Decisions, decisions, decisions, there are so many of them that screenwriters must make to get to that perfect screenplay that will change their lives. Experience has shown me that writers often make huge mistakes in their myriad of choices. Any one error can damage, if not altogether ruin, their chances of making the grade with those all important readers.
What makes these options so pressing is that the people who will be reading the material are constantly deluged by hundreds of mediocre, if not darn right horrible, screenplays. The readers may be anyone from a reader to a major producer. These people might be development executives, agents, managers and even lawyers. You might be sending your script to a contest or to a consultant. No matter the level of the reader or their background, these people are the watchdogs of the industry. They are very, very important to you. If you think that some of the problems are too small to be concerned with, think again. If a reader has a huge stack of reading on his desk or coffee table, he is more likely to opt for the one with the right amount of pages, the right amount of brads as well as the right type set. Let me help you with some of those big and the small choices that will help you get those readers into your movie and past page 5 of your script.
Common screenplay errors:
- Remind yourself that you are writing a “spec” screenplay, not a shooting script.
- Do not over describe your settings.
- Give approximate ages of the main characters only, i.e. 30’s, late 50’s, etc.
- Allow your characters’ dialogue to tell their mood. Don’t tell us in your exposition.
- Keep exposition to a minimum.
- Keep the star of the script on every page.
- There are only a handful of basic plots. Don’t let it bother you if your story feels a bit too familiar.
- Emphasize your characters more than your story.
- Complicate your characters.
- Simplify your plot.
- Make the reader feel some emotion about your main characters.
- Don’t make the story or plot points too vague. You are taking us on a journey; make sure we understand the map.
- If there is a fight scene in film, do not describe each punch. Simply tell the reader that there is a protracted fight and the hero beats the hell out of the bad guys.
- Do not worry about making the budget too big. If you sell it to a studio, let them worry about that. Your script will be rewritten anyway. Add in those car chases and blow up buildings, everyone loves those scenes.
- Do not “direct” your movie. Lots of the choices you make in your descriptions of people, places and things will be changed by the budget and the actual director of the movie.
- If you are writing a comedy, make it funny; don’t tell me it’s funny.
- Do not add in extraneous characters. If they aren’t really, really necessary, omit them.
- Don’t bother to describe characters that are only in the script once or twice.
- Always use two (2) brads not three (3).
- Use washers for the brads.
- Have a title page on the script that shows the (a) title of the script (b) the name of the writer, (c) how you can be reached via an agent or your own email and phone number.
- Make sure your pages are correctly numbered.
- Use proper script formatting.
- It is not necessary to use a script cover.
- Never submit a script that is over 120 pages.
- Read lots and lots of screenwriting books. They are plentiful and easy to get. Be mindful of the advice you find in these books.
- Your first through third scripts won’t be very good. This is a given. You can’t fly a plane the first couple of times you get in one.
- Keep writing. Your fourth and fifth screenplays will be much better.
- Don’t show your first scripts to anyone but your closest relatives, then don’t believe they know what they are talking about.
- Go to seminars where the speakers are accomplished writers, producers and agents. Believe everything the writers say but not the producers and agents.
- If anyone tells you he or she is giving your project to the head of a studio who will read it right away, do not believe them. Studio heads never read scripts, they only read synopses.
- You must follow-up with each person to whom you present your material. Once every two weeks is the right timing.
- If you write comedies then you must read comedies, try stand- up comedy in front of an audience to see if your comedy is funny. It takes many years to learn how to write a good comedy.
- If you are starting out, try to write contemporary pieces. Historical fiction and futuristic sci-fi are very complicated.
- Do not write true stories if you don’t have the rights to those people and their lives.
- Do not write a script based on a novel written by another author.
- Not only have I been a professional screenplay consultant and an agent, but I’ve judged scripts for film festivals. You might think that you have zillions of people in competition with you but that is not the case. Yes, there are zillions of people writing scripts but very few of them are writing wonderful and saleable scripts.
Just keep writing.
- Meet the Reader: What Makes a Good Screenwriter?
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter
- Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: What Qualifications Are Needed to Break Into Screenwriting?
Michele Wallerstein’s book: MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Success may be purchased via The Writers Store and Amazon.com, in paperback and on Kindle, and local book stores.