Which screenwriting rules can you break and which ones can you not?
I have read so many times that your character has to have a goal and an opposition and so on and so forth. In these books and classes, they really limit examples to scripts with relatively simple solutions. I have heard everything from Indiana Jones to Romancing The Stone to Ghost. Of course we can pick out the goals and oppositions here.
For instance, in your script for “Go”, who is the central character and what is their goal and opposition? I get so stuck on these rules and it really discourages me in my writing because I don’t feel I have the right answers. I don’t know, but I am so afraid of being one of these awful writers described on your site.
-Robert V Gallegos
You might be an awful writer, but it’s not because you have a hard time figuring out how to implement the so-called rules. Most of them were dreamed up by non-writing film enthusiasts, who decided there had to be an underlying template behind all great movies.
I think there’s a place for the guidebooks, but only to degree the help lessen the stress of “getting it right.” There’s one I recommend, with reservations. And it’s important to be able to talk about “second act breaks” even if you don’t really believe in them, since you’ll be hearing terms like that for the rest of your career.
In terms of the specific rule you cite, I think it’s always fair to ask, “What does this character want?” The answer to that question may or may not be the driving force of your story, but if you can’t answer the question at all, there’s probably something fundamentally wrong with your script.
Let’s look at Go. You have to approach it as three separate stories, each of which has a central character (or duo).
In Part One, Ronna wants to make a very tiny drug deal in order to get enough money to pay her rent. Every decision she makes after that point stems from that desire.
In Part Two, Simon wants to go wild in Vegas. That seems like a nebulous goal, but he’s weirdly aggressive about fulfilling his vision of a perfect night in Vegas.
In Part Three, Adam and Zack want to finish the terms of their deal with the police. Individually, they each want to know who the other one is sleeping with, which becomes the primary goal once the business with Burke is finished.
None of these stories have a classic protagonist/antagonist setup. The central characters experience great obstacles, but the movie deliberately undercuts any sense that, “This was the night that everything changed.” A bunch of shit happens, then it’s over.
Asking what the characters want is something real screenwriters do. In two of the projects I’m writing at the moment, the biggest decisions are about exactly this issue, since that informs every action and the overall tone of the story. Often, the best answer is the simplest: something physical and achievable.