How To Write A Good Screenplay: The 7 Most Common Writing Mistakes.
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Everyone needs to begin somewhere, right? Like thousands before me and probably thousands after me, I started at the bottom. I wrote. I learned. I re-wrote. I deleted. I wrote again. I learned some more. It was a vicious cycle.
I had a great idea for a script and thought, how hard can it be? Looking back now, my first script was abysmal at best. Heck, my fifth script was still filled with incorrect formatting (which I believed I knew well). Sure, they were good enough to shoot a couple of short films and indie features, but my scriptwriting wasn't where it needed to be, especially if I wanted a seat at the table with the big boys and girls (which I did). Then, on my 10th script, I nailed it (or at least, so I thought); I had implemented EVERY SINGLE STRATEGY I had learned along the way. But then it got in front of a pretty hard-hitting producer, who tore it (and my heart) apart... It wasn't personal; I just had a lot that I still needed to discover.
Like everyone aspiring for greatness, my journey included several obstacles that needed to be confronted. Your journey will be no different in that regard... it's how we grow as writers if we hope to reach our full potential. If you're lucky, you might catch a break here and there, and sidestep some of the biggest obstacles, allowing you to focus on the more critical aspects of your writing, like "Should my script be plot-driven or character-driven?"
If you're looking to write your next screenplay (or your first one) and want to avoid making the same mistakes millions of other rookie screenwriters have made, you're in the right place. We've compiled a list of 'The 7 Most Common Writing Mistakes That Rookie Screenwriters Make' and a few principles to minimize these errors.
To make a great film, you need three things – the script, the script and the script.” – Alfred Hitchcock.
Tip #1 - It's a Screenplay, not a Novel.
Whilst both novels and screenplays have similarities, like extensive character and story development, it's important to remember they’re actually very different. As a writer, you need to understand some fundamental differences between the two, such as:
One of my first feature film scripts came in at 140 pages; the Producer wanted 110 pages max. I asked a colleague for some fresh eyes and feedback on what they thought I could cut out. Their response was probably some of the worst advice I have ever heard, "Cheat the length by expanding the left, right, top, and bottom margins." DO NOT DO THIS... Screenplay formatting is set a certain way for a reason; it feeds the production crew viable information such as the approximate running time, how many locations and cast are needed, interior vs exterior, day vs night shots, etc. Apart from that, any professional will see straight through it and move on to the next script.
Screenplays generally follow a three-act structure, as laid out in Blake Snyder's book 'Save The Cat.'
Act I - The Beginning or Setup;
Act II - The Middle or Confrontation; and
Act III - The End or Resolution.
The page should be full of 'white space' and written in the present tense. It should start with a SCENE HEADING, followed by short, precise paragraphs known as the ACTION. The CHARACTER's name who's talking, followed by their DIALOGUE and, if needed, any PARENTHETICALS (a fancy name for the words written under a character's name to describe how the actor should feel or perform the given dialogue).
Learn more about 'How To Format A Script Correctly' in this MasterClass step-by-step guide.
When writing a character's dialogue, don't get caught up writing exposition dumps or over-explaining backstories; it confuses and frustrates the reader. Let your story unfold naturally. It might sound counterproductive, but try to refrain from becoming 'the narrator' or putting too many of the character's inner thoughts on the page (unless it's needed for voice-overs). You should develop your characters through the action and dialogue. Make the reader connect with your characters and 'feel' a certain way about them instead of 'telling' them how they should feel.
Give your character's dialogue a unique style. Do they have a distinct speech pattern? Do they use particular slang? Are they direct in their approach or evasive? Does their style change with their arc? If your characters are speaking, it means they want something; what is it? Nail these points, and it will also strengthen your character development.
An excellent point to remember when writing dialogue is; 'Show Don't Tell.' Often the most compelling dialogue is no dialogue at all. With the right directing and acting, countless lines of dialogue explaining how disappointed the character is can be reduced to a single look.
Helpful Tip: No dialogue, is better than shitty dialogue. You don't want memes made about how bad your writing is (or maybe you do?)
"An elegantly king-sized log cabin. Made of raw wood and stone. Wrapped in rustic finesse. The sweeping lake and mountain views behind it. Picture perfect." While it's generally okay to embellish a little on the descriptive text when introducing a new scene or location, try to keep the majority of your descriptions to a minimum. Your script length may vary depending on whether you're writing a short film, feature film, or television series; however, a good rule of thumb is equating one page of your script to one minute of screen time.
