8 Ways New Screenwriters Undermine Their Screenplay

So you’ve nailed your kick-ass idea. You’ve spent long hours grinding out that first screenplay and you’re ready to send your baby into the world – or are you?

After reading hundreds of screenplays by new writers, I’ve seen a bunch of flaws that will almost certainly ensure your screenplay gets the thumbs down – even if the idea is fab.

Receiving the “great idea, badly executed” response won’t make the rejection any sweeter – so give your baby a better chance by ensuring you’re not guilty of these mistakes…

1) Sloppy Formatting

Sorry, this is not negotiable. Nothing shouts “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” like an incorrectly formatted screenplay. But more importantly, sloppy formatting makes for a difficult read.  Here’s the thing…the folks reading your screenplay are likely to be busy so make it easy for them.

No one, and I mean no one, will thank you for a script they have to struggle through.  And frankly unless your story is surface of the sun hot, they’re just not going to bother.  There’s plenty of formatting info all over the web – AND reading other screenplays is a FREE and excellent way to get a handle on how the pros do it.

2) Unclear, Unfocused Premise

What is the idea of your screenplay? If you can’t write the basic idea in a simple sentence or two then chances are you’re not ready to start writing yet. Some screenplays read like the writer had so many great ideas they couldn’t bear to leave any of them out. Cue a cluttered, confusing read.

One tell-tale sign of an unclear premise is that the story has a number of weighty subplots that draw the reader away from the main plot (and main character) for long periods of time.  Decide which idea excites you the most and cut the story strands that don’t serve or explore that idea.

3) The Screenplay Is Way Too Long

It may be tempting at this juncture to point out that all of the Lord of the Rings screenplays (among others) were long but unless you’re already a filmmaker/screenwriter with a significant track record (which would be surprising if you are reading this article) aim to have your screenplay in the 90 – 110 pages territory.

4) Passive Protagonist

The main character is all talk and no trousers!  Simply put – he or she doesn’t take action or make decisions that have any repercussions or consequences.  The problem could be that the protagonist’s goal or desire hasn’t been clearly defined or that his or her failure to achieve said goal has no significant repercussions aka there are no stakes.  It may also be that the protagonist’s internal world hasn’t been examined well enough yet.

A tell-tale sign of a PP is when the writer is forced to keep throwing numerous external factors at the protagonist in order to keep the story going.

(This is something we discuss at length in my Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting Workshop – 24-25th June)

5) Indistinct Core Conflict

There’s not much point telling a story that doesn’t contain conflict. Conflict is the reason the story is being told and it provides the engine that drives it.  The core conflict in a story needs to be simple and tangible. In short –  A want X but B wants Y. (Grab my FREE Screenplay Starter Kit to explore further.)

6) All The Characters Sound The Same

People don’t all sound the same so characters shouldn’t either. The rhythm, pace and language of the characters’ dialogue should be distinctive and reflect who they are, where they come from, what they’re feeling and what they’re trying to present to the world.

7) Overwritten Dialogue

Writing dialogue is fun – I get it.  I overwrite all the time but generally less is more. Huge blocks of dialogue or a big speech on every page will kill a reader’s will to live.  It not only makes the character feel unnatural it also smacks of the writer trying to make a point by using the character as a mouth piece.  Besides which, people just don’t talk that way – they talk in a range of ways depending on how they’re feeling, who they are, where they are and who they’re with.

An excellent way to cut back on extraneous dialogue is to read the screenplay out loud – it becomes obvious very quickly when the characters are rambling on. Or even better, look for places where you can replace dialogue with the character’s action that we can see.

8) There’s No Heart

The screenplay might be a cool story but will fail if it’s written entirely from the intellect.  Audiences like stories that engage them emotionally and make them feel something – and so do readers – whether they’re a funding body, assessor, director or producer.  It’s the writer’s job to elicit an emotion from the reader and it doesn’t matter which one – delight, sadness, fear, repulsion, happiness, curiosity – are all just dandy.

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