How many scripts have you written? If the answer is below five your still a newbie. Primarily if you haven’t sold any of those, below are the 30 mistakes that beginner screenwriters make that can stop them from selling their next script. I’ve even found screenwriters who have won the Academy Nicholl Fellowship that haven’t sold a single text. It’s a tuff business, and even that critical doesn’t guarantee you money.
So what are the issue that screenwriters have that producers see? Let us explore them.
Before You Start Writing
1) Choosing the Wrong Genre
Never choose a genre because it’s popular. Beginning screenwriters tend to see what’s popular on the market and go with the hit that year. Wrong approach, one example of this is when Pulp Fiction came out in 1994. The following years are said to be the years of the Tarantino copy cats.
“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” “American Strays” and “Go” are some of the more popular ones that succeeded but there were at least 17 films produced with the same no liner structure and based around the crime genre. Meaning there was at least 100 screenplays considered and thousands written copying the now classic film.
You won’t be remembered or get your shot copying what’s been done unless your hired to do so. Remember be you 100% of the time. You will do better-writing something your passionate about than you ever will writing something favored.
2) Choosing a High Concept Idea
The one thing you should think of before writing is of a high concept. What is a high concept film?
A high concept film is something that can be easy recognized by a broad audience when explained in one sentence or one sheet (movie poster). Think of “Jaws” or “Jurassic Park” looking at the poster or when told everyone understands instantly. This type of film doesn’t need to be your first screenplay, but these are the films that get sold the most. No one is going to buy a screenplay about a dog and a boy anymore.
3) Forgetting to Market Testing your Idea
Not market testing your idea before you start writing is a sure fire way to write something that holds no interested. Even if you think you have a fire idea check with people. You might find a couple of ways to make it even better. Now when testing, stay away from family and friends feedback. These people like you, heck they might also love you and because of this there more likely to lie to you. Test your idea with strangers.
I break down a step by step way to do this in my post:
4) Outlining can be a Mistake
Outlining for some writers can be a godsend and for others the biggest mistake. For example, I outlined my first short screenplay about 30 pages long and sent it to a reader. He said the plot was very predictable. After looking back at what I read he was right. Outlining caused me to write a predictable story.
Looking back at the greats I came across an interview about Quintin Tarantino’s writing style. He says explicitly; he outlines only about halfway through the story. By doing this, he writes himself into a corner that only the characters can get out of. By his process, If he can quickly think of the solution so can the audience. If it’s challenging to get to the end, this will keep the audience curious about what will happen next.
5) Incorrect Formatting
This error will end your career especially if you’re sending it to a producer for work. Its 2019 at the time of me writing this article. Please check out my screenwriting software page below:
These software’s will stop most formatting errors seeing as most if not all the software displayed on that list format for you. There might be some things that don’t come as quickly and for those things check out the link below:
6) Spelling Mistakes
We all misspell words every now and again but if you are a chronic misspeller I recommend grammary there is a free version, but recommend the paid version. It will not only fix your spelling errors but grammar and much more. Again most screenwriting software does this as well, but I have seen my software miss a couple of words here and there. So I recommend you just double check using an app.
7) Don’t Direct Action Lines
Now we are getting into something a lot of beginners do naturally. They direct the actors in the script. Don’t ever do this unless it’s necessary for the story. An example of this is when you’re telling the reader what the character is doing every third line. Especially if you’re giving facial expression directions.
The only time this is acceptable is if the readers won’t understand the character other than by reading what they’re doing. For example, if the character has an anxiety problem write the little things — the problem when you start giving them eyebrow instructions.
8) Long Action and Description Lines
When a film executive is reading your script, they want to find any excuse not to keep reading it. One explanation they use is when your action lines are too long. How long is too long. The general rule is to keep them no longer than three lines.
Now, of course, you can write the action that four and five lines long but this should be well into the script. One trick I see people do is break up their words turning a five-line action into two or four lines.
9) Write Visually
To write visually is to use your senses as much as possible.
- Balance and acceleration
Use 2 or three of these in your action lines to give a visual expereince to the writer. Writing lines like the “smell of cigarette ash” or “the sweat on the walls.” Can quickly tell the reader what is happening in one line.
Another way of doing this is to shorten your sentences. Instead of writing the entire sentence out like you would an essay or a novel try writing the action only keeping the imagination of the reader involved.
Now even though you’re keeping your sentences short and writing using senses, you still need to build a world. for example instead of “the man just made it onto the bus” you can write “the man catches the side of the closing door bus.” Use details when there is no other way to describe the situation visually.
For a more visual example check out the youtube video below by professional screenwriter John August.
10) Ignoring the Rules of Aristotle
Now you might think you’re going to crush at screenwriting with your vivid imagination, but there are a few rules you want to keep in mind at all times and those are the rules of Aristotle.
He wrote the rules of the story a long time ago, and it seems like the movies and TV shows that attempt to break those rules always end up flopping. The most creative works of art you think are totally original in their own way follow these set rules.
of these rules he talks about the following:
And yes its in the order from most to least important. Now going into these ideas alone can be its own blog post so to avoid making this article too long, please buy Aristotle’s book on amazon its less than five bucks and will teach you the only rules of story you will ever need to follow. Everything else you hear even though could help your story is a guideline and can be broken.
