You’ve done it. You’ve finished writing a script about a gorgeous woman who doesn’t know she’s pretty. We meet her three weeks in the future running for her life from a yet unknown threat. You make sure to include exactly what the camera is doing, and since your story is strong enough, you decide that no one will care that your script looks like a novel.
What you might not know is that a lot of these choices encompass common mistakes and misused devices that your reader is seeing too often.
As a reader, I spend my day reading a lot of scripts. I’m here to share a few common pet peeves I run into on a daily basis. Don’t fret if you recognize some of these in your writing, as there are easy ways to tweak your approach while staying true to your story.
Dense Paragraphs (Break Them Up)
Imagine you’ve just read four scripts. It’s 5 PM, you open up script number five, and you’re met with two huge paragraphs. Then you realize that every page looks like this.
Overwritten purple prose might work in a novel, but screenplays are all about describing the action concisely and clearly. When action and description are all lumped together in a large paragraph, it’s harder to get a sense of the pacing and timing of the script, and it’s easier to miss important beats.
This is an easy fix. Break up the paragraphs. Emphasize important moments by giving them their own line. Imagine each line is a new shot. Readers love white space, and so will everyone else who gets their hand on your script.
Poor Formatting and Glaring Errors
If every page of a screenplay has a spelling or grammar issue, and if the script looks nothing like a standard screenplay, we may think that the writer doesn’t care about their work. If we’re getting tripped up by misused words and sentences that don’t make sense, we’re not going to become immersed in the story. It also makes us think that the writer hasn’t researched how to format a standard screenplay.
Look at screenplays of all types to get an understanding of formatting. Maybe the great auteurs have scripts that could be deemed messy, but the difference is that they are established filmmakers who don’t have to make a first impression. Go through your script with a fine-tooth comb before sending it to anyone. One mistake or even a couple isn’t a big deal, but numerous obvious errors should be avoided.
Including Camera and Editing Cues
It’s helpful if the writer details exactly what the camera is doing and how the film should be edited, right? In reality, these are decisions that are not meant to be dictated by the screenwriter. They also get in the way of the storytelling, pacing, and style, and thus a reader might not get into the flow of your story.
In the below example, notice how the camera directions clutter the descriptions. It’s so focused on directing the movie that the actual story details become muddled.
The camera sweeps up the mountain at a low angle to a CU of Sally’s crying face. PAN OVER TO Roger, ECU on his eyes. SMASH CUT to the city below.
Instead of including technical details, just make sure to tell the story with as much emotion and clarity as possible. If your writing is clear enough, it will convey to the reader exactly how you intend the story to look.
Character Descriptions Based Solely on Attractiveness
If your script gets produced, it’s likely the Hollywood actor starring in your film will be attractive. This doesn’t mean your characters only need to be described as handsome, attractive, pretty, alluring, or striking (we’ve seen them all.)
If being attractive is an important part of the character, show us why. Be creative by describing how they carry and present themselves. Be visually descriptive without mentioning physical characteristics like hair color or eye color (unless there’s a story-specific reason.) A character description is your opportunity to immediately show your reader who this character is, and spending that space on a word that could mean many different things won’t be as useful.
JANE, 30s, is cute, but could be hot if she made an effort.
— Ross Putman (@femscriptintros) May 6, 2018
Starting With a Flash-Forward
There are a lot of screenwriting devices that, while successful in shows and movies you’ve seen, might not be right for your script. I’m going to pick on the flash-forward, specifically starting your script with one (for example, showing your main character fighting zombies then cutting to “three weeks earlier” before the outbreak.)
This has become a pet peeve only because it is overused. It absolutely can work, but a lot of the time the scenes being used are not thrilling enough, illuminating enough, or enticing enough. Flash forwards can build anticipation and mystery when used purposefully, but they can also give too much away and ruin the suspense. Also, sometimes the set timeline, like three weeks, isn’t reflected clearly in the storytelling.
Before committing to a flash-forward to start your script, really consider why you’re using it. Is it because you loved the opening scene of BREAKING BAD, or does it contribute to your story in a meaningful way?
You might have noticed these pet peeves generally indicate that the writer may have not spent time learning the craft. If we’re taking the time to read your script, we want to feel that you genuinely care about your work. Read scripts, research what’s on the market, and notice if you’re telling your story in a way that seems too similar to what you’ve seen before, and all that work will help you write a script that’s true to your vision. The best part is that you’ll get better results and notes from your reader.