Getting your finished spec script into the right hands can often feel like an on going upward struggle. For those of us who are just starting out, or are yet to secure the ever-elusive agent, there are limited ways in which to get your script seen by the right people. And while finding the right producer or director for your project is one thing, getting them to actually read your script, is another. Ranking highly in a screenwriting contest, such as the Shore Scripts Feature and Short competition, where the winning script is sent to over 100 relevant production companies, is certainly one of the best ways to generate a huge amount of interest in your script. All of the top five ranking screenplays, which have already been scrutinized by a panel of award winning BAFTA and Oscar nominated judges, will find themselves automatically at the top of the reading pile, but before most scripts even get that far, they must first conquer the biggest hurdle in the chain – the reader.
Producers, directors, and screenwriting contests, are inundated with hundreds of scripts each year, so readers are employed to essentially sift the wheat from the chaff. Script Reader Lee Hamilton has been with Shore Scripts for over two and a half years now and after writing analysis on countless screenplays, we asked her to spill the beans by listing ten common mistakes that she consistently comes across, which could have a detrimental effect on your script going any further down the line.
Bad Formatting – While bad formatting isn’t enough on its own to make a reader dismiss a script outright, it doesn’t exactly create a great first impression. Using the correct industry standard layout is a basic requirement and one that every script should fulfil. Those that don’t, are not only screaming ‘amateur’, it’s also a warning sign that the writer hasn’t read enough screenplays. Other than physically writing, reading scripts is one of the best ways in which to learn the craft but is surprisingly completely overlooked by some writers. And for those that don’t use screenwriting software, it’s all the more important that the document looks as close to the expected layout as possible.
No Big Risks or Stakes – Having a compelling goal or emotional need for the protagonist is great but if they don’t actually stand to lose anything major if they fail, a characters success can feel rather underwhelming. Not only do big risks help give the audience a good reason to root for the character, it’s also an important factor in helping to build momentum. As the story continues, the stakes should get higher, keeping audiences continually engaged. Without stakes, or reminders, it can sometimes be hard to fathom a characters real motivation as well as making it just far too easy for them. A lack of risks can mean a lack of conflict and that’s the driving force behind every story.
Nothing’s Happening – Keeping the audience hooked isn’t just something you need to do in your Inciting Incident and Act-Three Climax; you need to consistently keep the viewers engaged throughout as well. Writers can often fall foul of the lull in activity just after midpoint and the plot start to run out of steam. You’re not making things hard enough for your protagonist if you’re not throwing in enough increasingly difficult obstacles for them to overcome. Watching someone getting along just fine and dandy isn’t very interesting. Audiences want to see conflict, and lots of it.
Only Say What You Can See – Too many times, a writer wastes time by detailing information we simply cannot see on screen such as backstory, location directions, or how characters are related to one another. Always keep in mind that the audience isn’t reading your script, they’re watching it, so the pieces of info that you think will help the reader or director understand your story more, won’t be picked up by the people watching it. If a detail is important enough for us to know, try to feed it in through dialogue or action and make it part of the plot rather than a side note in your script.
No Antagonist – This sounds like an odd thing for a writer to miss out but quite often when a story becomes so focused on the journey of the protagonist, developing an adversary in the form of a physical character can easily be overlooked. Although this doesn’t apply to every story type out there, not only is an antagonist a great way to introduce essential conflict into the story, it can also create a more satisfying arc for your main character. The ‘bad guy’ is often the central element needed to create the final climax, where the protagonist must defeat the biggest obstacle yet. The harder it is to defeat an antagonist, the more rewarding the victory for the protagonist.
Unnatural Dialogue – One of the best pieces of advice a screenwriter can take on board is to read their dialogue out loud. Something that reads well on the page doesn’t always necessarily translate so brilliantly when spoken so reciting lines verbally is a great way to find out what flows and what doesn’t. Make sure all characters sound appropriate to their age, background and setting and don’t have all of your characters sounding the same. When a character’s dialogue reads badly, important exposition can easily get lost, they don’t sound believable, and it can be somewhat painful to read. If a reader comes out of the story to ask “Would someone really speak like that?” you’re not doing your job right.
Over Description – This is when too much time is wasted telling us the colour of someone’s hair, what clothes they’re wearing, listing what items are in a room, or waffling on for a whole paragraph about how glorious a sunset is. In a script, we only need to know about the details that are essential to the story, everything else, no matter how fantastic it reads, is just taking up precious space on the page. Delving into novelistic writing is dangerous and it risks pulling the attention away from the important details. Don’t mention an item unless someone’s going to actually use it and unless it’s pivotal to the story that a character has blue eyes, all you’re doing is limiting the casting for the part. Don’t slow the read or hamper the pace of the story. Be general but evocative when necessary.
Confusing Plot – Ideally, you’re trying to immerse the reader in your story as much as possible so try to minimise the amount of times you bring them out of it in order to question logic, motivation or action. Always be clear and concise on the page. Don’t keep changing a character’s name or using different names to describe the same location, check scene locations move from one place to another without confusion, and if English isn’t a first language, have someone proofread your script checking for spelling and grammar mistakes before submitting it.
Repetition – This isn’t just being sloppy by using the same words again and again, it’s also when you’re delivering the same piece of information more than once. Examples include telling us where we are in both the scene heading and then again in the description or writing information in the description then having a character regurgitate it in their dialogue. Stating the obvious such as “the glass window” is both unnecessary and time consuming. Frequent misuse of the parenthetical falls into this category too, when writers use the device to highlight a characters emotion when the feeling is already perfectly clear from the dialogue they’re speaking.
Poor Concept – No matter how well crafted and written a screenplay can be, if the idea isn’t a compelling one, the script will be hard to sell. This is fundamentally the most important aspect of writing a screenplay. We’ve all heard the old saying “We want the same but different” and that still sticks. Knowing who your audience are, what they expect and what they don’t, is the first step towards generating original content. Predictable storylines will bore and just because something happened in your life, doesn’t make it movie worthy. Creating emotionally engaging content is key to connecting with the audience. Always think about what you want the viewers to feel and what the best way to evoke that is.
These are just a few of the things to check before deciding to click on the ‘submission’ button or printing off that ‘final’ draft. More often than not, writers will know themselves what areas need further attention but they perhaps require someone else to point it out to them first. It can be difficult to constantly self-assess your screenplay during rewrites so try to get as many other people as you can to read your script if possible. While everyone will have their own personal opinion, pay heed to the pieces of feedback that most people agree on as your starting point.