by Paul Stafford.
Most script consultants and script readers are writers as well. We empathize with the work of every person who submits and we understand the incredible feat of determination and discipline it took to get to the point where you have a finished manuscript that you can proudly call your screenplay. We also know and understand that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when you put your work out there into the world, blasting the doors wide open to critique and opinion.
Our own experience as writers and extensive experience reading hundreds of screenplays means that we become very familiar with common mistakes that crop up time and again. They are often innocent mistakes but can mean the difference between having your work seem amateur or professional. One thing to bear in mind then is that we readers (and by ‘we readers’, I mean ‘I’), have all made some, if not all, of these common mistakes listed below.
- Formatting – Let’s start with an obvious one. Not everybody can afford to buy Final Draft, but there are plenty of good free software packages like Celtx and Trelby that handle the formatting for you. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like improper formatting. Bad formatting is just frustrating to read. For TV especially, there are all sorts of unusual formats depending on the nation and even channel – but the modern standard, based on the old Cole & Haag format of screenplays is always the right option for early drafts. Your scripts can be reformatted later to fit the relevant company if your script makes it that far.
- Spelling – Why submit something half-baked? It’ll cost you money and/or time only to get ignored if the script is riddled with errors. Even if your story is captivating and the characters are real, you might not even get the chance to show off your script if there are spelling errors, because that’s a clear signal to many readers that the requisite effort to write a good script has not been made. For any non-native speakers out there, find a local native English-speaking friend to spell-check your script for you.
- Music – A lot of writers think they are Quentin Tarantino. But you should never put songs into your script unless you know you have the licensing rights to them. Not only do they cost a lot of money in filmmaking, but it is not the writer who gets to make the call on music in a film ultimately. The only time a song in a script should be mentioned is if it is diegetic i.e. being played and heard by the characters for a specific reason that impacts your story and not just something to set the tone. Again, the same rule about licensing applies. If there’s a band playing a rendition of a Led Zeppelin song, do you already own the rights to that song? If not, it’s not too hard to write “the band plays a 70s rock song with bluesy undertones,” or something to that effect instead.
- Not Naming Characters Who Have Dialogue – Why name a character ‘Woman’ or ‘Man’, when you can make an effort and give them a name? Unless there’s a specific creative purpose behind not giving your poor bouncer a name, give him (or her) a name. If nothing else, it shows that you’re making the same effort to bring your lesser characters to life as you are with your principal characters.
- The Dreaded Cliché – It’s true, there’s no such thing as a completely original idea. There is such a thing as original execution of an idea though, and that‘s what sets great writing apart from all other writing. That means not writing a script that reads like it could have been written by Simon Pegg or Quentin Tarantino or Nora Ephron. That means finding your own voice. That can take years and years, drafts and drafts or perhaps it comes out in your first attempt, but keep struggling until you have something that nobody but you could have written. It will be clear the moment a reader passes ‘fade in’.
- Weak Ideas and No Action – But of course, a strong concept for a film is always going to be the most gripping thing about your work. You want to take the reader on a journey and that means conflict, ups, and downs whilst keeping the script logical and unpredictable. That’s no easy task, and yet a reader immediately knows if a writer is good in the way they grip the audience from page one and take them on a journey through to ‘fade out’, regularly re-engaging them with credible moments that test their characters and force them to make choices. Many people take the old adage ‘write what you know’ very literally. Unless you live a remarkable life, it’s probably not best to write too literally. Write thematically and create characters based on what you know, but let your concept be the product of your imagination.
- Trying to Be a Director – This one is a big sign of amateur writing. It’s often the screenwriter who has gained much of their knowledge of writing screenplays from reading those already out there that is guilty of point 8. While it’s highly advisable to read all the screenplays you can find, keep in mind that the shooting script, i.e. the draft from which the film is finally produced, might have camera notes. The shooting script only! If you are submitting your screenplay anywhere then you definitely don’t have a draft that is so advanced that the cameras are about to roll, so there shouldn’t be a single mention of the camera (even if you plan to direct). A screenplay is a story, and no writer should presume to tell the other potential future creative partners, like the director, how to do their jobs. You may have read scripts you love from auteurs like P.T. Anderson and Christopher Nolan, there might be camera notes in there, but again you probably got your hands on a shooting script.
- Trying to Be an Editor Without Understanding Editing – Slam cut to, dissolve to, etc. Just like camera notes, deciding on the transition from one scene to the next is not the role of the writer. However a good writer will understand how editing works, they will understand how a good editor will look to find pace in a scene through their editing. In a good script, this will be conveyed through the writing in terms of beats or duration of dialogue, movement, etc. rather than via direct orders to a potential editor.
- Imbalance in Your Script – It’s usually possible to tell if the script is well written or poorly written just by flicking through three or four pages and seeing how the dialogue and directive balance out on the page. Huge paragraphs of descriptive text suggest the writer does not know how to write a film but might be a good novelist. Likewise, chunks of dialogue that take up an entire page with no visual directive given suggest there is a potential playwright in the making, but again, not a good screenwriter. Film is a visual medium, so even dialogue-driven films will still have a lot of directive and action to balance out the dialogue on the page.
- Tying Your Story to a Particular Time Period – This is a bit of a contentious one, but outside of historical bio-pics and true-life stories, in general, it is better to be a little hazier over dates when writing a spec script. Film and TV projects can be in development for years, even more so if you are an emerging writer taking your first steps in the industry and so the less specific the period, the more likely the story will retain its currency as more people come to read your script.
So, while some of these may seem like minor mistakes, the point is that you want your script to get past the reader and into the hands of producers and competition judges. Making sure your script is polished, presentable, and professional will enhance your chances significantly.
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