Screenwriting Is About Structure

The biggest mistake young screenwriters make is "over-reliance on dialogue" when, in fact, a screenplay is really about setting up the visual scene.
  • Transcript


Question: What are common mistakes of novice screenwriters?

Danny Rubin:
The biggest mistake is over-reliance on dialogue.  They remember their favorites lines and come into the enterprise thinking that it’s about writing lines of dialog for the actors when, in fact, it’s really about the structure.  It’s about setting up the visual scene.  It’s about putting the scenes together in what order actually tells the story and really taking advantage of the visual medium and the dialog often comes after that.  It’s - the beginning writer will rely very heavily on dialog to give you all the information you need.  So, characters are constantly telling each other things.  “I think this, I intend that, I like that.” 

Where it’s much better to find a visual way to get that idea across.  It’s more elegant and it’s more filmic and it’s very, very obviously amateurish to an experienced writer to look at a screenplay that is all reliant on dialog.

Question: Does the development process tend to help or hurt a script?

Danny Rubin:
  In my experience, I’ve spent a lot of time in development on various projects and I’ve seen screenplays get worse and I’ve seen them get better and it’s the structure is the thing that usually has to change and when you change the structure you wind up having to change everything else too because what would happen in a scene changes, so the dialog changes.  Everything does. 

Sometimes it winds towards the juicy center and the notes you're getting are helping it become the screenplay it need to become.  But, there's some point where it becomes like a hail Mary and it just has become very jumbled and messed up and mixed up themes and different peoples’ stories and you wind up with everybody looking at it.  It’s not just you anymore.  It’s you and a room full of people and everybody has a different opinion and sometimes they just say, “Well, try this,” because they just don’t know and then you realize the project is gone.  It’s somehow gotten away from everybody.

And that’s not unusual and it’s not too hard for that to happen and it’s not really the fault of anybody.  I found that development executives and producers are actually very smart and although there are have been many, many stupid and clueless and difficult and impossible notes I’ve gotten that I had to somehow solve, more often the notes are quite good and make a lot of sense and have been helpful.

Question: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given as a screenwriter?

Danny Rubin:
I don’t know.  I don’t know that I can think of anything.  Quit?  Give up?

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman