PERFORMING ARTS / FILM & VIDEO / SCREENWRITING $12.95 USA / $17.

95 CAN

Is Breaking… Bad?
Pilar Alessandra’s popular book, Th e C o f f e e B r e a k S c r e e n w r i te r ,
the
was a bestseller because it taught writers how to do something few coffee break
thought possible — write a script ten minutes at a time. screenwriter
With this new book, she again shows writers how to expand their skills
by challenging the established rules of screenwriting. In this small
but powerful guide, Pilar discusses every major screenwriting rule,
revealing why it exists and when writers should break it. The result?

Breaks
A script crackling with creative surprises!

“Totally indispensable. If I’d had this 30 years ago, I’d have saved 30 years.”
—Ted Raimi, writer / director, Lionsgate Online; actor, Spider-Man

the Rules
“A succinct, clear guide… find and polish the diamond hidden in your script!”
—Jen Klein, writer / co-producer, Grey’s Anatomy, Star

“Living proof that rules are meant to be broken… often… and with glee!”
—Rich Fulcher, writer, Rick and Morty, Snuff Box, The Mighty Boosh, Disenchantment

Pilar Alessandra started her career as a senior story analyst BREAKS THE RULES
at DreamWorks SKG. In 2001, she opened the Los Angeles–based
On the Page Writers’ Studio, dedicated to consulting with and educating
screenplay and TV writers. Pilar hosts the “On the Page Podcast,” further
discussing many of the writing tips and techniques covered in her
renowned The Coffee Break Screenwriter. An in-demand speaker, she’s
traveled the world teaching writing, and leading seminars at studios
including Disney Animation, ABC, CBS, and MTV. www.onthepage.tv

- A Guide for the Rebel Writer -
MICHAEL WIESE PRODUCTIONS | WWW.MWP.COM
Published by Michael Wiese Productions
12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (FAX)
mw@mwp.com
www.mwp.com

Cover design by Johnny Ink. www.johnnyink.com
Interior layout by William Morosi
Copyediting by Ross Plotkin
Printed by McNaughton & Gunn

Manufactured in the United States of America
Copyright 2018 by Pilar Alessandra
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without
permission in writing from the author, except for the i­nclusion of brief quotations in a review.

The author acknowledges the copyright owners of the motion pictures from which single frames
have been used in this book for purposes of commentary, criticism, and scholarship under the
Fair Use Doctrine.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Alessandra, Pilar, author.
Title: The coffee break screenwriter breaks the rules : a guide for the rebel
writer / By Pilar Alessandra.
Other titles: Guide for the rebel writer
Description: Studio City, CA : Michael Wiese Productions, [2018]
Identifiers: LCCN 2017025958 | ISBN 9781615932825
Subjects: LCSH: Motion picture authorship.
Classification: LCC PN1996 .A485 2018 | DDC 808.2/3--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017025958

Printed on Recycled Stock
CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION ��������������������������������������������������������������������������xi

HOW THIS BOOK WORKS ���������������������������������������������������� xiii

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK������������������������������������������������������� xv

CHAPTER 1:
WHERE DO THEY GET THIS STUFF? �������������������������������1
●● Where do these rules come from and why are
they there?

CHAPTER 2:
VOICEOVER AND FLASHBACK AND WALL
BREAKING . . . OH MY �������������������������������������������������������������4
●● The Rule: Never use voiceover.
●● The Rule: Never use flashback.
●● The Rule: Breaking the fourth wall is a no-no.
●● Other rules discussed: Dream sequences and fantasy
sequences.

vii
viii THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

CHAPTER 3:
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD �������������14
●● The Rule: The main character must be likable.
●● The Rule: Your main character must have an arc.
●● The Rule: Characters need to verbally reveal their
backstory.
●● The Rule: Character description must be physical.
●● Other rules discussed: Only one main character. Main
character must save the day. Main character can’t die.
Gay and transgender tropes.

CHAPTER 4:
SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY ������ 29
●● The Rule: Don’t write long dialogue scenes.
●● The Rule: Speaking directly is “on the nose.”
●● Other rules discussed: Subtitles and parenthesis.

CHAPTER 5:
FREEDOM FROM FORMAT ���������������������������������������������������41
●● The Rule: Scenes must begin with proper
scene headers.
●● The Rule: Never add emotion to action description.
●● The Rule: Never describe what can’t be seen.
●● Other rules discussed: World-specific terminology.
Naming characters. Camera direction. Script length.
CONTENTS ix

CHAPTER 6:
NEWS FLASH: THERE IS NO STRUCTURE JAIL�������� 56
●● The Rule: The story must be linear.
●● The Rule: Act breaks and events must fall on
certain pages.
●● Other rules discussed: Readers passing on scripts due
to structural issues.

CHAPTER 7:
WHAT NOT TO WRITE . . . AND OTHER RULES
THAT DON’T HOLD UP ���������������������������������������������������������� 65
●● The Rule: Write what you know.
●● The Rule: You have to write in one form and
one genre.
●● The Rule: Producers only want scripts with white,
male, leading characters.
●● The Rule: Producers only want scripts with characters
under the age of fifty.
●● Other rules discussed: The need to live in LA. Age
of screenwriters. Period pieces. Writing sequels and
trilogies. Scripts about politics and religion. What
readers want.

CONCLUSION:
RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN ���������������������������� 82

Acknowledgments������������������������������������������������������������ 84

ABOUT THE AUTHOR���������������������������������������������������������������� 86
HOW THIS BOOK WORKS

The Coffee Break Screenwriter Breaks the Rules is
broken down into seven chapters that take on the most
common rules associated with script writing.

Chapter 1 covers why the rules exist at all. I mean, who
came up with this stuff?

Chapter 2 covers storytelling devices like flashbacks and
voiceovers.

Chapter 3 focuses on character including likeability
issues and backstory.

Chapter 4 digs into dialogue issues such as lengthy dis-
cussions and “on the nose” writing.

Chapter 5 focuses on format and the expression of
emotion and visuals.

Chapter 6 dares to tackle structure and nonlinear writing.

Chapter 7 takes on the industry in regard to demograph-
ics, gender, and producer expectations.

xiii
xiv THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

For every “rule” that’s covered, we discuss . . .

1. WHY IT EXISTS
2. WHY YOU SHOULD BREAK IT
3. HOW TO BREAK IT
4. HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD
5. WHO BROKE IT BEST

You’ll also see True/False questions sprinkled throughout.
As a screenwriting teacher and script coach who has
read thousands of scripts from production companies,
studios, and aspiring writers, it’s my belief that there are
a handful of rules that actually work and some that are
plain silly. And, watch out, as I may lay down a few rules
of my own.

Of course, you can always try and break those as well.
You’re the writer!
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK

This should be a book you can go to time and time
again whenever you’re writing or rewriting a new screen-
play, TV pilot, short film, or web series.

Read this book from beginning to end to get inspired to
become the rebel writer that you secretly are . . .

OR

Jump to a rule you want to know more about and learn
why it’s there and how to break it creatively. Remain
open. The “why it’s there” section might actually inspire
you to apply the rule, rather than break it.

xv
“There are no rules in filmmaking.
Only sins. And the cardinal sin
is dullness.”

—Frank Capra
CHAPTER 1

WHERE DO THEY GET
THIS STUFF?

WHERE DO THESE RULES COME FROM?

Quick answer: Books, the internet, Aristotle, and you.

Yeah you. Sure there are screenwriters, executives, story
analysts, and others who’ve written countless books
and created courses that give lessons and offer graphs
filled with story patterns and page demarcations. I wrote
one too! But, it was you, the writer, who took all of this
stuff as law.

1
2 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

If writers (and production companies) just saw this for
what it was all really meant to be, guidance, everyone
wouldn’t be so stressed out.

RULES, GUIDANCE, WHATEVER.
WHY ARE “THE RULES” THERE?

●● To remind you of the patterns and rhythms of suc-
cessful screenplays.

●● To help you organize your thoughts and story.

●● To keep you from overwriting.

●● To stay within a form that translates to other areas of
the industry.

●● To remind you of audience expectation.

You’ll find many rules have common sense or good
writing technique at their core. You should always con-
sider the rule and its intention before you purposely
break it. There might actually be something in it that
can help you.

SO, WHY BREAK THE RULES?

●● Because you’re always looking for that one thing that
sets your script apart.
WHERE DO THEY GET THIS STUFF? 3

●● Because writing to formula can kill a story.

●● Because you want to keep the reader (and audience)
from getting too comfortable.

●● Because you secretly want to.

The safe writer is the unemployed writer. He or she
keeps getting the comment, “Interesting, but not for us.”
You want to turn this around to “Fascinating. We don’t
have anything like it!”

SHOULD I BREAK ALL OF THE RULES?

No.

I mean, come on! Just because it appears to be a rule,
doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Like changing up just
one element in your script, breaking only one rule can
change everything. Do this too much and you’ll have a
story that’s muddy within a form that’s unrecognizable.

Rebel, but rebel gracefully.
CHAPTER 2

VOICEOVER AND
FLASHBACK AND WALL
BREAKING . . . Oh My

Whenever I ask a screenwriter about “rules,” the first
things that come up are voiceover and flashback.
Perhaps that’s because they’ve heard that they should
never, ever use these devices, then watch puzzled as
binge-worthy TV shows constantly employ flashback and
every Oscar nominated movie begins with narration. I’m
equally puzzled, so it’s time to talk it through.

4
VOICEOVE R AND FL ASHBACK AND WALL B RE AK ING . . . Oh My 5

THE RULE:
NEVER USE VOICEOVER

WHY IT EXISTS

●● Film is a visual medium. (Show, don’t tell.)

●● Leaning on voiceover encourages the writer to be
lazy with storytelling.

●● Voiceover has the potential to create a static shot.
What’s going on while someone is narrating? Most of
the time, not much.

WHY BREAK IT

●● Well-crafted voiceover can bring poetry into a scene.

●● Voiceover provides the opportunity to convey what
the dialogue and scene direction cannot.

●● Voiceover can create an all-knowing or truth-telling
“character” for the audience.

●● Voiceover can streamline an epic story by filling in
the timeline.

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Make sure your voiceover is balanced throughout
the script. Layer it into the story and we’ll feel like it’s
6 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

just another character talking to us. Or, bookend the
script with it so that the script feels like a fable.

●● Make sure your voiceover is tonally consistent.
By doing this, we’ll begin to understand that the
voiceover is there as the punch line (Election), or
the inner-thought (Mr. Robot), or the guide who
moves us through time and place (The Shawshank
Redemption).

●● Make sure your voiceover doesn’t switch tense. We
need to know the person speaking to us is either
talking in the moment or from a future looking back
on past events.

●● Make sure your voiceover is bringing a new ele-
ment or information into the scene. Is it bringing
wisdom, humor, or information to the scene that
we can’t get by just watching the story? Yes? Then
break the rule!

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● When writers write too much of it! A little goes a long
way with voiceover. When we don’t see the words
actually come out of a character’s mouth, we hear
only what we need to, then tune out as we search
for the visual story.
VOICEOVE R AND FL ASHBACK AND WALL B RE AK ING . . . Oh My 7

●● When clumps of voiceover compete with clumps
of scene direction. Instead layer the voiceover and
action. Tell us something, then show us something.
Lather, rinse, repeat.

●● When you’re telling us what we’re clearly seeing
anyway. No matter how clever the voiceover is, if
you’re doing this, the audience will get impatient.

●● When you’re narrating a story like it’s an epic novel.
If you think you can stuff two stories into one by
adding voiceover, think again. Your voiceover really
should contribute — not give us pages and pages of
exposition or backstory.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● The Shawshank Redemption, Raising Arizona,
Election, Jane the Virgin

THE RULE:
NEVER USE FLASHBACK

WHY IT EXISTS

●● Because writers often neglect their central stories in
favor of dwelling on the past.

●● Because flashbacks can become a crutch to reveal a
secret or answer a question when that answer should
be earned.
8 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

●● Because it can stop the action as a character takes
time to reflect on a past event.

WHY BREAK IT

●● A through-line of well-crafted flashbacks can create
intriguing subplots.

●● Flashbacks can build out a mystery.

●● Flashbacks can reveal an amusing or shocking truth
behind a present-day lie.

●● Flashbacks can replace needless exposition.

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Figure out what story you want to tell with a flash-
back and break it into pieces. Keeping the story
linear, add those pieces prior to key plot points to
move the contemporary story forward.

●● Take your current flashbacks and edit them to be
short and punchy. “Flash” an image or “flash” a
spoken line. Don’t linger.

