Creating something meaningful that works on both an emotional and structural level is not an easy task. This makes finishing your any screenplay an accomplishment in itself, and while the process does get easier over time (or at least more familiar) even the pros need to watch themselves when it comes to common mistakes and pitfalls. No screenplay is perfect, of course, but there are mistakes that writers make across the board – and these errors are easily avoided.
Here are common slip-ups to steer clear of when crafting your masterpiece.
Neglecting Spelling and Grammar
Many screenplays have their first impressions ruined by poor grammar and spelling. Don’t rely on squiggly green-and-red lines on your computer – take the time to read through every single page of your document and check for those simplistic or sneaky errors. It’s all but guaranteed you’ll find something to correct, whether this is your fifth script or your fiftieth. And if it’s any consolation, a detailed read-through is just as likely to illuminate other, more vital areas that aren’t working as well as they should.
If you miss the proper spelling of a word here and there, no problem. Even the pros make those mistakes in their drafts. But there’s nothing worse for a reader than reading a script that seemingly proves that the writer didn’t care enough about the material to do a few quality assurance readthroughs.
Multiple spelling errors are annoying. And that’s the last impression you want to leave with the reader — annoyance.
Pay particular attention to homophone and homonym errors. Your and You’re. New and Knew. To and Too. There, Their, and They’re. Its and It’s. Then and Than. Effect and Affect. Cache and Cachet. Break and Brake. Principle and Principal. Breath and Breathe. Rain, reign, and rein. By, buy, and bye. Always be sure to know the differences.
Screenplays have prescribed formats to which you, as a professional screenwriter, must adhere. Font and spacing may seem arbitrary, but clarity on the page is essential for an easy-read. Write your script in courier. Capitalize character names when you introduce them. Indent your dialogue and parentheticals. Formatting can be a tedious beast to meet head-on.
There’s a reason general screenwriting format exists — film is an industry, a business. Tens of thousands of screenplays are out there in and out of the market each year; from the development phase of script reading, discovery, and development, to the pre-production phase of using the screenplay as a blueprint for across-the-board collaboration, screenwriting format consistency is essential.
Drawing From Tropes
Cinema is a young medium, but its formulas and stereotypes have been established since the early days. And they are instantly recognizable. If your characters fall squarely into archetype – flawless heroes, damsels in distress, soulless villains, fools – their stories will become dull because we’ve seen them before.
This is particularly true of female or marginalized characters, who behave less like real people and more like insulting caricatures and stereotypes. Ensure that your characters are behaving organically, driven by a tangible objective in an authentic environment. Understand their depths and quirks before you start writing – then keep them honest and complex throughout your story.
Writing Your Version of Popular Movies
This is perhaps the most common mistake mostly made by more novice screenwriters.
Yes, you do want to write movies that you want to see because that’s really where you will find the passion that drives you to complete a script. However, you need to choose wisely and make sure that while you write what you want to see on the big screen, you are at the same time bringing something different to the table as you do so.
Too many screenwriters just write their own version of popular movies. They’ll write their own serial killer thrillers (Se7en, Silence of the Lambs), quirky comedies with snappy dialogue (Juno), and bloody crime pieces (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs). Most script readers will agree that they’ve read endless clones of these types of stories throughout their time in Hollywood — serial killer thrillers being the most common of them.
The mistake these writers make is that they don’t offer anything new. They have FBI agents or detectives tracking down a killer — yawn. They have talking head stories with teenagers coming of age while spewing the latest hip or quirky lingo — yawn. They have criminals as the protagonists, showcasing the world of their crimes — yawn.
But what are you offering that’s new? What are you doing to make that reader stop and take notice of what is on those pages of yours? It’s not enough to emulate a concept and just add some new characters and scenarios to the mix. You have to showcase a concept that pops off of those pages — that engages a reader to the point where the idea is so intriguing that they need to read on.
The easiest way to write what you love and what you want to see without falling into the trap of just writing your version of a popular movie is to flip those concepts onto their heads and meld them with something else.
Instead of writing another serial killer movie, perhaps use those tropes to introduce a new cross hybrid. It’s Silence of the Lambs meets The Wolfman. It’s Se7en meets Aliens. Those are the types of hybrids that studios and producers respond to, as opposed to yet another clone of a movie that audiences have seen dozens of times.
After the success of Deadpool, where we have an ultra-violent and hilariously raunchy protagonist — some may even call him an anti-hero — breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera, you can bet that Hollywood is about to be bombarded by hundreds of similar approaches in spec scripts.
These screenwriters may put that within the context of their own concepts, however, it will be utterly obvious what trend they are trying to chase.
Trends are tricky. While everyone will tell you that you have to write what Hollywood is making, the Catch 22 scenario of that comes in two parts:
- The film and television industry will already be flooded with such scripts — mostly written by studio writers that have the connections and pull you don’t have.
- By the time you’ve written your script set within that trend, and by the time you’ve marketed it and gotten it into somebody’s hands through contests or networking, it’s likely that the trend has come and gone. It’s happening already with Zombies. It happened before with Vampires. It’ll happen soon with any trend that you see in the theaters and on television now.
You do have options to avoid this trap while still staying relevant in the current trends:
- Revive a trend that has been dead for over a decade, but with a new twist on it. Two previous trends that are currently dead — serial killer and vampire movies — could come together as one. While that is clearly not the best example, the point is to get you thinking about what the possibilities are.
- Create your own trend. Sure, it’s not a trend until it gains some steam. However, you can specifically set out to come up with concepts that make people in the film and television industry stop and take notice — “What a great concept. I never thought of that.” Perhaps it’s something as simple as creating hybrids (see above) or, even better, finding a truly origin concept. Yes, they say that everything has been done before, but try saying that to Pixar who just created one of the most original films we’ve seen in cinemas — Inside Out.
