22 unwritten rules for screenwriters

Ever wonder why movies seem to resemble each other in so many ways?   Or why action scenes all seem to be staged by the same choreographer?  Or why certain story points keep repeating themselves in film after film?

Well, there are unwritten rules screenwriters are expected to follow. We don’t really want to follow them, but if we don’t capitulate, somebody else will step in and force our hand.

Here are the 22 most common unwritten rules of screenwriting (Some of these come from The Freeman Institute. If you have any additional rules, please feel free to add them in the comment section):

  1. During all police investigations, it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once.
  2. All beds have special L-shaped sheets which reach up to armpit level on a woman, but only to waist level on the man lying beside her.
  3. All grocery shopping bags must contain at least one loaf of French bread or a bunch of celery that sticks out the top of a full bag.
  4. It’s easy for anyone to land a plane, provided there is someone in the control tower to talk you down.
  5. The ventilation system of any building is the perfect hiding place. No one will ever think of looking for you in there, and they will allow you to travel to any other part of the building without difficulty.
  6. If you need to reload your gun, you will always have more ammunition, even if you weren’t carrying any before now.
  7. Should you wish to pass yourself off as a German officer, it will not be necessary to speak the language – a German accent will do.
  8. The Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window in Paris.
  9. A man will show no pain while taking the most ferocious beating, but will wince when a woman tries to clean his wounds.
  10. If being chased through town, you can usually take cover in a passing St. Patrick’s Day parade – at any time of the year.
  11. When paying for a taxi, you don’t need to look at your wallet as you take out a bill. Just grab one at random and hand it over.  It will always be the exact fare, including tip.
  12. Mothers routinely cook eggs, bacon and waffles for their husbands and children every morning, even though they never have time to eat.
  13. Cars which crash will always burst into flames.
  14. The Chief of Police will always suspend his star detective – or give him 48 hours to finish the job.
  15. Any person waking from a nightmare will sit bolt upright, perspiring and panting.
  16. It is not necessary to say hello or goodbye when beginning or ending phone conversations.
  17. All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts so you know exactly when they’re going to go off.
  18. Most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communication systems of any alien civilization.
  19. Any lock can be picked by a credit card or a paper clip in seconds – unless it’s the door to a burning building with a child trapped inside, in which case you will need a battering ram.
  20. Police Departments give their officers personality tests to make sure they are deliberately assigned a partner who is their total opposite.
  21. Television news bulletins usually contain a story that affects you personally at the precise moment you are watching, and it’s never necessary to listen to the complete bulletin.
  22. It doesn’t matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts.  Your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one. They’ll dance around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors

Now you know our dirty little secret… he-he

About Brian Bird

32 Replies

  1. Great work Brian. A few more that come to mind.

    When characters arrive by vehicle at any destination (restaurant, store, courthouse…) there is always a parking space right in front.

    It doesn’t matter what type of building, there is ALWAYS a window through which one can easily escape if needed.

    All high schools have only one alpha male jock with a cool car and an entourage of yes-men. Likewise for the female antagonist/cheerleader.

    Any movie that begins with the portrayal of a healthy, happy parent/child relationship requires that said parent be dead by scene III.

  2. Craig Galbraith

    Wondered if you would be posting any of your produced screenplays here? I found it a great help when I was watching Sin Eater to be reading along with your script to graps structure and writing devices – great learning tool.

  3. This is hilarious but so true.Thanks for i will be on the look out for more. I am more familiar with scenes from Nigerian most scenes, a person runs into the road and gets hit by a hit and run driver or you see scenerios in most films with same hairdo for ten years!lol

  4. Frank Pastore

    Mornin’ Brian! What a great way to wake up this morning… reading this with the chuckles all the way through. Way to go. You, of course, will now be banished from the screenwriter tribe and labeled a whistleblower. Come to think of it, nope, they’ll now promote you to Shaman Truthteller. Can’t wait for the next one!

