Common Mistakes in Screenplays – Part 1

I read screenplays of all genres and formats for screenwriting competitions and companies on a daily basis, and I just love it. Indeed, the world is filled with amazing stories and talented writers. However, it still surprises me that the same common mistakes plague the vast majority of the scripts. What do I mean with “common mistakes”? Allow me a quick digression.

I believe screenwriting is a craft. It has techniques and theories that are being developed and updated perpetually through time. Following these principles (or theories or whatever you want to call them) to the letter makes little sense because we all know that would end up boxing your creativity: your voice as a screenwriter depends on how you handle them to tell your story. That said, there’s still a vast ocean between mastering (and breaking) certain principles and just neglecting them. Let’s take surgery, for example. Scenario A (mastery): after many years of research, a surgeon invents a new and efficient operation instrument. Scenario B (neglect): a surgeon shows up at an operation with gardening gloves instead of the surgical ones. Who sounds more proficient to you?

It should be clear to you that the “common mistakes” are those things that provide no benefit to your story nor to whom will read it, like bad formatting or on-the-nose dialogues, things that can easily be avoided. Knowing these mistakes and how to avoid them is an essential step to give your script a professional look. Let’s check out some of the most common mistakes in scripts (more will be covered in the next blog post, so stay tuned).

#1 Your Protagonist is Passive

What does Frodo Baggins want in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy? To rid of the damn One Ring and save Middle-earth. Desires/objectives are among the quintessential elements of every story, and way too many screenplays overlook that. A character (doesn’t have to be human) wants or desires something or someone, and someone or something stands in their way. In Toy Story, Sheriff Woody wants to be Andy’s favourite toy. Guess what: he didn’t see Buzz Lightyear coming. Having a purposeless protagonist should always ring a bell for you. This doesn’t mean your character can’t be purposeless at the beginning of the story, like a war veteran who has lost his wife after fifty years of marriage and is left alone contemplating his solitude (Gran Torino), but some objective should eventually arise. Remember, stories are about change, so give your protagonist something to achieve and give them a hard time.

#2 Dragged First Act

A lot of screenplays feature first acts where nothing or very little happens. In most cases, this is because the script lacks a clear inciting incident, that single event that sets the story in motion, hooks the reader, and disturbs your protagonist, pushing them towards the start of a new journey. In Monster’s Inc. (2001), the inciting incident is the plot point where Sulley’s nemesis, Randall, leaves a closet door open and Sully finds out that a little girl entered their world. Sometimes, the scripts feature an excellent catalyst (another name for inciting incident), but it arrives too late. Just push it to the front and give us the plot.

It could be that your script is a slow burner, one of those stories that take some time to hook you. This isn’t a problem per se, but make sure your first ten-twenty pages invite us into your world, intrigue us, and that your words make us want to read more and more.

#3 Useless Secondary Characters

An overabundance of scripts tends to use supporting characters like props. They come and go for no particular reason. Characters are defined by the actions they perform. If a character shows up and addresses the protagonist with a couple of forgettable lines, and then disappears again for thirty scenes, it’s very easy to forget them. Secondary characters are functional to the story, as every other narrative element. They challenge your protagonist, betray him, support him, advise him, and yadda, yadda. Would Breaking Bad be the same without Jesse Pinkman? And Saul? And Skyler? I don’t think so. Check out this terrific video analysis by The Take and see how each supporting character reflects the story’s theme.

Another common mistake is that multiple secondary characters play the same role. For instance, a protagonist has three friends who speak and look very alike. Instead, you should blend them into a single memorable character or give each of them a unique role. Production-wise, it’d also be counterproductive to hire many actors and actresses with forgettable parts.

#4 Missing Character Descriptions

Let’s take scene 4 from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) as an example:

“A death-white wasteland stretches from horizon to horizon. The tremendous heat of two huge twin suns settle on a lone figure, Luke.
A light wind whips at him as he adjusts several valves…”

This is how the same paragraph was actually written:

“A death-white wasteland stretches from horizon to horizon. The tremendous heat of two huge twin suns settle on a lone figure, Luke Skywalker, a farm boy with heroic aspirations who looks much younger than his eighteen years. His shaggy hair and baggy tunic give him the air of a simple but lovable lad with a prize-winning smile…”

Don’t introduce your protagonist or any other character only by their name. How old are they? How do they look? What are they wearing? Give us those tiny but essential details that help us picture your characters in our minds. As an exercise, try to read the opening scene from Whiplash (2014) by Damien Chazelle without the characters’ descriptions and see how that will change your reading experience. Another great reference is the opening scene from Taxi Driver (1976), screenplay written by Paul Shrader.

#5 Expositional Dialogues

Many scripts are overloaded with expositional or on-the-nose dialogues. And believe me, this is something you see even with experienced screenwriters. Dialogues are a nasty thorn in the side, and it usually takes several drafts to get them to their best shape. A suggestion? The old-but-gold screenwriting principle: show don’t tell. Think about dialogues as an extension of a character’s will. Sometimes, you get those heavy-dialogue scenes where the plot advances with three-four lines, and the rest is just chit-chat. A useful exercise, especially for confrontation scenes, is thinking about the dialogues as a game of chess. Each line stands as a different move aimed at achieving something. An excellent reference to see how dialogues can push the plot forward is the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater.

#6 Expositional Scenes

Many screenplays are plagued with sloppy dialogues as much as expositional scenes. Exposition in writing isn’t a mistake in itself. It serves specific purposes, like conveying background information about the world or a particular character that would otherwise be hard for the reader to understand. In Inception (2010), Nolan uses Dom’s (Di Caprio) mentoring of Ariadne (Elliot Page) to explain to the audience the mechanics for the story world and how the mission will proceed. The main problem is that expositional scenes can be extremely repetitive and dull. As an audience, our emotional engagement depends on conflicts. We want to see your characters trying to overcome obstacles. It’s also in those moments, where they make meaningful choices to change something, that they reveal us who they are deep-down. Establish that essential expositional information and then jump straight to the actions and events that push the plot forward.

#7 Swearing Just for the Sake of It

Swearing is a lot of fun. So much fun that Netflix has just released a documentary about the history of swear words. But in screenwriting, this is just not how it works. Amateur screenwriters tend to fill their screenplays with swear words to the point where the dialogues lose any distinctiveness and attractiveness. From my perspective, swear words are best used to characterise a character. Think about Ruth in Ozark and how her sharp lines always contrast with Marty’s more poised style. If you want to fill your scripts with swearing, that’s fine. But remember to make it clear that those words are an irreplaceable element of your story world and the tone. Good Time by the Safdie Brothers is a great example.

How can you make sure your screnplay doesn’t contain common mistakes?

After you have finished writing a script, it’s good practice to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a few days. When you come back to it with fresh eyes its pitfalls and weaknesses will be much more obvious. Another good idea is getting feedback from someone who isn’t involved in the writing of the script, but possibly someone who knows the craft of writing inside out. This could be one of your peers or a script consultancy service. We offer our own feedback to writers, which is written by script readers who are actively working in the industry, so you can get an opinion by the same people that will be judging your script if you send it to a production company or to one of the major screenwriting competitions.