FATAL FLAWS OF THE NOVICE SCREENWRITER
Most of you are just beginning your screenwriting journey. It will be a long haul and there will be much to learn; hopefully, with the aid of this site, you can draw a few bits of knowledge from my experiences and avoid some of the obstacles and dilemmas I have come up against. I’ve read dozen of screenplays by budding writers over the last few years, and in my opinion, a vast majority of those scripts were nowhere close to being ready to be read by any of Hollywood’s power-brokers. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly), these scripts all suffered from the same fatal flaws. What follows are some of the more egregious pitfalls and ways to avoid them. Again, I do not purport to be a “guru”—and trust me when I tell you no one believes William Goldman’s famous line, “Nobody knows anything” more than I do—so if my modus operandi works for you, great. If not, it’s up to you to discover a groove you feel most comfortable in. Use what works and toss the rest. That’s exactly what I did. With that said, let’s take a look at…
The Non-Visual/Dreadfully Dull Story
Yes, I’ll agree that some wonderful movies have been made from scripts that were less than visual. Diner is one title that comes to mind; the fabulous Sleuth (one of my all-time favorite films) is another. Sadly, these type of films are few and far between. It seems a majority of producers nowadays are more interested in a visual script than a script with compelling characters and intriguing storylines. In other words, you’ll probably have an easier time selling a script about an ex-Navy SEAL avenging the death of his wife, than you will a coming-of-age tale of a troubled boy who grows into the man who becomes a SEAL. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write a low-key, character-driven story (Napoleon Dynamite), or a two-character, one location, gut-wrenching thriller (Hard Candy), because you should…but only if you can turn it into something that will hold an audience’s attention for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, this low-concept/high-entertainment combination is something most new writers seem not to understand. Yup, I’ve come across some awfully listless storylines in my time. Not to say some of those stories weren’t worthwhile, it’s just that most were 45-page stories poured into a 110-page script! It’s the kiss of death when your script conks out on page 40 or 50 and the remaining pages are basically filler (i.e., characters who wander around doing very little, saying very little, entertaining us even less). I’ve also read a number of scripts where it’s obvious the writer has issues/baggage from his or her past and the script is being used as a cathartic release. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that; lots of great movies have been made from such beginnings. But I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where the main character spends a good chunk of the story moping around, trying to figure out why their life is a mess. Believe me, there’s nothing duller than 100 pages of, “Nobody loves me! I’m a loser! I have no life!” So, if you need to pour your feelings out, talk to a psychiatrist. Or write poetry. Otherwise, nobody really cares. But if you absolutely positively must write about your problems and/or issues, at least make them entertaining (i.e., Kissing Jessica Stein, You Can Count On Me, Antwone Fisher, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin).
Front-loading the Script with Too Much Information
This is when the first 10-15 pages of a script is comprised of huge blocks of dialogue and/or description, imparting everything we’ll need to know, in order to fully understand what the ensuing story is about. The last thing any development executive, producer, or agent wants to read at the start of a script is large blocks of text. Remember, at the start of your story, it’s perfectly fine to give the reader/audience information—but just enough to keep them guessing a bit, wondering what’s about to happen next. That’s what’ll keep ‘em reading your script/watching your movie!
Mixing Too Many Genres
But please tread carefully if you go beyond these tried-and-true mixes. I critiqued a script once that was a sci-fi/comedy/drama/musical/western. Space ships, guys wearing six-guns, dancing and singing, laughs, tears—ugh!—a real confusing mess. Sure, go ahead and experiment; just don’t go too far overboard. When you become a big-time scribe, then feel free to reinvent the wheel. Another script I critiqued was supposed to be a Pulp Fiction-type hitman comedy. (C’mon, Pulp Fiction has been done—and believe me, you’re not Quentin Tarantino.) Problem was, this script wasn’t funny. Bigger problem, it wasn’t entertaining in any way whatsoever! In the penultimate scene, one of the hitmen storms into a house, rapes a woman, blows her brains out, then goes into the next room and blows away her small children. Yeah, real funny. I’m still shaking my head at that one. Know your genres. Be consistent.
An Unlikable/Unredeemable Main Character
Not long ago I critiqued a script where the main character was a con artist. She suffered some trauma as a child and grew up with only one goal in mind—to cheat the world. So we follow this snotty, cold-hearted witch for 100 pages, as she rips people off right and left. Um, tell me again why I want to spend 90 minutes of my life watching a character I thoroughly dislike? “But Jim,” you say, “there have been lots of evil characters we’ve loved.” Yup, you’re right. Take Alan Rickman’s character Hans Gruber in the classic Die Hard. Yes, he was a bad guy—a killer and a thief—but he had style and a sense of humor. We hated him, but we loved him. (To this day, I still quote more Alan Rickman lines than Bruce Willis lines.) Look at the cast of characters in Pulp Fiction. Barely a single good guy in sight. Vince is a scumbag, Jules is a scumbag, “The Wolf” is a scumbag, and brother Marselles sure ain’t gonna win any Good Citizenship awards. But we like these people. They’re entertaining and complex, and we sure don’t mind hanging with them for 160 minutes.Baddies aren’t just mindless drones, they have shading and character. So, if you’re gonna make your characters bad, make them great-bad. Make us love to hate them!