●● Use your flashback to illustrate a truth. If someone
lies in the contemporary story, quickly flash to reveal
an image that shows the truth.

●● If you start with a shocking teaser, flash pieces of
the teaser throughout the story for genre effect, but
VOICEOVE R AND FL ASHBACK AND WALL B RE AK ING . . . Oh My 9

also to eventually show us what we didn’t see in that
teaser. Perhaps a later flashback reveals who the killer
actually was or which character was witnessing the
action. Or, perhaps this revealing part of the event
will come from another character’s point of view.

●● A flashback of a new point of view or context can
help a main character resolve his or her problem.
Looking back through another lens helps us under-
stand the final reveal in movies like The Sixth Sense
or Fight Club.

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● Flash back constantly and you’ll lose ground on your
more important, contemporary story.

●● Flash to moments for shock value alone and the
reader will feel emotionally manipulated.

●● Fail to indicate that we’re in a flashback by leaving
that information out of the scene header and you’ll
lose the reader entirely. It’s ok to write:

FLASHBACK: INT. DINING HALL — NIGHT

or

INT. DINING HALL — NIGHT — 1961
10 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● Manchester by the Sea, Bloodline (season 1), The
Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Lost, Citizen Kane,
Black-ish, Orange Is the New Black

THE RULE:
BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL IS A NO-NO

WHY IT EXISTS

●● It’s an intrusive device that demands the audience
pay attention and become involved.

●● It can overshadow the movie or TV show, constantly
pulling the reader or audience out of the action.

WHY YOU SHOULD BREAK IT

●● Because it’s such an intrusive device it feels rebel-
lious. That’s why super rebels like Deadpool, Frank
Underwood from House of Cards, and the lead
character from Fleabag stop what they’re doing to
talk right to us. That’s why mischievous Jim from
The Office gives us a private raise of an eyebrow.
These characters don’t care about the rules and, by
breaking the fourth wall, you indicate that you clearly
don’t either.
VOICEOVE R AND FL ASHBACK AND WALL B RE AK ING . . . Oh My 11

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Let us in on the thought behind a key choice as the
character pushes toward a new sequence or act.

FRANCIS
She’s wary. I can see it in her
eyes.
(and now to the camera)
Walker’s political capital rises
or falls with the success of this
bill. And I need to be at the
center of it.
From House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

●● Again, devices such as this are great for revealing
truth. If other characters are trying to get away with a
lie, your character can look right at the camera and
tell the truth.

FLEABAG
(to camera)
She’s uptight and beautiful and
probably anorexic, but clothes
look awesome on her.
From Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

●● You can also throw the audience off base for a
moment; making us feel like a voyeur as a character
scolds us for continuing to hang around or teases us
with the reminder that we haven’t been forgotten.
12 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

You’re still here? It’s over. Go
home. Go.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by John Hughes

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● The fact is that breaking the fourth wall dares to
involve the audience so, if you use it carelessly, it
will make that same audience feel put off. For that
reason, have your character address the audience
only when it serves story, character, or genre.

●● When this device is used along with other devices
such as voiceover and flashback, the script feels over-
loaded and gimmicky. Choose one or the other.

●● When there’s only one random aside — rather
than carefully placing these moments throughout a
script — you take us out of the reality of the story
and run the risk of never bringing us back in.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● House of Cards, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fleabag,
Annie Hall, Deadpool
VOICEOVE R AND FL ASHBACK AND WALL B RE AK ING . . . Oh My 13

MAKING MY OWN RULE:
LOSE THE DREAM SEQUENCES

●● Dream sequences. I hate them. They add needless
filler to a script, are completely unreliable for informa-
tion, and don’t move story. There, I said it. Now, feel
free to break it and show me that I’m wrong.

TRUE OR FALSE? I hate dream sequences but I don’t mind
fantasy sequences.
ANSWER: TRUE!

●● Both devices give a sense of subconscious desire,
but dream sequences are unreliable and too open to
analysis. A fantasy sequence shows desire in a dra-
matic or funny way in the actual moment the story is
taking place. We understand its role in the story and
can easily determine — by snapping back to reality —
what’s real and what isn’t.

