My Favorite Flubs

I’ve read a gazillion screenplays over the past several years, and the following are my ten favorite clichés and glaring goofs. Avoid these flubs in your screenplay or handle them in a creative way.

  1. The first scene in the screenplay is a dream, after which the character sits “bolt upright” in his or her bed. This is such a cliché that Naked Gun 33 1/3 opens with it. It stands to reason that if it was a cliché then, it is certainly one now.
  2. The last scene in the screenplay tells us it was all just a dream. Yes, I have seen The Wizard of Oz, but the readers didn’t groan after they read the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz. Be as smart as a scarecrow and frighten away this tactic.
  3. Not recognizing your script’s strengths. You’ve heard the expression Show is better than tell. I’d like to add a corollary to that: Recognize cinematic moments. For example, I just read a four-page dialogue scene where the characters discussed what they had done and what they were going to do. Those four pages were followed by the following paragraph:

    A raging gun battle ensues. Martinelli is eventually killed.

    Riveting, isn’t it? Somehow, I think the reader would like to see more action details of this cinematic moment and hear a little less dialogue about all that’s been happening and will happen. At the very least, we’d like to know who killed Martinelli. How was it done? How did the action build? And was Martinelli killed over a bottle of apple juice?

  4. Descriptions of things that cannot appear on the movie screen.  For example:

    John knew what he had to do, but he recalled the words of his aging mother which made him hesitate.

    John’s thoughts, feelings, insights, and inner turmoil cannot appear on the movie screen by just describing them as action. You should instead describe actions, gestures, facial expressions, and sounds that help communicate to the reader what is going on inside of John.

  5. Overwriting of both dialogue and description. Imagine the bad guy holding a gun to a hostage’s head while the good guy points his gun at the bad guy.
                             BAD GUY
                I’m glad you got your gun pointed
                at her because the moment you pull
                the trigger, why I am going to blow
                your head clean off.

    There is no room for subtext in the above speech. The following works better:

                             DIRTY HARRY
                Go ahead.  Make my day.

    Here’s an example of overwritten description:

    The gym was littered with food wrappers, leftover hot dogs and tacos, gym clothes, and other debris. It looked like no one had cleaned it in over a month. It was truly a mess.

    The one-sentence “revision” below is taken directly from the screenplay Rocky.

    The gym looked like a garbage can turned inside out.

    Less is more.

  6. Obvious exposition.
                                 CARLA
                Darling, do you recall my liposuction?
    
                                 LARRY
                Yes, Sweetums, that was two years ago.
                We had been married for only seventeen
                months.  That was just after our puppy
                choked on a chocolate donut.
    
                                 CARLA
                         (sadly)
                We ate a lot of chocolate donuts in
                those days.

    …And so on. Let exposition emerge naturally in conversations…unless you are writing a broad comedy.

    Obvious exposition includes voiced-over narration that adds little to what we already see on the movie screen and flashbacks that stop the momentum of the movie.

  7. The central character is a writer trying to break in who succeeds in the end by selling the story that we just watched on the movie screen. It’s actually a clever idea. I even had this idea once, as have thousands of other screenwriters.Another favorite plot cliché is this:

    Sue’s family is killed and now Sue must find the murderer to (prove her innocence/avenge her family).

    If this is your idea, add a unique twist to it or execute it in an original compelling manner.

  8. Scene headings (slug lines) in the script are confusing. For example, no location is identified in the following scene heading:
    EXT. CHRISTMAS MORNING – DAY

    Another problem is secondary headings coming out of the blue. For example, note how the secondary heading does not logically follow the master scene heading:

    EXT. SWAMP – DAY
    
    Larry trudges out of the swamp.
    BATHROOM
    
    Larry washes his face at the sink.

    How can a bathroom be part of a swamp, and how did we get from an exterior shot to an interior shot? Make sure you understand master scene headings and secondary headings, and how they are used.

    Finally, I often see too much description in scene headings. For example:

    EXT. A WINDY NIGHT WITH A PALE MOON SHINING THROUGH TREES IN THE WOODS

    That should actually be written as follows:

    EXT. WOODS – NIGHT

    Save the description for the description section of your script.

  9. The main character is “ruggedly handsome.” If your character is ruggedly handsome, let him prove it with his rugged actions.
  10. This final cliché example is from a query letter:

    “Suzie confronts her demons.”

There must be a lot of demons out there because they are constantly confronted in query letters. And query letters are not the only place. In writing this personal confession, I have attempted to confront my own demons. But oh, the nightmares continue….

