We’re going to throw something different into the mix today: a post about screenwriting mistakes. This is an important post for all writers to read, including novelists, because the same advice can easily be translated to your fiction stories as you set out on the query trail.
For those who know us well and have read our books, especially The Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books, you know we are huge supporters of writers learning from screenwriters and screenwriting structure techniques. One of our favorite instructors is Michael Hauge in fact, so much so that we’re bringing on a Story Structure tool that incorporates the 6-Stage structure model over at One Stop For Writers. (You can find out more about that incredible bit of news [and sneak-a-peek at what it looks like] HERE.)
All right, time to hand things over to our guest today, Norman Arvidsson. Please read on!
“The Play’s the Thing” – Unless You are Committing These 10 Errors
90% of the scripts registered with the WGA are never completely read by script readers. They are rejected early on by readers who are overworked and pretty intolerant of basic errors that would-be screenwriters make. If you want to be in the 10% that get fully read and receive that call for further discussion, then don’t make these 10 fatal errors.
1. Poor Development of the Main Character(s)
There are several potential goofs in the area of character development.
- First, don’t write physical descriptions of your main character(s). You may have a picture in your mind of a character, but first readers don’t want that picture. They want to develop their own physical picture as they read the script. It can be irritating to a reader to have a physical description forced on them in the beginning.
- Second, the character must face at least one issue that is big enough, even in comedies. If s/he does not, then there is no way the script can ever be translated into a full length play or movie.
- Third, the character has to stay in character. Yes, events may change his/her mind about something, but the basic personality has to stay.
The way to avoid problems with consistency of character is to have your entire plot at least outlined before you begin to write page one. If you develop your plot as you go along, then you are trying to make your characters “fit” into a plot you are continually developing. It never works.
2. Poor Structure
If you are writing a script, it is assumed that you understand the components. You have to include each of those components in sequential order, and the readers has to be able to locate them as the script is reviewed. Of course, you know that you have to have an initial incident or conflict, followed by that initial turning point, the mid-point, a second turning point and then the climax and resolution. If you cannot identify these elements in your own script, something is wrong. The best way to avoid this is to have a storyboard before you begin to write. You are then able to label each plot section, know that your sequencing is correct, and see that each component is actually there.
3. Too Long/Too Short
One of the first things a script reader will look at is the length. These people know what you should know too. A script has to be between 90 – 140 pages. If it is too short, you have either left out important plot elements or truncated some of the scenes. If it’s too long, you have irrelevant content and scenes are too long. When scripts are not a reasonable length, the issue is usually poor structure. Return to your storyboard, take each section, read through that section of script and determine its “tightness.” If your script is too long, are you be-laboring dialogue by repeating a characters thoughts? If it is too short, do you need to develop an element further through more dialogue? The other possible problem, of course, is that the issue/conflict is not complex enough for a full-length script. Then you are back at square one.
4. Giving the Reader too Much Character and Scene Description
Script readers are very good with “filling in the blanks.” And they want to read something that lets them get their own mental pictures. So dump the long descriptions of the settings and characters. Descriptions should be minimal – just a couple of phrases. If you want excellent examples of this, pick up a copy of a Shakespearian play and read the descriptions at the beginning of the scenes.
5. Bad Writing (avoid writing mistakes)
Script readers are pretty much well-schooled in grammar, word usage, spelling and punctuation. They are happy to forgive a few typos, and of course there are grammatical and agreement errors in the dialogue of characters who are supposed to have them. But beyond that you really need to avoid writing mistakes. Script readers are easily irritated by these types of errors, and that irritation will carry over to their overall feeling about your work. If you struggle with grammar and composition, find someone who is more expert to edit your script.
6. Unoriginal Plot and/or Characters (Derivatives)
Of course you have your favorite authors and playwrights. We all do. But your love for a particular character or story line cannot carryover to your writing. Find inspiration for characters elsewhere – life is full of them. Use combinations of people you know or have known, unless, of course, your work is based upon some prominent real person. Script readers are looking for originality and they can pick up derivatives pretty quickly (so can an audience).
7. Tired Dialogue
What no one wants to read or hear is dialogue that is filled with tired and overworked phrases or clichés. It’s not fresh and original, and you work will be in the 90% rejection pile. As you write, flag those parts of dialogue that seem “tired” or worn and move on so you don’t disrupt your flow. You have time to think about fresh ways to say something later on. Go back to those flagged pieces when you are finished, get some ideas from other creatives you know, and freshen up those spots.
8. Characters Who “Tell”
The whole point of a screen play is to tell a story through the actions and dialogue of the characters. When a character says, “I am really angry with you” to another character, you are boring an audience. When characters say, “I love you” too much to each other, you are boring an audience. These things need to be shown not told. If you have a character who is angry, in love, in crisis, etc., go back and study movies or plays in which characters had these emotions and issues. Get some ideas about how to show them through dialogue and nonverbal behaviors.
9. Not Resolving Every Conflict/Issue
This is known as “fudging” and it does not work. If you have not resolved everything by the end of your script, do not submit it. You cannot just gloss over stuff and hope it is not detected. It will be detected, your story will not be complete, and your submission will be rejected. You have to wrap everything up and “tie a bow” on it. Go back to your storyboard. Find every conflict and issue. Then mark on that storyboard where it has been resolved. Resolution of all means you have a “tight” plot, and this is what script readers must see.
10. Format Issues
Don’t have your script rejected because you failed to follow proper format. If you don’t understand format for submissions, then get thee to a website that explains it or check with someone who is “in the know.” This is the easiest error of all to correct.
There are lots of reasons why scripts are rejected. Don’t count on a script reader to provide the details for why yours has been. S/he doesn’t know you personally and does not have the time to give feedback unless there is interest. Screenwriting is a creative art to be sure, but there is also a “science” involved. These 10 errors are part of that “science,” and they are critical.
Have any questions about these 10 error to avoid? What would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.