●● If you do use fantasy sequences as a device, follow
the guidelines of voiceover and flashback, making
sure to be consistent and using it to help tell story.
CHAPTER 3

LETTING YOUR
CHARACTERS RUN WILD

As a writer, you don’t like restraints on your creativity. So
why restrain your characters by assuming they need to
act a certain way in a certain situation? This chapter lets
your characters run free and find out who they really are.

We start right off the bat with the idea of “likability,” a
rule that, when dutifully followed, can cause a good
script to completely lose its spark. We then explore the
need for character arc, shake our heads at indulgent,
verbal backstory, and remind ourselves that beauty in
characters is only skin-deep.

14
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 15

THE RULE:
THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST BE LIKABLE

WHY IT EXISTS

●● To make the audience root for the character and / or
get behind the character’s eyes.

●● To make us feel there’s a possibility for redemption.

WHY BREAK IT

●● We secretly admire characters who take risks and do
shocking things. Case in point: Walter White, Tony
Soprano, Nurse Jackie, and the entire cast of It’s
Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

●● A super-flawed character deserves the second act or
season trouble he or she might get into. Think about
a movie like Groundhog Day. Main character Phil is
a crabby weatherman who needs to learn a lesson
about appreciating the people and things around him.
For that reason he’s forced to experience the same
day over and over again until he gets it right.

●● A defined character is stronger than one who lives
in the grey areas. In TV shows like Girls and Silicon
Valley, the ensemble is often narcissistic and self-
ish. But, those qualities also guarantee conflict as we
follow a variety of bad choices down the rabbit hole
of the seasons.
16 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

●● Imposing a “nice” moment on a character can feel
inauthentic and take the reader or audience out of
the moment. An audience knows when it’s being
played. A phony moment in a script will push the
reader away. An “unlikable” but interesting moment
will make the reader dig in to see where this is
all going.

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Create a bigger jerk: Make someone in your script
more unlikable than your main character. (Pushy
boss, selfish girlfriend, womanizing friend.)

●● Show the context: The audience is privy to the big
picture. Show us the context of his or her bad mood
and we’ll be on the character’s side.

●● Balance flaw with skill: Show something the main
character does well. Often that flaw is a result of the
pressure of that skill. Sometimes that skill can’t be
present without giving into the flaw.

●● Show the consequences. We’ll empathize with the
characters if they’re suffering for their sins. Plus, the
message of the piece comes through without lecture.
Here’s what will happen to us, we learn, if we choose
to follow our baser instincts.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 17

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● In a feature film if something doesn’t happen once
act two begins that at least challenges the main char-
acter to be better, you’re in danger of flaw overkill.

●● In a pilot, if we don’t get a sense that there will be
weekly tests for the character, we’ll feel that it’s just
a celebration of his awfulness. That might make the
show unlikeable . . . not just the main character.

●● Breaking it will definitely break bad if you are
unaware that your character is flawed. If you think his
selfishness, cruelty, racism or misogyny is cool, then
you’re in danger of being unlikable.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● Empire, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Game
of Thrones, Shameless, Pulp Fiction, Nurse Jackie,
Groundhog Day, Girls, Silicon Valley, Veep, Silver
Linings Playbook

THE RULE:
YOUR MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE AN ARC

WHY IT EXISTS

●● To keep characters from feeling one-dimensional.

●● To bring depth to a story, allowing us in on emotional
journey rather than just a physical one.
18 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

WHY BREAK IT

●● Certain genres such as action movies and broad com-
edies better maintain their edge and humor when the
main character remains the same from start to finish.

●● Franchise potential emerges with a character who is
as brave or crazy at the end as he or she is at the
beginning of the movie. Think about James Bond or
Ace Ventura.

●● A television character keeps audiences tuning in
each week by not changing, or changing as little as
possible. The hook of Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in
Philadelphia, and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that we’re
treated to characters who learn as little as possible.
And when there is a character arc in a dramatic TV
series, it’s a slow burn. We’d stop watching Don
Draper, Walter White, and Nurse Jackie act out if their
character arc led them to fully change by the end of
a season. In one season on Nurse Jackie, for exam-
ple, we follow her journey to sobriety, only to watch
her pop a pill in the last episode. This regression
allows us to start all over again with her super-flawed
character in the next season.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 19

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Your character may not change, but the world and
people around him or her should. To keep your story
feeling like a story, make sure that your main charac-
ter motivates, encourages, or directly creates change
in the people he or she comes into contact with. That
way there’s an arc in the actual story line — even if
it’s not the main character’s personal arc.

