Common Mistakes in Screenplays – Part 2

This post is a follow-up on Common Mistakes in Scripts by a Script Reader – Part I. If you have already read that, great work! If not, the purpose here is to take a look at the most common mistakes we often find while analysing screenplays. These mistakes apply to amateur and pro screenwriters, as we locate them both in contest submissions and in scripts sent to production companies. If you want to give your writing a professional look, you should watch these common mistakes.

#1 Formatting all over the place

Missing page numbers, uncapitalised names, misuse of parentheticals, typos, etc. If your script features any formatting errors, you can be sure your writing isn’t making the impression it deserves. In screenwriting competitions, formatting is scored like any other elements (premise, character development, structure, etc.). You should make sure bad formatting isn’t lowering your chances to qualify. If you send your script to a producer or an agent, these errors might pass you off as an amateur, and you don’t want that, mainly because you rarely get two shots in this business. Before submitting your screenplay, read plenty of others and see how the medium works and all the nitty-gritty formatting rules. You can check our repository (in development) or the BBC Script Library for samples.

#2 Overwritten descriptions

One of the most frequent mistakes in scripts is a tendency to fill your action lines with too many descriptions. Although beautifully-written, these descriptions often lack a clear connection with the story or draw our attention away from the plot. As a writer, you are the master of your world and decide what is worth-noticing or not. However, human attention is selective and drawn more by movements than still images. There are two guidelines here. First, less is better (they are called action lines, after all). Second, Chekhov’s Gun principle: details within a story or play should contribute to the overall narrative. In other words, if I see a gun, I will expect that gun to be fired at some point. Details shape the story as much as a line of dialogue. You can apply the same principle to your description lines.

#3 Evil villains just for the sake of Being evil

It is a widespread practice, especially among amateurs, to write blatantly flat antagonists: they are BAD and can’t do anything about it. Of course, the complexity of your antagonist(s) depends on the kind of story you want to tell. The Bond movies or the Marvel superhero franchise (with a few exceptions) are collections of sadistic f**kers who only want to destroy/conquer the world. The problem here is that you run the risk of relying on the usual dualism of good-protagonist vs bad-antagonist, which can be predictable or just boring. As a suggestion, try to flip the story and see it from the antagonist’s perspective. Which personal motivations are driving them? What do they fear? What do they love? In many well-crafted stories, the protagonist and the antagonist oppose one another: each possesses the qualities the other needs. You can find an excellent example of this in this terrific video analysis of Batman and Joker’s relationship by Lessons from the Screenplay.

#4 Music

You should avoid putting a song into your script unless you have the licensing rights to them. There are two reasons for avoiding this common mistake. First, licensing rights cost a lot. If you’re quoting a famous artist, they can be up to thousands of pounds and even more. If your script gets ever picked for development, it’s the director’s job to choose the score, and you won’t be the one making the call to buy the rights. The second reason is that many amateur writers usually mention a song to give a certain tone/vibe to a scene or a sequence. The result is that the action lines and the dialogues end up being disregarded or sloppy. As a writer, you should use your words, the pace, and the musicality in your sentences to convey your story’s tone. You can read the opening scene from Trainspotting and then watch it with the music here on YouTube. You will see that you don’t need a song to make your writing powerful.

#5 Camera notes

Another common mistake is filling your script with camera movements and shots (CLOSE TO, ESTABLISHING SHOT, PULL BACK, PAN, etc.). When you do this, remember you’re doing the director’s job. You can surely be your script’s director, writing as many as notes as you want, and that is fine. The problem here is that people that read your script don’t know that (especially in screenwriting competitions). Suppose you’re submitting your script as a director to a production company and you don’t mind them picking another director. In that case, that person will decide the camera shots and movements and put them into the shooting script. As mentioned above, you should write your screenplay focusing on the story and how your words convey meaningful, unique images; everything else is just background noise. The same argument applies to any editing notes (DISSOLVE TO, MATCH CUT TO, etc.).