Five Mistakes Amateur Screenwriters Make

One of the many, many jobs I seem to hold down is as a script reader for a film festival here in Toronto – I read anything between thirty and fifty scripts every month and give detailed feedback on each. As someone who’d love to get in the game myself, it’s been an invaluable education, but as I’ve found the same issues cropping up over and over again in scripts I thought it might helpful to post the top sins of screenwriting that have crossed my desk. They won’t save a bad story, but they will make writing an easier process, and more importantly make reading by HIGH-POWERED HOLLYWOOD EXECUTIVES a less painful experience for them.

Title Page (AKA Tripping On The Doormat)

Judge a book by its cover. If there’s a six-inch heel balanced precariously on the edge of a martini glass, or an oil painting of a historical figure with some kind of “clever” embellishment, then chances are it’s not the book for me.

Similarly, your script has an opportunity to rise above the masses if it just gets some basic  points right. A bad title page is, in 90% of cases, a sign of a careless approach to writing that bleeds into the script itself. There’s a reason readers in production companies have been known to throw out scripts within the first ten, five or even one pages – it’s because a lack of attention to detail in your opening is a curse that few scripts “get over” in their middle sections.

So what does a professional title page look like?

If you’re working with screenwriting software like CeltX or Final Draft then you will have an automated title page creation option, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet.

Ask yourself some key questions about the title page before you think of sending your script out into the world:

– Is my title evocative of my story? A comic story should hint at that, while it’s worth bearing in mind that titles involving numbers (not sequels) typically bring to mind either science-fiction or a degree of political complexity.

– Have I included the addendum “Based on a novel by…” (or whatever) just below the title? I like to think that the award-winning weep-fest from a few years back was called “Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” due to a formatting error on the script’s title page.

– Have I included details of the script being registered with the WGA or another copyright body? If so, dump it. Readers assume you’ve already got this, they don’t need to see it.

– Have I included a tag line? It may sound crazy, but some people do. Again, can it.

– Are my contact details correct? And is my email address “malteserslut69@hotmail.com”? Change to something professional. A shift to Gmail (or even @yourownwebpresence – if professional looking) helps an email look a little nicer.

– Is everything indented and in the right font? Remember, you want to look exactly like every professional script that has come before, and the smallest errors will be red flags. 

Start Big. Start Clear. Start Interesting, For The Love Of God.

There is a school of thought out there, perhaps prompted by meandering novelists, that it’s okay to wander into a script with an idea of the plot and character and – like a geographically gifted schoolgirl in a spooky forest – manage to find your way to the conclusion with minimal damage done to your narrative. These people are, by and large, wrong.

Of course there is room for invention and creativity on the fly as you craft a script, but it is not a novel. It is a piece of work necessarily limited in scope. But the time constraints you’re under in a two-hour film should be seen as an opportunity to hone your story – rather than spending twelve pages ruminating over the significance of the stain on Brenda’s shower curtains.

This all feeds back into the idea of crafting an inviting and involving introduction to your script. Because you have laid out your story in advance, and because you know where you are going, you can create an opening that speaks to the genre, action, tone, plotting, pace and main characters that exist within your piece. Great openings in great films do this, no matter how they begin.

Chinatown opens on Detective Gittes flicking through photographs of a man’s wife cheating on him, setting up the main character in his element, but also the themes of confusion, betrayal, and the disparity between what you see and what is real.

Juno opens on a young woman, a glib line, and a chair. The film is tight on character, and so is the opening – laying out Juno’s predicament, the characters involved, and the unique tone of the piece.

Jurassic Park‘s first few minutes eschew character for action, but are no less effective. It makes it clear that the dinosaurs are the stars of this movie, and the way each beat is presented helps to convey the wonder of what exists and the horror of what might happen because of it.

In other words, your first few pages are an opportunity to condense everything about your piece. And as with all things in life, you should look to go big or go home. That doesn’t mean that Kristin Scott-Thomas’s eyeballs need to start bleeding in the first thirty seconds of your movie, but it does mean that the script should start when the story does – and not get bogged down in place-setting and dullness before anything really happens.

Avoid Tricks. Tricks Are For Whores.

This is, frankly, the number one sign of an amateur screenwriter: an over-reliance on creative tics like narration, flashback, dream sequences or montage.