●● Heighten your character’s activity. We often watch
film or TV to see how characters deal with events.
In this case your main character is the event. He or
she is the tornado that whips up the town. Prove
that your character is so special, heroic, strange, fun,
or magical, that he or she deserves to be the same
person going out as coming in.

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● Just because a character doesn’t have a full or rec-
ognizable arc, doesn’t mean that they’re not human.
So beware of making your character cartoonish in a
way that doesn’t feel relatable. (Mind you, I didn’t
say “­likable.”) The main character can’t inspire change
in others if he or she isn’t making a real emotional
connection.

●● Eventually, even James Bond was given a full arc. In
2006, we see Daniel Craig’s Bond begin the movie as
20 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

an agent who kills for his job, but end the movie bent
on avenging the woman he loves. This all proves that
people really can change even though sometimes it
takes forty-four years of movies to get them there.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● James Bond, Ace Ventura, Austin Powers, Larry David,
Larry Sanders, Selina Meyer, Ferris Bueller, The Dude

THE RULE:
CHARACTERS NEED TO VERBALLY
REVEAL THEIR BACKSTORY

WHY IT EXISTS

●● To help us understand and identify with the character.

●● To create a life-context when he or she does some-
thing wrong.

WHY BREAK IT

●● Action and choice within the story help us get to
know a character. If you rely on verbally delivered
backstory to do that, you’re cheating us of some key
character development.

●● Because you’re giving your protagonist a crutch to
explain away his or her flaw and you’re giving your
antagonist an excuse for being horrible.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 21

●● The pace of a script can get bogged down when the
writer stops to rehash the past. Correction: It will get
bogged down!

●● Verbal devices that relay backstory such as mono-
logue or storytelling can feel old-fashioned and
contrived. You’ll keep audiences on the edge of their
seats if you keep them guessing rather than leading
them by the nose.

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● If characters were influenced by specific eras during
which they grew up, give them behaviors and props
reflective of those time periods. Everything gives
away a person’s history; the expressions they use, the
songs they hum, the clothes they wear.

●● Make sure your characters react to the characters
and world around them. We get to know characters
through their emotional responses.

●● Familiarity or awkwardness between characters will
convey a relationship history. No need to talk about
it when two people are showing it.

●● Show the character’s stage of life with windows into
how they live, where and how they work, who they’re
friends with, etc. Audiences are smart. They’ll fill in
the blanks on their own.
22 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● If writers dangle a backstory mystery, but never reveal
the truth, the story will be unsatisfying and feel unfin-
ished. Sometimes after working hard to get there, a
character just has to say the secret out loud.

●● If there’s the suggestion of conflict in a relationship
that’s never satisfactorily revealed, we leave the script
with unanswered questions.

●● If the ending hinges on a backstory secret and you
haven’t alluded to it in any way prior to the third act,
we’ll leave the script feeling puzzled.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● The Road, The Walking Dead.
DISCLAIMER: Backstory in these examples may indeed
be verbally discussed. But when it’s finally delivered,
it’s earned.

THE RULE:
CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
MUST BE PHYSICAL

WHY IT EXISTS

●● To create a specificity that helps us “see” the
character.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 23

●● To help casting directors bring the correct physical
type into their casting calls.

WHY BREAK IT

●● Physical specificity actually rules out creative and
diverse casting. Will the casting be open to a black or
Latina actress if she’s described as “a tall blonde?”

●● Female characters are constantly described in terms
of their beauty or body type which is sexist and,
frankly, uninteresting.

Here are some examples curated by Ross Putman and
posted on his Twitter site @femscriptintros:

JANE, 33, stunning with (former) cover
girl looks.

JANE, 30s, pretty enough, is standing at
the table.

JANE, with lengthy blonde hair, enters.

The woman with strawberry blonde hair.
Her eyes are chocolate brown. Her ruby
red lips break into a grin. This is JANE
(23).
24 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

HOW TO BREAK IT

●● Describe personality and skills. In The Coffee Break
Screenwriter I also spoke about just getting a sense
of a character’s “essence.”

