Solid, credible storytelling advice can come from the most unexpected of places.
Take the following clip from the second season of Rick and Morty entitled ‘Look Who’s Purging Now’. In the episode, the titular heroes locate a lighthouse in an attempt to set up a beacon that will send them back to earth.
Before they can do this, however, Morty must first listen to the lighthouse keeper’s tale – a story loosely resembling your average, run-of-the-mill Hollywood screenplay.
Following the interminable script’s eventual completion, Morty unleashes a few constructive truth bombs that serve only to anger the lighthouse keeper who has the utmost faith in what he has written.
It’s an especially meta moment – one which should come as no surprise to regular fans of show-runner Dan Harmon and his previous work on shows like Community.
Speaking of Harmon, it just so happens that creating meta narratives that twist and turn and seemingly break every screenwriting rule in the book while still telling a coherent story is no easy task.
If there’s one thing one can say for sure about Harmon’s writing, it’s that behind all the randomness and hilarity lies a sophisticated mastery of craft. Don’t believe us? Check out his algorithm for breaking down a screenplay into eight handy steps.
Not bad, right? So, without further adieu, let’s dig a little deeper Morty’s encounter with the lighthouse keeper to see what screenwriting don’ts we can find.
1. Avoid framing your story as a flashback unless you have a good reason.
“I'm not a huge fan, personally, of the whole "three weeks earlier" teaser thing. I feel like, you know, we should start our stories where they begin, not start them where they get interesting.”
2. Avoid verbose descriptions that suggest little visually.
“The hustle and bustle is a symphony of progress.”
The lesson: Limit your description to the things that we can see. A flourish here or there is fine, but try to leave the flowery prose for your next novel.
3. Avoid clichéd character descriptions.
“We pan past windows, each of which contain a different story, to find Jacey Lakims, 28… hot, but doesn't know it.”
The lesson: Find ways to describe your characters without playing into tropes or negative stereotypes. If the physical attractiveness of a character is essential to their arc, try to be subtle in the language you choose.
4. Avoid clichéd character beats that play into stereotypes regarding race and gender.
“Jacey stops when her high heel gets caught in the grating of a sewer.”
The lesson: Self-explanatory. Give your characters meaningful obstacles, and try not to limit their dialogue and decision-making process to tired, offensive and unrealistic tropes.
5. Avoid speaking the subtext.
"Jacey: Maybe you're the only friend I need.
Blane: Need, or want?
Jacey: I've never been much for wanting.
Blane: Spoken like someone with needs."
The lesson: It’s called subtext for a reason. Let it arise naturally from the choices your characters make. Remember that, in real life, people are rarely direct in the way that they communicate. More often, we will often find roundabout ways to communicate our deepest feelings and honest intentions. Try to channel this in your dialogue.
6. Avoid setting up a sequel artificially without a credible narrative justification.
“Title. The end…. ?”
the lesson: There’s no use denying the fact that Hollywood likes sequels. In this day and age, packaging a script as a first chapter in a potential franchise has become a staple of the spec market. Still, if your cliffhanger ending feels artificial or unsatisfying, your screenplay is unlikely to leave a good taste in the mouths of potential studio readers.
A good rule of thumb is to suggest the possibility of potential sequels without leaving your audience hanging or making your current story dependent on a continuation.
7. Learn to process constructive feedback.
“You're a petty person, and you're insecure, and you're taking it out on me. That's a good script.”
The lesson: In a word, ego. Remember: writing is rewriting. If you genuinely want to improve your screenplay and work in Hollywood for a living, you’d be well advised to keep an open mind and leave your ego at the door.