Common Screenplay Mistakes
by Nic Url
So now you know how to format a screenplay. If you’re still feeling a little unsure of where to go from there, here’s a list of some of some common mistakes that most script readers see in beginning screenplays.
Even those who understand the basic screenplay format can make little formatting mistakes, such as:
Overusing transitions. SLAM CUT TO… DISSOLVE TO… CUT TO… you shouldn’t be writing any of these words. It was traditional, in the past, to write “CUT TO” right before every new slugline, but today’s industry always favors deletion of anything unnecessary. Since we’re switching to a new slugline, it’s obvious we’re cutting.
Putting action in parentheticals. Action only goes on action lines. Seems obvious, yes, but worth mentioning.
Unfilmable things. There are some things that are simply unfilmable, and those things do not belong in your screenplay. It makes sense, right? If it won’t be seen on screen, then logic dictates it won’t be on your screenplay. An example of an unfilmable thing is: “Character turns the corner, wondering where in his life he’d gone wrong.” Unless there’s a voiceover telling us what he’s thinking, the best you can get is a character with a face indicating he’s deep in thought (or, perhaps, constipated). This is a phenomenon that usually happens at specific point in scripts: when a character is first being introduced (“We see CHARACTER, a tall man with a hardened face, who spent all of his childhood being shuffled from foster home to foster home”) or when a character is thinking/realizing something. Keep an eye out; for new screenwriters who formerly wrote prose, this can be an easy mistake to make.
This rule is debated when the topic of introducing new major characters emerges. Some screenwriters favor writing unfilmable personality traits. “He has an optimistic view of the world,” “she has many secrets locked behind her eyes,” etc. Other writers say if these traits are really so important, then they should be shown through the actions of the characters. Your choice.
Underusing sluglines. Whenever the time or location changes, you’ll need a new scene heading.
Inconsistent character names. If you must introduce a character with one name, and then re-name him or her later on, be sure to be clear and only do it once. And once the name changes, keep the new name. Don’t go back and forth.
Directing on the page
As a screenwriter, you’re only the writer. That means DO NOT:
Overuse parentheticals. You’re not an actor/director.
Be over descriptive of your characters. You’re not the casting director.
Include music cues. You’re not the sound editor.
Abuse the notation of camera angles. You’re not the cinematographer.
Of course, if you’re planning on directing your own screenplay, you can do whatever you want. However, the screenplay is often the most powerful recruiting tool a filmmaker has, so don’t come off as controlling.
Though good dialogue isn’t exactly teachable, there are some simple beginner mistakes to avoid when your characters speak.
Pointless dialogue. If it doesn’t further the plot, it shouldn’t be there. Even if you have this long exchange that culminates in a clever joke… if it doesn’t advance the story, leave it out or modify it to fit somewhere else later.
“On the Nose” dialogue. This is when the characters say exactly what they’re feeling or what’s on their minds. Keep in mind that in real life, no one does this. That’s where all our communication problems come from.
Overwriting. Long description paragraphs or sluglines fill your pages with text and turn off any potential readers who have a limited amount of time to get through your script. Keep it clear, and only include the things necessary to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
Tiny inconsistencies. Those little things that don’t exactly add up… you think they don’t matter. Give your audience some credit—they do. Sometimes tiny puzzle pieces that don’t connect together are a sign of a deeper underlying plot problem that’s preventing your story from reaching that Final Level of Awesomeness.
Passive protagonist. A surprising mistake almost all writers make. It’s just more obvious in screenplays because there’s a limited amount of time to get your protagonist from the beginning to the climax.
Unnecessary words. Less is more. Cut all these words: both, really/very, then, just, begins/starts, and is/am/are (when used as helping verbs in present progressive tense; for example, “is running,” “am feeling,” and “are falling.”) Keep a sharp eye for unnecessary words, because the more you eliminate, the more room you give yourself with your page maximum.
Also, beware of the word (and variations of) “look.” “He looks at the car,” “she glances at the door,” or even “they stare at the thingamajig.” These verbs tend to be overused and abused in screenplays. Try to find a different way to say it, or consider if that action line is really necessary at all. If a bad guy is knocking at the door, then it should be rather obvious our main character would be looking at it.
Those are the big ones! Keep your screenplay clear and concise, and understand that the film industry is constantly changing. Stay up-to-date on current trends by reading scripts, blogs, and industry trades. And always remember: screenwriting is an art, and (as with all art) the true “correct way” to do it is often in the eyes of the beholder.