DOROTHY VAUGHAN (40s) slides out from
under the car. No-nonsense, brilliant,
tough, mechanically gifted.

From Hidden Figures; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Inside the car is ERIC WRIGHT, 21, but
you know him as—

SUPERIMPOSE: ERIC WRIGHT AKA EAZY-E

A man who is completely in his element —
comfortable and poised, ready for
anything.

From Straight Outta Compton by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

Paramount President BARNEY BALABAN, 70s,
ferocious, righteous, sits behind his
impressive desk...

From Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (aka Hitchcock) by John J.
McLaughlin

CLAIRE, Late 30s, uptight suburban mom,
tries to make every day special for her
kids, needs control.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 25

PHIL, Late 30s, real estate agent, upbeat,
goofy, thinks he’s cooler than he is.

From My American Family (aka Modern Family) by Steven Levitan and
Christopher Lloyd

●● When you add an action to a great character
description, it imprints the character even more:

DETECTIVE ROSARIO ORTIZ, 45, aggressive,
gallows humor, and her partner DETECTIVE
DAN WILLIAMS, 40, quietly intense, watch
the girl behind one-way glass.

From Damages by Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman

A cavernous space. Sound-proofed walls.
And in the center, a DRUM SET. Seated
at it, in a sweat-marked white T, eyes
zeroed on his single-stroke roll, is
ANDREW NEIMAN.

From Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

ALICE WARD, a salty New England broad,
50s, with a cigar in her mouth, pulls a
casserole out of the oven.

GEORGIE CLEMENTS. 20s, a meatball, leans
out his window, GUNS his engine to get
Dickie’s attention.

From The Fighter by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson

“A meatball.” I love that.
26 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

HOW BREAKING IT CAN BREAK BAD

●● Writing essence plus action is such a fun way to
describe characters that it’s tempting to go over the
top. If your descriptions get too colorful or metaphori-
cal, pull back a bit. You might think you’re being cute
by describing a playful character as “a monkey in a
man suit” — but this is film and TV where anything
can happen. Misread a description like that and a
producer might end up buying the script because
he thinks it’s actually about a man possessed
by a monkey.

WHO BROKE IT BEST

●● Hidden Figures, Whiplash, The Fighter, Up in the Air

TRUE OR FALSE? THERE MUST ONLY BE ONE MAIN
CHARACTER IN A MOVIE.
ANSWER: FALSE!

●● The proof can be found in the large number of
buddy movies, two-protagonist romantic comedies,
ensemble movies, and TV shows that feature large,
equally weighted casts.

●● TIP: If you are writing an ensemble movie or TV
show, make sure their individual storylines have a
beginning, middle, and end. Even three scenes (one
per act) can do it.
LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS RUN WILD 27

TRUE OR FALSE? The main character always has to save the
day.
ANSWER: TRUE AND FALSE!

●● The true part: A main character should be involved
in the solution to his or her story. If he or she sud-
denly steps to the side, why were we following that
character this whole time?

●● The false part: The main character may still be
involved if someone he or she has taught, mentored,
or influenced uses a skill learned from the main
character to ultimately save the day.

●● And that leads to the next question . . .

TRUE OR FALSE? The main character can’t die at the end of
the movie or TV series.
ANSWER: FALSE!

●● Who doesn’t love a grand moment of physical sacri-
fice? But when a character does die, it’s most often
for a greater good. He or she leaves the world and
the other characters in it changed in some way. We
need to believe that the character had to die to solve
the problem.
28 THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER BREAKS THE RULES

TRUE OR FALSE? It’s annoying when the happy ending of a
script involves the main character selling a script.
ANSWER: TRUE!

●● Super annoying. Add to the annoying list: when char-
acters win the lottery, marry rich, or come into an
inheritance. Money (and script sales) don’t buy you
love, nor the respect of audiences who want to see
their heroes earn their happy endings.

TRUE OR FALSE? Killing a gay or transgender character is a
tired trope.
ANSWER: TRUE!

●● Film and TV scripts are more actively integrating
gay and transgender characters. But the rate at
which they then kill them off for dramatic reasons is
alarming. If you’ve been smart enough to include a
character that brings diversity of experience to your
cast, keep them alive for goodness sake. You’ll enrich
the script and avoid cliché.