• Shadow Wolves Productions

How To Write A Good Screenplay: The 7 Most Common Writing Mistakes.

Updated: Mar 30

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 minimise 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:

i. Format

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).

There are dozens of highly reputable screenwriting software available to help you on your way with formatting, such as Final Draft, Celtx and Writer Duet.

Learn more about 'How To Format A Script Correctly' in this MasterClass step-by-step guide.

ii.️ Dialogue

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 characters' 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?)

Andrew Lincoln, Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead, Im doing stuff lori, things.
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead

iii. Length

"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 if you're writing a short film, feature film or television series; however, a good rule of thumb is to equate one page of your script per 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.

iv. Pacing

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 be making the audience laugh the majority 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 I