Generally, If I aim for a spec script of 90-100 pages, then my first 'rough' draft usually comes in at around 140 pages. Then, I trim off the excess fat, rework the scenes, develop the characters, change the dialogue to fit, and rework the descriptions. Then, I do it again, which is my (actual) 'First Draft.' My final script is hardly ever like the first draft. It should evolve with every rewrite.
Helpful Tip: If two sentences convey a similar message, try combining them to reduce punctuation.
The pacing is the speed at which the story unfolds. It will, and should, differ slightly depending on the genre. For example, action, horror, and thriller films would generally be punchier and fast-paced. At the same time, a drama or biopic leaves room for a slower burn and allows room for more exploration of the characters and plot.
Two brilliant scripts that show the difference, in contrast, are: "The Bourne Ultimatum," which gives a good idea of how to provide a sense of urgency to action sequences.
The second is "No Country For Old Men," which allows time for the scene and characters to develop.
"Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit then go back and smooth things out." — Paul Thomas Anderson.
Tip #2 - What's Your Genre?
Work out what your genre is from the start. Blending genres is okay; however, choose your primary genre and stick to it. Audiences like and watch specific genres for a reason, so you need to pay respect to that, or you'll run the risk of disappointing your audience. Imagine if Jason Vorhees found someone that understood his pain, fell in love, and gave up killing to start a family. They would have changed the title from "Friday the 13th" to "February the 14th" and lost, dare I say it, the majority of their audience (although I would probably pay to see how that storyline pans out, I mean, it worked in "The Bride of Chucky," kind of).
I've seen a lot of good stories fail because the writers failed to choose an accurate genre that fits their story. Changing the genre might make or break your script, or take it in a completely different direction, so be open-minded and adapt as needed. A perfect example of this is "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The original 90's TV series with Will Smith was a sitcom (situational comedy); however, the new "Bel-Air" (2022) is a series with a dramatic edge; based on the same concept, just told through different genres.
Find the best genre to tell your story, and then find what works with your writing style, or adapt your writing style to the genre. If you're writing horror, you need elements of dread, surprise, and fear. If you're writing a comedy, you need to make the audience laugh most of the way through. Many writers stick to the specific genre they write well, so try a few and see what works best for you.
"The script, is the foundation of everything." - Ewan McGregor.
Tip #3 - Lack of Story Equals Lack of Interest.
We've all been in the situation where we've invested 90 minutes or so into a film, and then... nothing. Usually followed by the question, "How the F, did this get funded?" To ensure this doesn't happen to you, prepare your outline before writing any dialogue or action to ensure your story completes its entire arc and stays true to its genre.
Avoid one of the biggest screenwriting traps by asking yourself, "Why did I start writing this?", "What's the story I am trying to tell?", "What's my character's goal?" "Is there a reward for achieving that goal?" Your script needs to make good on its promises. If you betray your audience too much or have no resolution or reward, you can say goodbye to a sequel or franchise.
"Once you crack the script, everything else follows." – Ridley Scott.
Tip #4 - Action Blocks That Are Far Too Long.
As stated in Tip #1. You're writing a screenplay, not a Novel. While producing and script doctoring, I've worked on scripts that have had 10, sometimes 15, lines of action. Long blocks of action are hard to read, and if you want a decision-maker to read your script, you need to make it easy for them. As a rule of thumb, keep your action to a minimum, but no more than 4-5 lines. If you go over, and it's essential, keep it; if it isn't, all you're doing is annoying and frustrating the reader. Remember, white space is your ally, not your enemy.
Helpful Tip: If you're struggling with a large block of action, try breaking it up with some dialogue.
"You may not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." — Jodi Picoult.
Tip #5 - Don't Play Director in Your Descriptions.
Every person has their set role and job title for a reason. Your job as the screenwriter is to tell a story, not explain the movie. You're not making the movie; you're writing an idea, a blueprint, that others can work off, adding their craft and skills to make your movie. They're not doing your job for you, so restrain yourself from doing theirs.
Like a lot of rookie screenwriters, I began writing screenplays based on the movie I saw in my head. My descriptions were fraught with over-explanation, way too many visuals, and very dialogue-driven (although that's not always a bad thing). I would add scene transitions, where my ECU and POV shots should go etc. My action consisted of highly detailed visual descriptions, as I thought this allowed the reader to transport into the world I was creating; I was wrong. Instead, it did the opposite. It stopped the reader from engaging fully with the characters and the plot, slowing the story's pace.