CUT TO:
Dave, ruggedly handsome, awakens bolt upright in his bed.

Keep writing… and do it with a creative flair.

17 thoughts on “My Favorite Flubs

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Guide To Screenwriting Mistakes | Screenwriting Tips | The Screenwriting Spark

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  3. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Paul, thanks for your comments. A shooting script contains the instructions you refer to, but a spec script is primarily written for a reader (story analyst), producer, or agent. That’s the main difference between the two. Thus, the spec needs to be clear and readable. Good luck and best wishes.

  4. Paul Marsh

    I think I disagree with your ‘overwritten description’ example in 5. A screenplay is a blueprint for a film. It is a set of instructions for directors, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. A screenwriter can hope that his screenplay can be read casually for enjoyment, but that is not its purpose. While I agree that ‘The gym looked like a garbage can turned inside out’ is much more interesting to read than the tedious ‘The gym was littered with food wrappers, leftover hot dogs and tacos, gym clothes…’, the latter is clearer and more useful to a set designer. The latter is a clear statement of what the screenwriter has in mind, whereas the former is not as clear.

  5. Daniel P. CalvisiDanC-ActFourScreenplays

    Great article, Dave! This is why The Screenwriter’s Bible is a must-get.

    Formatting details like this are what gives readers like us nightmares, but they can be easily avoided for new writers if you get tips and advice like this from the getgo before you make the mistake in multiple scripts.
    -Dan

  6. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Gerald, good point and don’t forget The Wizard of Oz (which I mentioned in the article). Obviously, the \it was just a dream\ twist can work. However, in most cases it does not; it’s a dangerous tactic and has to be handled just right to be successful. Keep moving forward!

  7. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Julie, my advice is to handle this “cliche” in a creative way. It’s not so much what happens but how it happens. Also, I suspect that publishing the novel is not the main thrust of the story, and that the “love story” is. Make sure that main plot is wonderful. Good luck and keep writing!

  8. Julie Messenger

    Guilty of plot cliché number seven in the romcom I’m currently rewriting!

    My protaganist is a celebrity journalist who, by the end of the story, needs to have succeeded in her aim to become a published novelist and DOES use the experiences she’s just been through in order to achieve this.

    It’s pretty tough to think of an alternative outcome… but it’s certainly got me thinking.

  9. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    John, I love your idea of waking up and realizing that the article was just a dream. You must be a screenwriter.

    I recommend that you favor active voice over passive voice, but not to make a religion out of it. There is a place for passive voice, but generally active voice works better.

    Passive voice: John was walking to the boat
    Active voice: John walks to the boat.

    Active voice is more…active. The real trick is to use concrete and specific active verbs and nouns. You can characterize with verbs:

    John staggers to the yacht.

    When you use strong verbs and nouns, you will have less of a need for adverbs and adjectives.

    Keep writing!

  10. John Rezas

    Excellent article, Mr. Trottier. Just another reason why your Screenwriter’s Bible sits on my desk and not in a box in the closet with so many other How To screenwriting books. LOL, at the end of the above article, I almost expected you to say, “And then I woke up and this article was all just a dream.”

    I have not made many of the mistakes you listed here, but that is mostly due to your Screenwriter’s Bible keeping me on the right path. The dialogue point, number six, does touch on one of my main problems: subtext. That is a difficult aspect to all types of writing. Have you considered writing a book about subtext?

    Also, I keep running into contradictory issues regarding the use, abuse, and/or avoidance of the -ly words, those dastardly adverbs. I was taught in college to AVOID them at all cost. What is your take on them? I know that this may seem unrelated to screenwriting format and such, but it’s bothering me a lot.

    The same goes for passive voice. Some people say use it as much as you like. Others say NEVER use passive voice outside of dialogue where people use passive voice all the time. Do you have a stance on passive voice?

    And, a final question. Would the use of passive voice and the use (or abuse) of adverbs fall under a list of flubs like you built here? Is it a sign of an amateur? Would it make you stop reading a screenplay, if you saw passive voice and adverbs all over the first few pages?

    I’m not sure if you ever considered a grammar and style section for the Screenwriter’s Bible, or for any future editions, but it would really help if you did focused on contradictions or areas of contention like adverbs.

    Thank you for your time and for your work in film and the Screenwriter’s Bible.

  11. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Hey Buddha Scribe, that’s actually a great idea. Get your thoughts down regardless of their quality or lack thereof. I think it’s important to write from the heart — go with the flow. You can always come back later with the “critical mind” and revise what you have written. Good luck and keep writing!

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