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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The main character is “ruggedly handsome.” If your character is ruggedly handsome, let him prove it with his rugged actions.
- 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.