nothing about three acts.
that drama has a beginning, middle, and end, but he did not make a
big deal about it, which is a good thing because when one looks at
the statement it is so self-evident that one has to wonder why such
a great thinker bothered to make it or why his students thought it
worthy of preserving for posterity.
World War II, this
article, and your last bowel movement all have a beginning, middle,
and end. Everything
that takes place in time or space has a
beginning, middle, and end. But this is not the same thing as three
Some people suggest that an alternative to
three acts is the five act structure they ascribe to Shakespeare.
But a large proportion of Shakespeare's works did not have such a
structure - it wasn't until nearly a hundred years after his death
that a publisher decided to impose the five act structure on all of
his plays. So, neither the three nor the five act structures came
from the revered source so often claimed for them.
act structure was invented two thousand years after Aristotle, when
Ibsen and other nineteenth-century dramatists found that their
audiences - unlike those in Periclean Athens - were unable to sit
still for the entire duration of a full-length play.
Ibsen's theater and most theatrical works since, the audience is
aware of acts because the curtain comes down, the house lights come
up, and they get a chance to go to the bathroom. In film, the
curtains don't come down, the houselights don't come up, and anyone
who goes to the bathroom has to miss whatever keeps running on the
screen. No one in the audience knows about "acts." Greek,
Elizabethan, and contemporary film audiences have not needed and as
far as we can tell have never cared
about the act structure
that so many people say the "rules" demand.
It is useful, of
course to remember the self-evident fact that things have a
beginning, middle, and end, but is difficult to explain why so many
people think this is the same as three acts, or why so many people
make up rules about how long they should be and what should take
place within them, especially when the results of such rule-making
all too often resembles painting by the numbers.
What I have learned from more than forty
years of teaching a continuous stream of students at UCLA who have
gone on to be successful film and television makers is that film
storytelling is one of the most difficult of all art forms, and that
it usually takes years to become competent, let alone to master it.
Such mastery comes not from slavishly following forms and formulas,
but from learning the psychology of storytelling, which is
ultimately the psychology of human beings.