Taken independently, the history of cinema offers stellar examples of each of these approaches. On the other hand, American History X offers a stellar example of biting the kerb, but I don’t need to see it in my next Pixar feature. That’s why I generally advise screenwriters to absolutely avoid these tricks unless inherent to the plot (and I mean “Inception needed dream sequences” inherent) and construct your narrative without them. And here’s why:

Narration: Someone much smarter than me once said that any movie with narration should function as a coherent narrative without it. This is because narration should not do the job of plotting, and if that’s the case then your story is incoherently constructed. Instead, narration is about getting inside a character’s head, establishing a tone, or evoking a style of story-telling that is present in every other aspect of the film (I’m thinking the stop-start effect of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

Flashback: As I said above, the story should begin where the story begins. However, there will be times when a character will have a dark past that feeds into their present – but this is no reason to have a flashback. We all have things in our past that inform who we are, and that translates into strong characters on-screen. It packs much more of a punch to have your hero break down at the 60-minute mark and reveal that he lost his wife in a hurricane, instead of inserting a flashback to the incident itself. Why? Because the incident isn’t the important thing, the effect it has on our character is. We stay with them now, as they feel it, we don’t flit back to the past because it feels more interesting. It’s a betrayal of the character now, and it pulls the audience out of the current narrative to concentrate on the past. Again, there are always exceptions, but if you start by including flashbacks then you’ll keep jumping to them every time you’re worried your narrative is lagging.

Dream sequences: It should go without saying, but dream sequences are a narrative molasses. They evoke feeling, they present imagery, and because they happen in someone’s imagination they don’t mean a god damn thing. You know what else evokes feeling and presents imagery, but also moves the plot forward? Every scene in a good script. I dipped into the dream sequence well many a time when I was first writing, so I’m chastising myself as much as anybody, but I can’t stress enough how much you should steer clear of these. When the quality of the dreams help develop or inform a character’s progress in real life, there may be room – but there are very, very, very few narratives in which this structure fits. Every piece of a screenplay is a step forward, and if a dream sequence doesn’t move things along then it’s not a good idea – no matter how awesome that macaroni fountain at the Superbowl would look.

Montage: This is a trickier one, because montage is a very common tool in cinema and television. It’s definitely something that has its uses, and I wouldn’t say avoid it as strongly as the three above, but as a reader it can make for an unwelcome section of the script. If there’s something happening in your script that must occur but will take a while, skip over the “taking a while” to the end. If the steps are necessary to see, find out if you can combine some of the necessary ones into a scene that includes dialogue and movement of character. However, if this doesn’t work either then you are free to montage. Keep the detail light but specific as you move along, and get it over with as quickly as you can. Readers read dialogue, they skim over description. A montage is all description, so it’s not a reader’s friend.

Characters Should Be Deserving Of Unique Presentation, And Be Given It

More words have been written about how to create characters in fiction than I could hope to even allude to, so I’ll avoid going into the mechanics of creating a real person (though if I could give one piece of advice, I’d remember that you need to know at least four times as much about each character as is presented to the audience). What I can speak to is the best ways to present a character to the audience in your script.

– Names: While we do all live in a world of John’s and Megan’s and Pete’s, the world of cinema becomes a confusing place if all of our characters have similarly low-drive names. A lot of people say that your character’s name should imply their personality, such as the nerdy Edmund or the easy breezy Mimi – but I think that’s a shortcut bordering on laziness. That said, your character’s name should stand out, so look for things that are unusual without being obtuse, or combine them with a syllabically pleasant surname that rolls off the tongue.

– Persona: I’m sure that’s not the right word, but this means at the most basic level who they are. Their age, their gender, their job title, their looks, and so on. The reason that these are so important is that when any of them is changed, the character changes with them. Flipping gender is an obvious one, but also changing job or age can help you play around with the individuality of this person. Even within tighter-focused character groups this can work – a cast of mid-twenties artists living in Chicago will still have more attractive people, younger or more innocent ones, and those fraught with ambition over booze. Defining characters better stops scenes from becoming vague and inactive.

– Dialogue: After the name and persona, the easiest way for any reader to distinguish characters is through the way they speak. How does the background of your character influence how they speak? Are they verbose and loquacious or mono-syllabic? Do they drop their g’s? Do they stumble over sentence structure? Are the words they use high-brow or low-brow? Is there humour in them? These will all help define character for an audience, and also define relationships as varied speech types intersect and interact.

– Motivation: A strong character wants something. That’s not to say that the character is strong in personality, it means that they’re strong on page. They read as a person. And every person wants something. Good drama shows how people’s various wants clash against each other, and if you have scene after scene where characters talk over what is happening without any sense of desire or conflict, it probably means you’ve written them without any true motivation. A good rule of scene work is that every single character begins a scene wanting something (even if it’s just to comfort their girlfriend over ice cream), and will try to achieve it by the end of the scene. That kind of stuff reads well.

Descriptions Are A Double-Edged Sword

When people who’ve never tried their hand at screenwriting talk about it, this is the one aspect that is glossed over. For all the various ways that screenwriting intersects with other areas of fiction, the art of description is the unique challenge that we can call our own.

Descriptive passages in screenwriting serve two distinct purposes: they are a blueprint for a film to be made, and a story for a director, producer or actor to want to keep reading. Balancing the two is an incredibly tough task, but some quick rules are:

– If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t exist. This is cinema, not literature. There are exceptions where you can suggest tone or background, but at all times these should be things that can be reflected in the finished product – the film.