  5. Domenic


  6. Love your blog, Brian. And these are great! I love the last one – always thought it was silly that the bad guys would “take turns” fighting the hero.
    One more to add:
    Coughing is the universal sign of life, whether you’ve drowned, or been in a coma.

  7. Duane Langenberg

    This is exciting, Brian…looking forward to participating – congrats!

  8. Steve Norwood

    Street scenes must always be wet, even though no windshield wipers are going and no one has an umbrella.

  9. won

    hilarious… you had me nodding yes the whole time!

  10. Thanks for asking, Craig. Yes, I will… just as soon as I figure out how. The blogosphere learning curve has been huge for me, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’m also hoping to create a lot of content by answering screenwriting and film question as the site starts to attract traffic. Feel free to prime the pump with whatever questions you might have, along with those of your colleagues.

  11. @won
    Thanks, Won! Glad you found it. Look forward to more interaction with you in the blogsphere!

  12. Cranium

    These are funny but not all original. See for example –

  13. Hey, thanks, Cranium. Yes, never intended that I invented all of these. I’ve been picking them up apocryphally from friends over the years and did invent a few myself, but kudos to you for finding the source.

  14. Greg Wilcox

    Hey Brian, the site looks good, easy to navigate too. I’ll be back regularly to check out the new content.

  15. Thanks, Greg. Learning my way through the blogosphere. And hope it’s a helpful resource.

  16. Bobbie

    I’m new but love the site. A friend of my turned me on to you and I’m hooked..I’ve always wanted to write something magnificent but my mind and my creativity were not wrking together already your blog has helped…the unwritten rules, too funny. I’m excited to read more from you!

  17. Thanks, Bobbie. I hope you’ll drop me screenwriting questions at and if you’re okay with it, I’ll answer by way of a new post. That way, others can benefit, too. Thanks for finding the site. Spread the word. I would love to make it a vibrant place where we can all talk together.

  18. Rene

    @Steve Shepherd
    When people work late at night in the office they always eat chinese takeout out the box

  19. Dave

    Every expert PHD physicist is a smoking 22-year old blond.

    Bras/tops come off instantly with one attempt.

    Fights go on for ages even though people get thrown over furniture, hit with furniture, smashed into walls, thrown to the ground, and the combatants slug each other repeatedly with bare-knuckles on hard jaw-bones…the fight doesn’t end until the victor picks the vanquished guy up off the ground all the way up to eye level…..and slugs him one last time.

    The hero will never sustain an injury beyond a bloody lip or a cut on his forehead.

    When pointing a semi-auto pistol at someone, the bad guy will make a demand, and when the demand is refused, THEN he pulls the hammer back on the gun….meaning that it was never cocked and ready in the first place…

    If the gun is a revolver, and with the same scenario, where the bad guy show he means business by pulling the hammer back is almost as laughable because most revolvers are double-action meaning that you can just squeeze the “longer” trigger … don’t have to pull the hammer back to fire the first round.

    The hero NEVER uses a mouse…EVER…and he’s always a lightning-fast typist, never makes a mistake, and is a brilliant hacker.

    Nighttime always looks way brighter than the clearest night with the fullest moon.

    The girl the hero gets in the end always uninterested/ hates him at the beginning….until he does something miraculous (boy does this send the wrong message).

    Evil people are always very obvious (look evil, gloat), which is very far from real life.

    The bad guy always constructs elaborate death scenarios from which the hero eventually escapes…after the bad guy leaves the room..he never sticks around to watch.

    Key witnesses in court cases show up at the nick of time, at the end, on their own and go right to the witness stand, again on their own.

  20. Matthew mcloughlin

    All army films mean the man with a pregnant wife or gf at home will die

  21. Sir Asdfghjkl

    This is pretty old, but one thing I’ve always noticed is that when scenes of people dying are about to occur, everyones death can be shown except for the children. usually there will be talks of them dying but never any actual snap shots

  22. Sir Asdfghjkl

    Oh and another thing I noticed is that whenever a bad guy holds the good guy hostage, he will talk about his evil scheme like an accomplishment, then in the final second,something outlandish happens where the good guy has the upper hand, and saves the day

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