My lesson was learned the hard way. I finally got a face-to-face meeting with a relatively high-profile (yet pretentious) Director. He asked me the pretty confronting question, "So, you're the Writer, Director, and Production Designer on this?" I replied, "No, just the writer."He looked at me with a stern look and said, "Well then, just write. You do your job, and let me do mine. Don't tell me where to put the camera or when I should be doing a close-up." At that moment, two things crossed my mind; one, you're a dick, and two, you're also right; maybe I need to change my writing style (but you're still a dick). Your job, as the screenwriter, is to tell a story instead of explaining your movie; that's the Director's job.
"Audiences are harder to please if you're just giving them effects, but they're easy to please if it's a good story." — Steven Spielberg.
Tip #6 - Over-Writing Character Descriptions.
When writing character descriptions, try not to be too precise unless something obvious about them needs to be in the script; wheelchair-bound, one arm, a debilitating injury, etc. Even if there is something unique about them, explain it, but try to refrain from embellishing on any extras.
An excellent example of this is the 1998 film "American History X," which gave us a searing look at suburban racism in America during the '90s. Obviously, the scriptwriter needed to be explicit about ethnicity in the script; however, they still don't elaborate past that.
The image you have in your head of the perfect actor/ character might also be tainting the casting director's mind and might just be unattainable at this time. You can still be precise without being obvious - 30's, wearing a leather jacket, staring at her with brooding eyes - This lays out the type of character he is, without being overtly obvious - so automatically, you know you're not getting Michael Cera or Jim Parsonsshowing up to the auditions. Still, it leaves the casting open to the possibility of casting another bankable actor that might better suit the description.
It's very rare–almost never–that a good film gets made from a bad screenplay." – Tim Bevan.
Tip #7 - Neglecting Spelling and Grammar.
U usualy only get 1 chance at getin it rite so dont mess it up[ with bad speling an grandma... See what I did there. The sad thing is that while that might be an extreme example, I've actually read screenplays with just as many errors in the first few lines.
The built-in spell-check is a great tool, but don't rely entirely on it. Take your time - read every page, line by line, word by word. Once you think you're done, get some fresh eyes on it; ask a friend or family member to read it. I guarantee you'll have a rogue comma or an apostrophe gone, M.I.A.
One thing I always do is read over it, line by line, from the bottom of the page. The human brain can recognize and distinguish words without actually reading them, so we assume what's coming next. Considering you've written the screenplay, you know what 'should' be next, so this mixes things up a little and gets the brain focusing the way it should.
Remember, first impressions really do last. In an industry filled with so much competition, you can't afford to have any opportunities wasted by bad spelling and grammar.
Helpful Tip: If you're looking to free your script from mistakes, and continue writing with confidence, check out Grammarly.
"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't give up." - Richard Bach.
BONUS TIP #1 - Get The Pros Reading Your Script.
Okay, So you've written your script, you're happy with it, and your friends and family are impressed, but is it enough? You run down your checklist -
Do you have the correct formatting? ️✅
Are your characters relatable and authentic? ️✅
Is there any clunky or unnecessary dialogue? ️✅
Have I stayed true to the primary genre? ️✅
Is the pacing in sync with the tone of your genre? ️✅
Does the length fit the standard of the type and genre? ✅
Have most of the plot holes been filled? ✅
Does the story make sense? ✅
Are both the Conflict and Resolution obvious? ️✅
Is there anything else that might be missing that would be important to your script? ️✅
Everything looks good. But first, maybe spend a little time and money to get a few industry professionals to give you some coverage for your script.
Not only are you getting years and years of industry experience and knowledge, but you're getting fresh eyes on your script from an individual who (usually) knows what works and what doesn't. Valuable information that you can exploit to further evolve your script.
Check out Coverfly for all your film coverage and competitions.
"Start writing, no matter what. The water doesn't flow until the faucet is turned on." - Louis L'Amour.
Whether you're an amateur looking to write your first screenplay or you're a professional with more than a few under your belt, I think we can all agree that it's not about being 'perfect' it's about the effort you put in. Continue to learn, develop, and evolve. Make your writing unique, have fun doing it, and stop comparing your Chapter 1 to someone else's Chapter 20.
If you're interested in having us work on your script, check out our Script Doctoring services.
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If you got something out of this, or you have any other great tips that you use, please feel free to leave a comment below.