11) Use the Male and Female voices
Male voices in a script meaning the action. The punch that sets the bar fight off or the barrage of bullets that go back and forth in a western. The female voice, meaning the reasoning behind the action. Some writers when they first start will naturally gravitate towards one side of the spectrum more than the others. For me, it was all about the action.
Think of Transformers 2-5. Any of those films will constitute an overblown budget on CGI explosions and slow motion fighting. These effects are visually exciting, but I don’t remember the movie too much because the reason wasn’t made clear. You need both to make a great movie.
12) Small Stakes
If you script stakes aren’t high enough this could be the reason it won’t get picked up. What do I mean by small stakes? Having a screenplay where the threat that your characters face isn’t a big enough deal.
For example, I just moved to Japan, and I have watched a lot of Japanese TV shows to learn the language. What these Japanese dramas are based around is not big enough to care. Will my mom like my boyfriend? Oh, she does great. Next episode. When it should be if my mom doesn’t like my boyfriend, this will be a massive issue for our family because what her or my boyfriend doesn’t know is im already pregnant. Now we are getting somewhere.
Might be excellent for Japanese Tv watchers, but this is also why most Japanese shows stay local.
When a script reader references your script as being dull increase the stakes, you should already try to raise them as high a possible before writing.
13) Low Conflict
The most important part of a script is probably the conflict. Without conflict, no one is watching. Again moving to Japan, I’ve discovered a genre that will never be a big hit even in Japan, it’s country of origin. Its called “Slice of Life.”
The slice of life category contains little to no plot progress and character development. It’s literally a slice out of a characters life over a certain number of episodes. Most people will never see this or want to because without conflict most stories don’t even exist.
As a writer creating conflict is your job.
14) Don’t ever Ignore your Characters
First-time writers tend to make characters do things that are out of there tone. If John is scared and you’ve already established he’s not the braved person in the story he wouldn’t open the door to face his fears. It would seem weird unless you’ve built him up to do such a thing towards the end.
Most writers will look at there plot points and decide that John opens the door. These actions make the audience go what the hell? It takes people to ou the story. Have you ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself “no, no don’t go in the door why would you do that?” We all have because along the lines someone made a wrong decision. They forced their character through the door for there perfect ending.
Let the characters make the decisions after they’re established. Again Tarantino lets the characters drive the actions midway through the script.
15) If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
The headline means precisely what it says. If your third or final act isn’t making perfect sense sometimes, you need to think a little harder but most of the time its because your first act isn’t compelling enough. Rember the final act answers all the questions the first act presents.
When writing scenes
16) Enter a scene late and leave early
What does this mean? In other words, don’t write out every little detail in your scene for the reader. Script readers are smarter than you think, and so are the producers.
For example, if someone is going to a therapist for the first time. Instead of writing
Hi, how are you?
Please come in and take a seat.
We know people greet each other when meeting for the first time. Writing this is a waste of the audiences time. Start with conflict.
For example, start with a description of the person sitting in the room. It’s quite it and appears the therapist asked her a simple question to the patient, but all you hear is the ticking of the clock on the wall. Then the patient starts crying. End the scene.
Telling us everything you need to know about the patient. She has a lot built up so much that she can’t even talk without crying.
17) Not Controlling the information in the story
As the writer, you are in full control of the reader’s attention and information. What do I mean by that? The reader can only know what you tell them. Giving to much detail and information about the situation can cause the reader to jump ahead of the story.
You know that feeling you get in the movie when you can predict what’s going to happen towards the end based on the first 20 minutes — lousy storytelling. A story is supposed to unfold.
Examples of movies that unfold are:
- Pulp fiction
- No Country for Old Men
- There will be blood
Now you might not like these movies, but you can learn a great deal about pacing from them. Each act, scene, shot is unknown to the audience. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen you thrown into another situation where new information is presented twisting your thoughts back around.
Now you can have a movie where you know exactly what’s going to happen sometimes from the trailer like the John Wick series. But sometimes these movies require a stacked cast, high budget effects, etc. to replace the fact that the story is predictable. Now as a side note, I love John Wick, but we all know what Mr. Wick is there to do.
18) Make your Characters Relatable
Relatability is the one thing that keeps people caring about characters. When a character is evil just for the sake of being bad no one can relate. Therefore people tend not to care about those characters.
But when your character does terrible things because hes forced to by an organization that has his family hostage. You tend to care more. On a deep mental level you think I have a family I would do that for my mother, son, wife husband father as well. This connection makes you more invested in what happens to the character.
Think about why you cared about Neo in the matrix maybe because he was a loser who had a tedious job and was chosen to be the save of the world. From loser to hero. Most people punch the clock just like Neo did and wish a Morpheus would come along and tell them they are destined for something greater than themselves.
What about the reason you liked Jake Sully in Avatar. Maybe because hes a person with paraplegia whos given a chance to run again and fall in love. Something he didn’t think he would find in his condition.
Maybe you didn’t relate to these characters as much, but millions of people did. Think about your favorite characters in movies and why you liked them.
