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Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" and the "Rules" of Screenwriting

First, there are no rules to screenwriting. But there are principles.

We had a great discussion at our last Writers Workshop about how much someone needs to follow basic screenwriting structure. I always argue in favor of using basic structure, but with one caveat- if your script is awesome, then nothing else matters.

Someone brought up Charlie Kaufman, and his style of writing, particularly "Adaptation." I watched it the other day and confirmed that, yes, even Charlie Kaufman, with all his esoteric, meta, and bizarre work, follows basic story structure.

Here's a wonderful scene from the movie where the character Charlie Kaufman (yes, he's in his own movie, hence, the "meta") has a discussion about screenwriting with his fictitious twin brother (in my opinion, his alter ego) who does not exist in real life. Scroll down for the corresponding video clip.

If you can write something brilliant that keeps readers engaged, it doesn't matter which principles you follow. But for writers who are still learning, following the principles is a very good idea.

In the movie, Charlie keeps trying to write a "movie about flowers" without using Hollywood tropes, but in the end, he surrenders to his twin brother's formulaic style, and finishes the script with a Hollywood ending.

I'm positive Charlie Kaufman was not making the argument that you have to go "Hollywood formula" in order to write a good script. But I do wonder if he was disagreeing with his onscreen self, saying you can't just "write a movie about flowers," as Charlie (the character) wanted to do. In my opinion, you can't just write a movie about flowers. There has to be a story around the flowers. You don't have to have alligators, or gun fights, or car accidents, but you do have to have a beginning, middle, and an end, and a push and pull within every scene.

You might think that Charlie Kaufman writes his own way, and doesn't follow basic screenwriting structure. If that's what you think, then you either (a) have a different definition of "structure"; or (b) haven't looked closely enough. So I watched the movie, and broke it down into its basic structure beats"

Just like pretty much every movie I've ever seen, "Adaptation" follows basic structure, more or less.

If you're a prodigy, and you can whip out a compelling script without considering these beats, then by all means, don't let me stop you. But like most of us, we're writers who need to learn a few things first. That's where basic structure comes to good use.

If you're looking for help with writing structure, download my Awesome Ultimate Screenwriting Outline, join one of my group workshops, or book a 1-on-1 with me.

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