If you chase trends, you’re going to find yourself waiting in a very long line of clones that look just like you. Instead, try to think a year or so ahead of Hollywood. Pay attention to the trades (Deadline, Tracking Board, Variety). See what scripts are being purchased now, as opposed to what was a success at the box office last year.
Not Doing Your Research
Let’s say you do have an excellent concept. Perhaps you read something in the headlines, your imagination was sparked, and you came up with a topical and relevant concept. And then you go take a few months to write it only to learn later that three other studios have similar projects already in active development.
Has that ever happened to you? You’ve worked hard to write this brilliant concept only to discover that it’s either already been done or is about to be produced by more prominent names than you. This happens all of the time to most writers. We humans share a collective existence fueled by headlines and information. It’s only natural that similar-themed concepts float to the surface. Most novice and disgruntled screenwriters will naively conclude that Hollywood somehow stole their idea from that query letter or screenplay contest submission, but the truth is that we all live in the same world and we all often think so much alike — and we’re also intrigued and inspired by the same things.
So be sure to do your research. If you’re considering that serial killer vampire concept, there’s this little search engine called Google that you can utilize and perform a simple search — “serial killer” and “vampire” and “movie.” If you’re tackling a particular subject, be it historical or straight from the headlines, get online and make sure that no studio has purchased the rights to a book on the subject.
There’s nothing worse for a screenwriter than working hard to finish a script only to discover that major studios, producers, and directors have already tackled the concept or subject.
It’s just a natural part of the creative process in and outside of Hollywood. It happens all of the time, even with the studios. In 1997 there was Dante’s Peak and Volcano. In 1998 we saw Deep Impact and Armageddon. In 2013 came White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen.
Do your research and make sure your concept hasn’t been made already and isn’t in the works by someone else. But also remember that it’s okay to choose a concept that is similar, just as long as you make yours stand out in a much different (and better) way.
Forgetting the Plot (or, Skipping the Outline)
Why did you start writing your script? The answer may vary in its details, but the gist should be the same: to tell a story. So many screenplays fall flat because their scenes are pastoral, or their characters aren’t driven towards a goal. In other words, they’re boring. They don’t show change or action.
Each scene of your script should develop upon the same narrative. To ensure that this happens, outline your story before writing dialogue and action. Map out your arcs and progressions. How-to guides like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and Syd Field’s Screenplay provide suggested formats in which to do this.
Crafting Awkward, Listless, or Endless Dialogue
Writing dialogue for film is extremely difficult. It can’t mirror actual speech – too cyclical and directionless – but it can’t sound unrealistic. This is a paradox, but it’s one that must be overcome. Overly long dialogue sequences that don’t drive story, conversations that spell out intent without subtlety, and characters who simply don’t talk like people can ruin a script.
Try to minimize your dialogue to the essentials – plot development and character detail – and don’t let your characters say exactly what they mean.
Playing Director In Descriptions
So you have an idea for the coolest tracking shot this side of Goodfellas. Your script isn’t the place to describe it. Screenplays are economical blueprints that lay down dialogue, action and settings, and that’s all. Avoid spelling out camera movements – instead of “ECU,” say “INSERT,” and rather than “CAMERA TRACKS” say “WE FOLLOW…” The same goes for dialogue: actors don’t want adjectives telling them how to deliver lines. Let the conversations speak for themselves, and leave visual or emotional details to the directors.
Not Punishing Your Characters
Maybe your protagonist is your fictional doppelgänger. Or the mother figure reminds you of your own parent. That doesn’t mean you can coddle them and give them everything they want. A story must have conflict – characters need to fight for what they want – and if the conflict is light or short-lived, the story loses steam.
Knock your characters into the dirt… then help them lift themselves up again. On the opposite side of this, don’t torture your characters uselessly. We want them to fight, and maybe succeed. Be a tough, but fair, creator.
Leaving Your Story Unfinished (or Too Neat)
This goes back to #4. Nothing is more frustrating than spending 90 to 120 minutes in a fictional world, invested in a story, and then realizing it’s over without proper resolution. Your story doesn’t have to answer the quandaries of the universe, but it does need to make good on its promises.
When crafting your outline, make sure your story completes its arc, at least enough to roll credits without betraying your viewers’ trust. On the flip side, offering cheap conclusions without proper struggle doesn’t work either. Punish, then reward.
Letting The First Act Slide (or, Saving the Best for Last)
If your script lands in the hands of a busy executive or agent, chances are they won’t have time to read the whole thing. That means the first 10 pages need to grab attention immediately. If your script meanders before starting its story, it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking the ending is – the beginning must be just as tight.
Give readers a character to hold onto, a world to invest in, and a struggle to care about that will carry them past that boundary. After that, you can wow them with your ending, but you have to get them there first.
Submitting Without Rereading
It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. No human being can make it through a 120-page document without making a mistake. These errors listed above are easily committed, but just as easily fixed, as long as you double back to actually check for them.
Scan for spelling issues. Remove camera directions. Read your dialogue out loud, and make sure it sounds plausible. Most of all, ensure that your story is consistent. Revisions can be head-splittingly tedious, but they are absolutely essential.
Shape your creation to its fullest potential before sending it out to fend for itself – you won’t be there to make excuses for its overlooked mistakes.
Following 40-years as a Film and Theatre Journalist, 22 years of screenwriting and creative writing workshops throughout South Africa and internationally, The Write Journey evolved into the Signature course of The Writing Studio, and Independent Training Initiative founded by Daniel Dercksen in 1998. The Write Journey is an interactive, intimate and introspective journey into the world of story, empowering you to take ownership of the creative journey, and creative expression.