19) Don’t use Tropes (Unless)
First, what is a trope? A trope is a reoccurring theme the movie industry has used to the point where they have there own name. Some you probably really like.
For example, I like the trope called “Vampires are just normal people” When vampires do things to prove they’re just like you and me. How many movies have this trope? At least 70% of all vampire movies from the lost boys to the Twilight trilogy. And for some reason, most of them involve falling in love with a human who they then have to protect. Seems familiar right.
You can find these tropes all over the internet, but the one thing people are doing now to still write about there favorite classic ideas is to put there own spin on them.
So for example instead of vampire hiding and proving that there more normal than anticipated when found by a human lover. Write a movie where the vampires are the healthy majority, and humans are the ones hiding among them.
20) Don’t Write Flat Characters (Unless)
Sometimes flat characters can cause people to lose interest in the story.
What are flat characters? Flat characters are one or uncomplicated two-dimensional characters that don’t change throughout the story. Most if not all producers avoid stories with flat characters arcs. When nothing changes, people tend to leave the theater feeling incomplete — giving your character different ranges of emotions and reasoning for different decisions.
Unless you can put your character through so much turmoil that people except and understand and relate to the character without there being a significant change in the person, what does this look like? Well, watch the famed movie There Will be Blood. Or Kill Bill. These characters are the same from beginning to end without a change in sometimes even their demeanor.
Why do we except these movies anyway? Well, the amount of challenges they go through is almost to a ridiculous level that even if the character doesn’t change the person grows on you. You end up rooting for the person even if they’re not relatable.
21) Writing Characters with No Flaws
There is no “unless” attached to this headline. You should never write a character with no flaws. Even flat characters such as James Bond have apparent defects, and we love him for it. Going back to the relatability of the characters people without flaws don’t exist; therefore if you write them, no one will like them. Its that person in class who always gets the A’s or the high school jock that has it all.
22) Never Stray from the Characters Desire Line
What does this mean? Well basically to listen to your characters. After you start writing your characters will have there own emotions and personality. Embrace this in the film by not forcing them to walk into a door that we know she wouldn’t dare to open. The audience will notice this and call it outright in the movie theatre. If not going into the door ruins your perfect ending so be it.
23) Unnecessary Exposition
Giving your reader all the information up front will cause them to jump ahead in the story and become bored with your screenplay. An example of this is when a character says.
Hey, you know the old man that we all are scared of at the end of the street?
He died yesterday. Let's go check it out.
Maybe your exposition isn’t so blatantly bad, but you get my point.
We all will see what’s coming and what will happen when they go to the house. Don’t do this. This information should be spaced out throughout the script, and the audience should feel this instead of told through dialogue.
24) Telling the audience Everything
Going back to the point above you shouldn’t tell the audience everything. I’m a firm believer in telling the audience nothing and giving just enough information, so they understand what currently happening. An example of this is David Mamet’s movie Spartan.
So how do you do this? Show don’t tell. Fill your action lines not your dialogue lines. Let life happens around your characters.
25) Please Read Screenplays
Reading screenplays is an obvious way to up your game, but yet a lot of screenwriters avoid it. The level of ego presented in the writer’s world has been unchanged since the ten commandments. Remember, some people are better than you. Find them and read there work. For me, I’m a Tarantino fan. I read his screenplays to get a sense of how to express character which is ma weak point of mine.
26) Enjoying the Process
Remember is supposed to be fun. Chances are if your reading this blog post you haven’t sold any scripts yet. It takes most writers some years before they sell a script. Some may never do it. But the difference being is they are enjoying the story they’re telling. If sitting in a room alone writing without knowing if something is going to sell is your new job. If you don’t like it quit now.
27) Ignoring Repeating Advice
If two or three people in the industry give you notes on your script telling you the ending doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the end. It doesn’t work. Don’t ignore the advice from people who can help you the most — especially those who are doing what you do.
The best writers rewrite. Then rewrite the rewrite.
I don’t know a single screenwriter who doesn’t rewrite his work. All the greats have done it and still do it. Your first second or even third script will be far from perfect. Eat some humble pie and rewrite.
29) Thinking about the Sell when Writing
When your writing it can be hard to stay away from the thoughts of selling your script. When doing this most writer will fall into the trap of writing what people might find appealing now. Bad idea because whats intresting now won’t be six months from now.
Write what your passionate about even if it’s not popular. Trends repeat so in another year you can break out that masterpiece script again; in other words, play the long game.
30) Always finish the Script Matter What
I’ve seen a pattern with newer writers. Most are part-time which is fine you have to pay the bills somehow, but most are excited at first. Then it dwindles leaving a half-written screenplay that can’t be read by anyone. This person should have never wasted his or her time. Again this is a long game. You’re not going to sell a script in the first three months. You might, but statistics say you won’t. Finish and write another one repeat. All you can control is your actions, not the result. Listen to the notes and get better
This list took me three weeks to prepare with half the information coming from my knowledge of writing my first scripts and understanding of people from the industry. All the problems listed hold people back from making that first crucial sale. Give yourself every pursuit to jump ahead of other writers don’t make these mistakes.