The Top 5 Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid

This list comes from Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU. Here’s what Hal had to say:

Mistake #5: On-the-nose writing.

When characters consistently say exactly what they think and feel, an audience quickly gets bored. They are being spoon fed and that doesn’t require their attention or entertain them in any way.

Instead, you need deeper meanings that adds interest, intrigue, and causes an audience to have to interpret, thus giving the audience an internal experience of the story.

BTW, on-the-nose writing is fine for early drafts of your screenplay. It serves as a place holder, but before you turn in the script, you need to make sure that each line delivers as much meaning as it can.

Solutions include pouring character into the lines, delivering subtext, creating anticipation, setting up or paying off, and others. Take the time and effort to become an expert in OFF-the-nose writing and every reader will respect you for it.

Mistake #4: Inviting boring characters to your party (script.)

The illusion of movies is that often, we are seeing “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” but there is usually something special about those “ordinary people.”

That illusion has caused thousands of writers to write DULL characters who save the day…but also put the audience to sleep.  And writing a screenplay is not about lulling an audience into slumber.

Don’t do it!

The reality is that professional writers spend time crafting a story to look like the characters are absolutely ordinary. That causes audiences to identify with the character, but also allows the writer to write a story about “a special character emerging from their ordinary world.”

The key point here is this: DON’T WRITE DULL CHARACTERS.

When you send out invitations for characters, make sure they know there is a Hollywood bouncer at the door and he won’t let anyone in that is dull, boring, or lifeless.

Solutions? Make sure there is something special about your characters, even if they appear to be ordinary…and that may be the key: start with the end in mind.

Go to the end of your script and look at how this character turns out. Then, return to the early interactions and write the character with the knowledge of the great deeds they’ll do. Give us hints and foreshadowing. That way, we’ll take the journey and believe in the character.

Mistake #3: Too much exposition, not enough real story.

We passed on a script last week that spent the first five pages giving nothing but exposition. The description continually made references to backstory. The characters spent their time telling each other about their lives. And there were physical signs in the environment saying things like “Guard dogs were trained by the police,” which the characters read out loud to each other.

What’s the problem with an “exposition script?” Giving all that “information” isn’t entertaining. It may serve the writer, but it doesn’t serve the story or the reader.  Remember, you are writing a screenplay, not a documentary.

The easy solution is to determine the minimum amount the reader needs to know and then dramatize that part through meaningful action. Or set up a true desire in the audience to know that information, then deliver it in the most entertaining way possible.

Any story can be told in an entertaining way or a boring way. When you start to see lots of exposition, look for the entertaining way to deliver the story and you’ll have a much better script.

Mistake #2: Thinking the details will save a bad story.

When I ask people what fascinates them most about their story, they often go to their favorite visuals or favorite lines of dialogue.

Nothing wrong with that…unless the story isn’t as good as those specific scenes.

And that is the problem. There are so many poorly structured stories covered with the icing of quirky details. In most cases, no amount of icing can save a bad story.

Details are like decorations. If your house is in obvious need of repair, the decorations just make it more clear that you are covering something up. But if your house is in perfect shape, the decorations spice it up and emphasize its beauty.

Simple advice: If you realize you are covering up a bad story, just go back to the story structure and fix it. Then, your magical details will shine even more.

Mistake #1: Not starting with a marketable concept.

Why is concept so important? Because there are three things that cause audiences to go to theaters to see movies — stars, reviews, and great concepts.

And you have 100% control over one — your concept choice.

Everyone in this business is looking for the next box office hit and from a script perspective, that means a great concept with great writing.

Let me tell you both the bad news and good news in a single sentence…

You determine the amount of rejection you will get from Hollywood with your first writing decision — your concept.

If you pick a concept that has been done to death, you’ll face constant rejection when you pitch. You’ll have an uphill battle that can be won, but it will be very difficult.

The good news is that picking a concept that is marketable will result in agents, managers and producers being very interested in you as a writer. They’ll see you as someone to do business with and that is the image you want.

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