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  • David Hal Chester

BREAK THE RULES. GO ON, BREAK THEM!










Perhaps some of you have heard of the American Western crime drama TV series "Justified." The series was created by Graham Yost, based on a short story (or stories) by Elmore Leonard. I had heard of it also, but I'm not into crime dramas or Westerns, so I never watched it. The truth is, with all the fantastic shows available, there is simply too much good stuff out there to choose from and we all gravitate to the genre we like the most.


That said, I belong to a casual writers' group that does a monthly view/read of a show/movie that someone in the group suggests. This month it was "Justified." One of the writers in the group (who I highly respect) said it was her favorite pilot episode. That intrigued me, so I read the script (haven't seen the pilot yet). Had I been an executive and had this script reached my desk, I would have definitely given it a thumbs up. It's not at all what I am personally interested in, but it doesn't matter: it was a great read. And the best thing about the script is: it broke rules and took chances. It didn't "care" about being "right." That's what made it exciting:

  • Multiple uses of "We see" or other distinct camera angles, i.e. ECU on...

  • Use of MATCH CUT TO:

  • Several long passages of dialogue with tons of details and explanations.

  • Constant dropping of words that would make a sentence grammatically correct (the word "what" was dropped from so many sentences that I felt like I was reading a new language).

  • Characters introduced that never show up again (but might in the future, I don't know).

  • Lead characters that have absolutely no description, just name and age.

  • On-the-nose expositional moments.

  • Politically incorrect moments.

If you or I were to write such a script and submit it, we would be called out on the carpet for all of the above. And yet... why? Who is it exactly that "makes the rules"? There are so many "rules" and people will use them to decide whether someone's script is good or not.


Screenwriter Graham Yost obviously isn't concerned about those rules. Maybe he was before he sold his first script, I don't know. But what I do know is: The pilot for "Justified" is a great script. It has drama, tension, conflict, subtext and tons of dark humor. Howl-worthy moments. Was it a world that I personally wanted to spend time in? Not particularly... but... the beauty of the script is that it made me care about its lead, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Not one word of description is given about Raylan, but, despite the fact that he is not afraid to use a gun and can easily kill someone, you get the sense that he cares about the underdog and the disenfranchised, and that he's going to try and do the right thing. I will not lie; I was taken in and seduced by the writing. It was great.


The purpose of this post is: write a clean, powerful script. Don't get too hung up on the "rules," because, as I'm learning more and more, if you have a great story, no one is going to care if you break them. A seasoned reader or assistant will look past those "broken rules," grab the phone and call you and get you a meeting.

I felt liberated after reading the script. And if I use: "We follow her..." or "We stay on..." and someone marks me down for using that language, sorry; I will feel "justified" in breaking those rules. Write the story you need to, using the conventions that work for you! The pilot script for "Justified" is (currently) available here.

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DAVID HAL CHESTER