10 Stupid Mistakes Screenwriters Make

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by Sarah Romeo


I know you've got a brilliant story just begging to be written. Here are the top ten mistakes screenwriters must avoid!

1). Not knowing why they want to write
So you want to write a screenplay? That's fantastic! But why? Is it to make a lot of money? Or is it to settle a bet with your friends? Is it because you have a story to tell that will work best in the cinema?
Try and write your screenplay before you decide the 'why' you want to write it. Somewhere in the writing process, the question of ‘why’ will start to haunt you, and almost certainly, your writing will be encumbered.
The reasons why people write are very different, just as the 'why' - for each stage of writing a script is very different. It doesn't matter (to me at least) the 'why' you want to write. Just decide.




2). Skipping the pre-planning stage
We creative types hate to be confined within boundaries. However, a pre-planned structure will give your artful genius some sense of direction and lend coherence to your ideas. Without pre-planning, stories tend to read as cleanly as a drunk on a bicycle--and no one wants to see that movie.
There are a few major steps you need to follow before your pen ever hits the page. Screenwriters identify these steps in as few as 3 stages, or even as many as 22! But in most generalized terms, these steps are: the beginning, the end, and all the catalysts that work in between to transition to and from those points. What will roughly happen within these stages to make your story sensible and complete? Even more importantly, in what world is the story unfolding? Who are the characters in it? What has happened in their lives?


3). Not having an original story idea

There are a lot of recognizable movie scenes that leave their marks on popular culture. You probably know a lot of these movie scenes pretty well. Here’s the problem: so does everyone else.
Don’t recreate ‘you had me at hello.’ People are most interested in seeing something they’ve never seen before, or wouldn’t have thought of themselves. As a screenwriter, it’s partly your job to be aware of what other filmmakers are doing, and what has worked in the past. But your most important job is to write the film that is most uniquely YOU.  Get inspired inside your own head, pulling real-life examples from unique experiences that stray far from tired clichés. If you can’t think of any films that mirror your own ideas, you’ve found a good start to developing a unique story.


4). Not having interesting characters
And by interesting, I mean weird. Think about it. From Margot Tenenbaum in her fur coat and jet-black eyeliner, to Hannibal Lector and his human-flesh-eating tendencies, the film characters we remember are generally cracked-out on quirk. Aside from general peculiarity, characters should also embody specific features that tie them together with human nature as a whole; morals, emotional weakness, and personal strengths.
So try to give your characters some idiosyncratic elements that make them stand out, whether it be in their dress, their mannerisms or their back stories. They don’t have to be 8-armed mutants who spawn asexually and sprout blue hair, but a couple of quirky attributes will lend them that element of interest that engages the audience.



5). Making a high concept the entire movie
High concept films aren’t bad. Trust me, I’m a sucker for Almost Famous, and though ET scared the crap out of me in my youth, it’s become a staple on the list of classics. What is bad, is when screenwriters develop a few master scenes that illustrate the high concepts, but don’t know how to stretch them across a 110-paged script. Rich stories need more meat than that. This counts even more for independent films, since most won’t have celebrity names to draw audiences. Obviously, the purpose behind high concept is to tell a powerful, universal story with concision, but the most successful ones also have depth. Character growth, heartfelt moments and intellectual discoveries intertwined with the plot help extend the high concept to a full-length script. I mean, you could just write a full feature about snakes on an airplane, but…oh wait…



6). Not knowing when to stop
As they’ve always said in Hollywood, ‘Leave “em wanting more!” It’s not good to go so far with your story that your audience is absolutely exhausted with detail.
You might have one of those friends who starts telling a story with no real climax or ending point in mind; to save themselves, they blabber on and on, hoping the words will lead them to a satisfying conclusion. (Don’t you just want to smack that guy? I know I do…) This is often the problem for screenwriters, too, who either write too many stories in what should really be one, or won’t end a single story that should have been done a long time ago.
So have your end in mind. You can envision what happens after the definitive end, but don’t include it in the script. It will leave your audience wanting more. And hey, if they like it enough, there’s always the sequel!



7). Not knowing the true beginning
Start writing your script from where you initially think it begins. Then go back and reconsider. Often times, writers find that their beginning lies somewhere in the second or third scene. Or sometimes the beginning is actually the end, and the true story lies before what you’ve written. Either way, you might discover that the beginning is more compelling with less introductory information, or that the story needs much, much more background context. Remember, rewriting is just as important an art as drafting, and one good rewrite could unveil more profundity than you ever knew was there.



8). On the nose dialogue
Dialogue is one way to deliver important information to the audience. However, when dialogue is ‘on the nose,’ it is forced and unnatural sounding. It serves as more of a lecture, full of specific details that we wouldn’t use in real life, and can make your screenplay read more as an infomercial advertising the story hidden beneath it.
It’s important to find a balance between giving your audience enough information through dialogue so they ‘get’ what’s going on, but not so much information that they feel insulted. To determine whether or not your dialogue is on the nose, read it out loud. Anything that you couldn’t imagine yourself saying in real life might be too convoluted for the big screen.
Besides, not all important information need be revealed through speech. And this brings me to Stupid Mistake number 9.



9). Creating a stage play
With stage plays, it’s a little easier to get away with dialogue that is more ‘on the nose’ because live theater depends on colloquy. The audience gets the action from one perspective: the view from their seats. The actors can’t project their facial expressions, so they project their voices. But you’re not writing a stage play, dammit, you’re writing a screenplay! The beauty of film is that we can use cinematography to deliver meaning to our audience. Point blank, movies rely on images, and there are so many ways meaningful images can be captured. Think of different angles at which action can be viewed. A close-up shot of an actor’s reaction can speak louder than his words can. A quick flashback during a scene might explain a poignant moment better than dialogue.
So in writing your screenplay, remember the options you have through the art of film. If you want to capture speech-driven plot on a stationary camera, perhaps a stage play is your best bet.

10). Not knowing whether "gunshot" should be capitalized or not
Don’t get stuck on stuff that doesn’t matter. When you have a great script idea, but dwell on perfection, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia. There are thousands of reasons why writers stop a project-- “Should this be a comma or a semicolon?” “Is ‘slimy’ the right adjective?” “I don’t know if I should capitalize ‘gunshot!’” When it comes down to the creative process, questions of grammar are nothing but excuses.

If you’re stuck on a technicality, take a step back and ask yourself what the real problem is. Are you having second thoughts about your hero’s fate? Or are you just nervous about the whole script in general? In the end, you can’t let the little things pile up and block the big picture: to create a compelling screenplay that is uniquely you.

About The Author


Sarah Romeo Sarah Romeo is pursuing a B.A. in English and creative writing from Fordham University in New York City. Upon graduation, she hopes to obtain an MFA in the Big Apple and write screenplays for film and television. Currently a Raindance intern, Sarah is enjoying learning the ins and outs of the film world and the refreshingly blunt British sense of humor. 

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