The 6 Worst Screenwriting Mistakes You Can Make

Are these common mistakes holding you back?

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I read and edit scripts professionally (as well as for my other writing friends, because that’s what friends do), and I’ve noticed some mistakes that happen over and over again, especially with new writers. These common mistakes cripple a story! Screenwriting and the film industry is a brutal business. Avoid these common mistakes to give your screenplay a leg up from the competition.

1. No conflict.

One of the main tenants of screenwriting —literally something drilled into every class meeting in my screenwriting program at UCLA — is, “add more conflict.

What does that mean though? The phrase ‘adding conflict’ is almost like a shibboleth within the film industry. Conflict does not mean the dictionary definition of conflict, it means challenge.

But it’s still true that the best way to make a screenplay better is to challenge your character’s goals and motives. All characters want and need to do* certain things throughout their story arcs, and making it harder for them to achieve those things makes your story better. This applies to both screenwriting and regular novel/short story writing.

To come about it another way, think of your favorite movie. Is there a scene where ‘nothing’ happens? I imagine there isn’t, (unless it’s a really artistic piece.) If there is one character in the scene, they’re trying to get something done (the ’trying’ is the challenge/conflict). If there are two characters, they are having a conversation or interaction with their unique wants and motives (their motives and interaction is the source of conflict).

Adding conflict is what makes a scene a scene. Again, it’s not adding fights and fisticuffs; if anything, it’s adding ‘story.’ The best stories happen in the conflict.

*The very first article I wrote on medium a few years ago was about ‘wants and needs’ and explaining what that actually means! Check it out!

2. Weird formatting.

Screenplay formatting is simultaneously both rigid and fluid. Your safest bet is to stick to your Screenplay Bible (do you have a copy yet? You really should!) if you have any formatting questions. But sometimes the muse calls upon you to do something different and zany. (Honestly, ignore that muse, she’s leading you astray. There are better muses.)

You can and should tell your story within the sphere of basic screenplay formatting. Occasionally you’ll come up with one tiny tweak for the sake of clarity, but it’s rare. With some research (again, Screenplay Bible. I cannot recommend it enough) you can figure out the right way to do it. Buck-wild formatting leads to trashed scripts. It can be tempting though! I get it. But you must remember that while you may understand what you’re doing, there is no guarantee that a reader will approach your script the same way.

It can be done right, but for the most part, it’s your funeral.

A great example is the Coen Brothers’ ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. I personally love it. It’s wild! The stories are unique and interesting and the actual formatting itself is not in Courier 12 point font and has pictures and everything! So cool right? That’ll get you noticed!

But if a newbie screenwriter tried to pull that on a reader, they’d be toast. Script readers in big agencies have hundreds of scripts to read and are looking for any excuse to stop reading something. Don’t make trashing your script easy.

Here’s the most important question to ask yourself if you’re still really interested in doing something unique with your formatting: Are you a Coen Brother? I imagine not. So stick to the formatting. Case closed.

(If you ARE a Coen brother, hi! I love your work! Please adopt me to learn from you as a weird chubby apprentice?)

3. Boring, un-unique voices.

Each of your characters absolutely must have a unique voice. This doesn’t just translate into their actual dialogue, but their motives, their mannerisms, and in many ways their presence appears on the page and screen. A good rule to follow is that if you have two characters speaking, a reader should be able to tell the characters apart with their names blacked out.

And that’s really hard! Especially if you’re writing characters that come from the same backgrounds and lifestyles — people tend to speak like their peers, that’s just human nature. You can’t have a group of high schoolers at a lunch table all speak with different accents and languages; it wouldn’t make sense. And frankly, a lot of stories happen within groups of similar-minded people, so you have to develop each voice properly. Not everything can be Lord of the Rings where five different species with different backgrounds form a fellowship (I believe Wizards are technically a species in that universe but correct me if I’m wrong).

To stick with our high school example, let’s visit one of my favorite movies, Mean Girls.

So fetch

Regina, Gretchen, and Karen are all members of ‘The Plastics’. The gorgeous mean girl elite that the main character, Cady, joins. They’re all very similar on the outside, definitely all falling into the popular hot girl category, but they each have super unique voices. They each pop off the page! You can tell who is speaking even without seeing their character tags in the script. That’s the breakdown of voices you’re looking for. Even with similar backgrounds and speaking patterns, their voices are their own.

4. Leaning on clichés.

I wrote a little bit about this in my article on film tropes, but it bears repeating here. Tropes and clichés exist because that’s how society works. However, there’s a fine line between writing something that adheres to tried and true story-telling motifs and writing something that’s predictable, and thus, boring. Unfortunately, the only way to learn to tell the difference is to read a lot of screenplays and to practice writing. Learning the clichés you tend to lean on is the best way to learn how to let those clichés go. It’s hard work, but doable, I promise! You can even try writing something cliché and figure out how it works in order to make something better and unique on the rewrite.

And that’s the big thing; ultimately, the art of screenwriting is in the rewriting. Inside Out was rewritten around seventeen times because things just weren’t hitting right. Be ready to throw something away the moment it stops working. Sure you may have written something really good, but if it’s too predictable it will bring your whole screenplay down. You’re welcome to put your old scenes in a folder to save in case you change your mind, but I know personally that every time I do that I never go back and revisit the old stuff. You can always write something better, I promise!

5. Fails the Bechdel Test

This one should be a no brainer. It’s 2020, you HAVE to write women like women and not like props. Also, regard these other screenplay tests that you should try to pass if relevant as well! Introducing and incorporating well-written female characters, characters of color and LGBTQ characters is always rad!

6. No passion.

This is the most ambiguous thing on this list. It’s very, “You’ll know it when you see it.”

If you don’t love your story, your characters, your setting, your screenplay, it will show on the page. Sure, sometimes you get tired and frustrated, but you gotta remember why you wanted to tell your story in the first place. There is something within that story that spoke to you that you want to share. It may be something concrete (ie. this is a story about my grandfather), or it may be completely ephemeral (ie. I wanted to explore this theme and see where it takes me).

I have read polished, finished, ready for competition works, as well as first-draft screenplays riddled with notes and little reminders to add more scenes. In both instances, there is something invisible that always stands out when a writer loves their work. Your story is your baby, so most of the time that passion comes through without a problem, but if you find yourself writing something you don’t care about, it is obvious and will ruin you and your script in the end.

Again, this is ambiguous and amorphous and hard to pinpoint, but my best advice is to write something that speaks to you. Forget for a little bit if it’s sellable or who is the audience you’re aiming for. You can work on those things later (again, master the art of the rewrite). In your story is a little whispering voice that runs through each of the lines of dialogue and setting and character. It says, “This is important. I need to get this out. This story will be told.”

And here’s the secret, that little voice is you. Don’t quash it. 

Writing screenplays is hard, there’s no denying it. But if you’re like me, the challenge is part of the reward. These big mistakes can really hold you back and keep you from succeeding, and the truth is the only way to avoid them is hard work and gumption.

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