Too Many Locations
In the real estate business it’s all about “Location, location, location!” but when writing a screenplay, that’s not necessarily the case. Many inexperienced screenwriters make the mistake of loading their scripts with a myriad of locations. I’ve read a number of scripts where there’s a new location on virtually every page. This means somewhere in the vicinity of 70-80 separate locations in the script! That’s waaaaaay too many. Locations cost a production company time. Time is money. Lots of money. Producers don’t like to spend more money than they have to.
Unrealistic Phone Conversation
Unless you’re writing a whacky comedy, don’t let a character hold BOTH sides of a phone conversation. Such as:
JOE (on phone): What’s that, you’re going on a trip? But where are you going? You’re going to Tahiti? But with who? You’re going with Rex?
This sort of thing worked great on sitcoms from the 50s, 60s and 70s (i.e., “I Love Lucy,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “The Bob Newhart Show”), but nowadays, for a feature screenplay, it’s fairly ludicrous, especially if you’re writing anything other than a comedy. Either intercut the conversation with the other character, or let us hear the other character’s voice filtered through the phone, or rework the dialogue so it sounds plausible/realistic.
No Emotion (in an Emotional Scene)
Nothing kills a heart-rending scene faster than characters who display no real emotion. For example:
Jack and Jill stand together on the front steps.
JILL: I wanted it to work between us...but we’re two different people.
JACK: But I can change. I know I can.
JILL: It’s too late for that, Jack. I’m so sorry.
She touches his arm.
JILL: I should go. Bye, Jack.
She goes inside the house. Jack turns and walks back to his car.
Boy, now that’s sure a real heart-tugger, ain’t it? Um, no. OK, so let’s add a bit of emotion to it. Something like this:
Jack and Jill stand together on the front steps. Jill has tears brimming in her eyes.
JILL: I wanted it to work between us...but we’re two different people.
Now tears are brimming in Jack’s eyes.
JACK: I can change. I know I can.
JILL: It’s too late for that, Jack.
She looks deep into Jack’s pitiful face, fighting not to completely lose it. She puts her arms around him, holds him tight.
JILL (a whisper): I’m so sorry.
It becomes too much for her –- and she pulls away and rushes into the house, closing the door after her. Jack stands there, crushed, utterly lost.
No need to go overboard with these emotional beats. But give us something to latch onto, something that makes us feel something for your characters.
No Suspense (in a Suspenseful Scene)
In a comedy, you need situations and lines of dialogue that are funny. In a drama, you need situations and lines of dialogue that are dramatic. In a thriller, you need to build tension and suspense. Here’s a fairly incorrect way to do this:
INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT
In the darkness, Eva walks to the door on the other side of the room and opens it. A body tumbles out. Steven’s body! Eva screams and runs from the basement.
Rather dull, ain't it? So let’s snazz it up a bit. Maybe something more like this:
INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT
Eva stands in darkness. Somewhere, water drips, drips, drips rhythmically. Slowly, she makes her way across the floor. Her breathing more ragged with each step she takes.
She finally reaches a door. Fumbles for the knob, turns it. But it won’t open. She tugs and yanks furiously, frantically. The door gives way, swings open wide...and a body tumbles out, falling onto Eva. Both crumble to the floor.
Eva now realizes...the body is Steven! She wails like a banshee, crying hysterically, trying to get out from under the limp corpse.
Whatever. Point is, you need to milk those suspenseful beats. Make us experience those terrifying/suspenseful moments along with your character(s).
Many writers improperly use “CONTINUOUS” and/or “SAME” in their scene headings. I personally never use either of them. But if you do, only use them when you’re moving from one location to an immediately adjacent location. For instance:
INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT
Joe comes down the hall, goes through a door and into...
INT. DEN – CONTINUOUS
Joe enters, moves to the desk and takes a seat.
The use of “CONTINUOUS” doesn’t really work when you’re first at an interior locale then at an exterior locale (i.e., walking down the hall, exiting a front door and emerging outside on the front porch). You could argue that using “CONTINUOUS” or “SAME” is acceptable when used in this manner:
INT. BANK – DAY
Tellers go about their business. Customers stand in line, fill out deposit slips...
EXT. ALLEY BEHIND BANK – DAY
Two masked gunmen load their assault rifles.
INT. BANK – SAME
All is normal...then BLAM...the masked gunmen barge in.
Sure, you could use “SAME” (or “CONTINUOUS”) in this instance, but to me it just feels a bit sloppy. If the producers want to put this in their shooting script, let ‘em. I choose to keep it either “DAY” or “NIGHT.”
Please…know the difference between the words "than" and "then."
INCORRECT: “She is smarter then he is.”
CORRECT: “She is smarter than he is.”
INCORRECT: “Jack sits there much longer then he should.”
CORRECT: “Jack sits there much longer than he should.”
Please…don’t clutter your script by overusing exclamation points!!!!!! It can be tough reading scenes that looks like this:
JOE: Oh, Mary, I thought you were gone...gone forever!!!!!
MARY: No, my darling, not gone forever...just on vacation!!!!!
JOE: Vacation???? Without me???!!!
MARY: But, my sweetness, you hate the beach!!!
So...one exclamation point, one question mark!!! Okay???? Great, thanks!!!