Here’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time: books on writing. I want to be perfectly clear here: they’re invaluable. Over the years I’ve read dozens, from How to Make a Good Script Great to Story to Save the Cat and beyond. These books help the new generation of writers (or even the current one, for that matter) learn how to cope with the mountain of obstacles between you and a finished screenplay. Shoddy dialogue, thin characters, structural issues—these books can help fix what’s broken and elevate your writing to new heights. But often times writers rely too heavily on what they read, assuming they’ve been handed “Hollywood’s template” and reducing their story to a series of check boxes. The result is unoriginal, paint-by-numbers storytelling that becomes painfully boring to read.
Get enough aspiring writers in a group to talk about storytelling, and you’ll start to hear the same questions.
“Where’s your Save the Cat moment?”
“About when does your hero approach the innermost cave?”
“Why does your inciting incident happen on page 11 and not page 10?”
There’s a reason working writers don’t raise these questions with each other. It isn’t that there’s no value to them; it’s that we’ve learned what Robert McKee said in the very first chapter of STORY: Writing is form, not formula. The author of each book is offering tips to help fix a problem they can’t see or touch. These rules are meant to be reshaped. Reinterpreted. Changed or discounted completely. But for some reason new writers glob onto them and worry about cramming their story into someone else’s beat sheet.
Am I saying you should write a five-act, 300-page screenplay in 15-pt Marion font? Of course not. Some rules—mostly the structural ones—are helpful ways of keeping your script in a digestible, familiar state that can be consumed in 2 hours. But on the creative side, rules are meant to be broken. Hell, look at Aliens. It takes almost an hour before Ripley even comes into contact with an alien. Did the movie fail because the inciting incident occurred past the ten-minute mark?
Break the rules. Listen to your gut. Write the best damn story you can. Those tips and tricks will be there waiting for you if you need them. But don’t look at them as laws. Your one and only concern should be crafting an entertaining journey. If the inciting incident happens on page 13, don’t freak out. If your hero doesn’t “return with an elixir,” then give me an original ending that sticks with me. The sooner you stop worrying about how to save a cat (and why would you? cats are horrible), the sooner you’ll start developing your own voice and rules.