8 Ways New Screenwriters Undermine Their Screenplay

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

After reading hundreds of screenplays by newer writers I’ve seen a number of flaws that will almost certainly ensure your screenplay gets the thumbs down – even if the idea is fab.  The “great idea, not executed well” response isn’t going to make the rejection any sweeter – so give your baby a better chance by making sure you’re not guilty of any of the following.

1) Sloppy Formatting

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

No one, and I mean no one, will thank you for a script that 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 info on formatting all over the web – PLUS reading other screenplays is a very good 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 park the story strands that don’t serve or explore that idea.

3) The Screenplay Is Way Too Long

It will be tempting at this juncture to point out that all of the Lord of the Rings screenplays (among others) were longer than 100 pages long but unless you’re already a filmmaker/screenwriter with a track record (which would be surprising if you are reading this article) or self-producing then your screenplay really needs to be 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 repercussions. It 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 i.e. there are no stakes. It may also be that the protagonist’s internal world hasn’t been examined well enough.

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.

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 – someone wants something but someone or something else is preventing them from having it.

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, 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 characters as mouthpieces. 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 it is written entirely from the intellect. Audiences like stories that 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. Work out how you want the audience to feel in any given scene and make it so.

Want to learn more? Check out my writing workshops