– Paragraphs should vary in length, and never be longer than four lines.

– Sentences are always presented as “Samantha scurries” not “Samantha is scurrying” or, worse, “Samantha scurried”.

– Sentences should alternate between active and passive conjunctions, and avoid having every line begin with “Samantha walks / Samantha speaks / Samantha squats”.

– Each scene should begin with something brief to set out where we are, what makes it unique (avoid “there is a bed” when the heading is “INT. BEDROOM”), who is there, and any immediately necessary details.

– Avoid unnecessary details until they become vital. If Samantha picks her phone up off the counter half-way through the scene, don’t bother saying it’s there until it’s actually important. Otherwise the beginning of each scene will be bogged down in describing every detail that becomes relevant throughout.

– In tone, descriptions reflect what is happening. Samantha squatting by the window and talking about her husband’s death will be contemplative and flush with dialogue, while Samantha back-flipping through the Kremlin lobbing hand grenades will rely on description packaged in short, snappy sentences.

– Bring some personality if you so wish. Why shouldn’t a good action sequence contain the word “BOOM”? It is a story you’re telling, after all.

– Learn to write prose, then cut it by 85%. If I could define good screenwriting, that is what it is. It’s well-written, but only includes detail that is absolutely necessary. If you can’t write prose, your descriptions will be flat and dull. But if you want to write prose, don’t get into screenwriting.

Some of the above is fairly basic stuff, but it’s surprising how many scripts fall into the same traps over and over again. However, I would remember that the number one way to figure out if you are doing it right is to read scripts. Go to sites like the Internet Movie Screenplay Database or Drew’s Script-O-Rama. The latter is especially good for television, a medium that has its own set of screenwriting rules that I might go into another day (if there is interest).

When you read scripts you’ll get a feel for how people obey the strict rules and yet still craft stories and characters that jump off the page. It’s also worth thinking about investing in screenwriting software to make the job of a lot easier. The industry standard is Final Draft, but if you’re curious a very strong free program is CeltX. It will format description, dialogue, scene headings and everything else, as well as PDFing it all for you into a delightful finished product.

I hope this helps, if you have any thoughts or tips yourselves feel free to comment. I myself will go back to trying to follow my own advice.

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in How I Write, Research, Televisual Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Five Mistakes Amateur Screenwriters Make

  1. EXCELLENT list! I’m definitely tweeting this! Thank you!

    • alfla says:

      Thanks! And thanks for the retweet! I see a lot of scripts and seems like 90% of my feedback covers these topics, thought it would be good to get them out there. Additional ideas welcome though!

  2. Scott says:

    Great post from a great writer. As a matter of style I have one minor quibble.

    You say don’t include anything from the description that could be inferred from the slug line and location. While you’re right that you shouldn’t include things that are obvious and not integral to the action of the scene, I do confess that I fallen into the inevitable bad habit of anyone who reads many scripts (which includes anyone who has the means to hire you) that I skip slugs and skim action. Use your scene opens descriptions to help orient someone who isn’t paying complete attention to your slug lines.

    I’ve sometimes found myself confused because I missed a change from, say, a livingroom to a sidewalk and then two pages later they get hit by a car. Something like “Bill and Jane hurry along the side of the busy street” doesn’t disrupt the flow but helps set the scene.

    Other than that one small point, this is a post that everyone should read.

    • alfla says:

      I 100% agree with that point – just didn’t cross my mind when putting together this post. I do the same, where I skim over the slug line and assume I’ll orient myself to the new location, but when skimming that doesn’t always happen.

      I suppose it’s about finding description that’s economic enough to reiterate the slugline location while also giving necessary new information, with minimal wordiness.

  3. Ayisha Mina Blair says:

    It’s 2013 and I’m reading this wondering, “Why aren’t we paying for great advice like this”! Two thumbs up. I wish I knew these tips when I was doing 9 months worth of rewrites on my first feature film. Just turned 18 years and wasted more than half of my year of independence in front of a MAC! It had so many layers for it being my first feature and it made it difficult for me to create a close to perfect script, or even just one good enough to film! Osama bin Laden’s son, teaming with Hitler’s Grandson, invading the U.S., and then you have the ‘X-Men like’ group of assassins trying to go in and take them down. all this while keeping the balance between the two subjects even. Because after all, the title is “3:16 – The World Under Seize”. It’s like having two subjects talking… You need to get them to flow together just right. God have mercy, this post would have helped! Actually inspired me to go back in this week and punch it up one more time! Well, we live and we learn. Right?! 🙂 Now let’s see if we can invest in this puppy!

  4. Pingback: Five Mistakes Amateur Screenwriters Make | justlegit

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