As a new screenwriter looking to make a name for yourself, you want to make sure that the screenplay that you’ll be turning in is as polished as it possibly can be. However, as a new screenwriter, there’s also that tendency where you get so excited about submitting your screenplay that you missed some mistakes you made. Some of these can seriously derail your script, like structure problems, character issues and overall poor execution of the idea. Others, such as wrong grammar and formatting, may seem minimal to the story, but don’t get too complacent. Remember, the people who will be reading your work have mountains of other scripts waiting for them daily. If they see so much as a tiny error on your part, their chances of reaching your script’s last page get slimmer.
Here’s some common screenwriting mistakes that you should avoid at all costs.
Let’s start with as small an error as can be. Anyone can read pravtice or convwrsation easily despite the typographical errors, but if you turn in a script that occasionally has these, the reader won’t have that much confidence in you. I know you’re excited to turn in your script, and probably because of that, sure, you may have a few typos here and there. Just don’t get too consistent with it.
- FORMATTING MISTAKES
We’ve briefly touched on how formatting mistakes can cost you in our post about the basics of screenplay formatting, but I think it deserves another mention here. Yes, the content of the screenplay is important. But just as important is the impression that you’re someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking formatting essentials. I know, the format won’t make it to the movie when it gets made anyway, but that’s the thing: your movie isn’t made yet. You’re not even sure it will be! But at least show the readers that you’re serious about trying to get your movie made!
Think of it this way: would you show up for a job interview in tattered shirts, board shorts and flip flops? Course you won’t. You’d want to look as professional as possible. This is what formatting is all about – looking professional to be taken seriously.
- CHARACTER NAMES ARE TOO SIMILAR
Linda and Lindsey, Marcus and Marko, Flint and Floyd, Jack and Jake… you get the idea. There’s thousands of names out there that you can use, so don’t be lazy and do some research. It’s frustrating for readers to confuse between two characters due to similar sounding names and will get your script tossed to the side.
- DETAILS THAT CAN’T BE SHOWN VISUALLY
“His thoughts linger on a rainy day two years ago, when all was well and the love she had for him drained all traces of melancholy. How he wanted to turn back the clock and have her love once again squeeze the pain away. But time favors her more than him.”
In writing scenes, you should only write what can be seen or heard by the audience. The problem with other new writers is that they write intangibles into their action lines, like thoughts, emotions and sometimes even bits of back story. This particular screenwriting no-no doesn’t just turn off readers, but it confuses the production team as well. How are you supposed to film the description above? Save those stuff for novels or short stories. It’s got no place in your script.
- ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE
This is a common mistake that even more experienced writers commit every now and then to varying degrees.
On-the-nose dialogue is dialogue that says exactly what’s on the character’s mind. Like if a character is angry at his brother and he says “I’m really angry at you!” Picture a real-life scenario where a person who’s avoiding another person tells him “You know what, I’m avoiding you”. Who does that? That’s just awkward.
Same thing goes for your screenplay. You should aim to make your dialogue sound realistic, not robotic. How do you write an exchange where the person tells the other that she’s avoiding him? Well, for one, have her reply with a quick one-liner and immediately excuse herself. She didn’t have to say that she’s avoiding him, but the reader gets it. This is called subtext: that which is not said. And subtext is very, very powerful.
There’s a mantra in screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. If you can show what’s on a character’s mind through action, do it. Is he really angry that he saw his girlfriend making out with another guy at a bar? Have him hurl a glass across the room! Or if you’re going to do it through dialogue, don’t have him say to her “I’m really upset about what I saw you doing at the bar with that guy?” Write something like “You wanna hit it off with that rich prick!? You think you’re gonna be happier with him!? Fine! Go ahead! Hell, I’ll help you pack your stuff right now!” Feels more natural.
- TOO MUCH DIALOGUE
Another common screenwriting mistake when it comes to speaking lines is including too much of them. If your character delivers a one-page monologue and his entire point is that he wants chicken for dinner, that’s a lot of time wasted. Not to mention that, again, it’s unnatural. When have you ever delivered a 1-minute monologue to your mom just to tell her that you wanted chicken for dinner?
We’re also counting in here dialogue that’s completely unnecessary as too much dialogue. They’re time wasters and can be the nail on the coffin for your script. How would you know if it’s unnecessary? If it doesn’t reveal information, reveal character or move the plot forward! If the point of a scene is to reveal the whereabouts of the kidnapped boy, don’t insert a long exchange between the two police officers where they talk about where they spent the past weekend. (Unless the information that they’ll share will be used later in the plot.)
- CALLING THE SHOTS
Some writers feel that it’s important to denote how the camera will show what’s unfolding in the scene. It’s not. This is the job of the director and the camera department. Not you.
Readers care about where a scene takes place, who are the characters in it, the conflict of the scene, what happens in the scene whether caused by the characters or not, and the dialogue. That’s it. That’s all a spec script should provide. Camera angles and movements appear when the spec script becomes a shooting script. But before it becomes that, it needs to get past the producers first. So focus your worries on doing that, instead of telling the would-be production team how to do their job.
Be aware of these common screenwriting mistakes so you can also detect whenever you fall into these traps. No matter how killer your story is, if the readers and producers see any of these, you’re done. Don’t allow all the time you spent coming up with your idea, developing your characters and outlining your plot go to waste just because you got careless with how you wrote your screenplay.