The Six Golden Laws of Screenwriting

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1. ABOUT LOVE: Always make the love interest sexier than the protagonist. Nobody enjoys a love story between two beautiful people. They want to see a schlumpy loser win the heart of the unattainable object of desire. (Rocky, Say Anything.)

2. ABOUT DANGER: Fuck with your protagonist. Constantly raise the stakes. Seek escalating trouble. This is the structure of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Overcoming dangerous situations creates empathy for your characters. Shit-your-pants survival is the ultimate brass ring for a satisfying movie experience.

3. ABOUT LOSS: Don’t be afraid to kill off beloved characters, even your hero. It worked in Von Ryan’s Express, Terms of Endearment, and Night of the Living Dead. Make your audience feel they have lost something beyond the price of a movie ticket, and they will enjoy a deep catharsis because they didn’t really lose anything except two hours.

4. ABOUT TALK: Great dialogue is the best special effect of all. Nothing is more engaging than clever people who say interesting things in fascinating ways. This is why Shakespeare is still popular and Casablanca is beloved by people who otherwise don’t enjoy war movies. It also explains the entire career of Quentin Tarantino.

5. ABOUT MAGIC MOMENTS: Great moments create movie magic. Witness the riveting nature of Linda Blair’s head spin in The Exorcist or the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Robert Duvall’s “napalm in the morning speech” in Apocalypse Now. Every movie needs at least three magic moments. If you have seven magic moments, you’re on par with It’s a Wonderful Life.

6. ABOUT TITLES: The title is the most important idea in your screenplay. It sets the tone immediately and informs everything that follows. Three words are good, two words are better, one word is the ideal. Coal Miner’s Daughter was a good title. Fatal Attraction was a better title. But Jaws and Psycho are orgasmic and, importantly, money in the bank.

“Six laws?” you’re asking. “There are only six Golden Laws to screenwriting?”

Yup. That’s all you need to be a great writer. Simpler is better. That’s where Syd Field, Robert McKee, and all the other screenwriting gurus go so horribly wrong. They fill your head with too many rules. You can’t think about turning points, rising tension, character arcs, and all that junk on every page. Limitation breeds ingenuity.

Thus, Six Golden Laws. Six is a magic number. Also, six sounds like ‘sex’ and sex sells. Don’t ever forget that.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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