by Timothy Cooper
Please enjoy this scene from my nonexistent, Birds vs. Bees.
I wrote this opening scene specifically for this article, but there isn’t a single error in it that I haven’t read in actual screenplays hundreds of times. I’m serious.
Can you spot all 15 (at least) errors?
Script readers are the gatekeepers who read the thousands of scripts that land on the desks of producers, directors, actors, production companies, studios, agents, and managers. Their job is to evaluate new screenplays all day, every day. Don’t make their job hard; make it fun. Make them sit up and take notice.
Do you think you spotted all of the errors in my opening scene? The 15 reader pet peeves I illustrated above are shockingly easy to fix, and will bring your script that much closer to making every reader recommend your script to their boss. Let’s review:
1. Characters are described in excruciating detail. Physical descriptions, including race, height, clothing, etc., matter far less than most writers think. Leave the costuming up to the costume designer. And don’t restrict the casting unless it’s VITALLY important that your character has blue eyes, or is of Korean descent. What DOES matter is the SOUL of the character. What are they LIKE? Are there a few words that get to the heart of this character’s flaws, desires, or persona?
2. Characters have androgynous names. A girl named Sam or Kyle or Devin. A guy named Stacy or Robin or Sydney. Anyone named Taylor, Casey, or Jamie. Sure, they’re perfectly lovely names. But they don’t work in scripts. Remember that the reader won’t be paying as much attention to your characters as you did, and if they’re reading multiple scripts a day (which they are), they could and will miss the character’s gender in your initial character description. You can still come up with unique, memorable names without confusing the reader.
3. Character names begin with the same letter, and/or look similar on the page. Sam, Sarah, Shari, Shannon: Sure, these might be completely different characters in your mind, but they’re really difficult to grasp for someone who might have to pick up and put down your script multiple times, and isn’t as invested in the characters as you are. Also, whether you’re using Final Draft or any other screenwriting program, you’re giving yourself an extra step every time the autofill feature tries to complete that character’s name! This tiny fix will make a big difference in the reader’s experience.
4. The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle. Yes, many conversations begin like this in real life. But on the page, it’s crushingly dull. Instead, enter the scene mid-conflict by jumping in as late as possible (without being confusing). Then, make sure to exit the scene before it’s all wrapped up neatly. This leaves some tension to push the reader into your next scene.
5. Typo. If you have the most amazing story in the world, of course a few typos won’t make a difference. But when we see typos right on the first page, it doesn’t give us a lot of confidence that we’re in good hands, or that you’re submitting your best work. If you’re not adept at, say, recognizing the difference between “your” and “you’re,” consider using a script proofreading service (or an eagle-eyed friend).
6. People say exactly what they mean. Sadly, there’s no subtext here. In this line, Sam is laying out backstory; she’s explaining the past in an obvious way. This saps the tension and takes us out of the scene. Work in the backstory in a different way; if at all possible, mask it. Remember, most people (except for kids) rarely, if ever, say precisely what they mean.
7. The actual action of the scene is unclear. Choreography is important. The reader wants to get a sense of what the film is going to look like, at least for the key beats. So make sure the action is described AS IT HAPPENS, not after the fact. In this case, describe Sam washing her hands right when she does so.
Part of the reason the action is unclear is that we have no sense of the physical space we’re in. What does this kitchen look like? We don’t need a blueprint, but a one-sentence description would help the reader understand and visualize the scene. In this case, the window, sink, and layout of the room should have been mentioned earlier in the scene, so that they didn’t just materialize out of the blue when they were needed for the action.
8. We’re introduced to too many characters on the first page. Introduce us to just a few characters at a time. It’s like going to a party: If the host tells you everyone’s name at once, you won’t remember a single name. But if you start by talking with just two or three people, then move on to the next small group, you’re way more likely to get to know and care about each individual.
9. Formatting issues. Entire actions should not be placed in parentheticals; parentheticals should only be used for occasional emotional clues, brief directions, or pauses. It’s always smart to have at least two friends who understand screenplay formatting read your script’s final draft. They’ll spot errors you might have missed because you’ve been reading the same script over and over for months.
10. Much of the information is impossible to actually show on the screen. It’s okay to include a little bit of background in the character descriptions, but include too much and it looks like you don’t understand film. It’s a VISUAL medium. A lot of your backstory—perhaps all of it—can be filled in by the director and actors. Don’t put nonvisual information in the action descriptions; instead, save that space for actual actions.
11. Long chunks of text. Substantial paragraphs of action or dialogue aren’t completely forbidden. But the reader’s eye naturally skips over huge chunks. These big blocks of text indicate you’re probably describing the action in way too much detail. Remember, we only want the major beats!
12. An unimportant character is given too much weight. If someone only has a few lines, they probably don’t need a full-sentence description, or even a name. Readers just don’t have the brain space to waste on characters who aren’t going to return in a big way.
13. No major conflict. A shortage of serious, life-altering conflicts is the enemy of every screenplay, both at the scene and the story level. This weak attempt at adding a hint of mystery via this subsidiary character doesn’t cut it; there’s still no strong reason for this scene to exist. Now, this doesn’t mean characters need to be fighting all the time; far from it. But underneath EVERY SINGLE EXCHANGE, there needs to be some source of tension that is being created, heightened, or temporarily resolving (to lead to the next conflict).
14. Unnecessary parentheticals. Don’t give actors line readings, or tell the director what to do, UNLESS it’s absolutely vital to understand the meaning of a line. In this case, there’s no particular reason this line needs to be read “mysteriously”; in fact, that interpretation just adds more confusion. Remember: No one likes being told how to do their job!
15. Clichéd dialogue. The worst thing you can do as a writer is give us exactly what we expect. Yes, we’ve all seen movies with clichéd, outdated, predictable, laughable, or boring characters and dialogue. That doesn’t mean we’re interested in seeing that again. We want to be taken by surprise at each story turn, at each line of dialogue. So if it’s a line we’ve seen a million times before, change it up and give us something we didn’t quite expect…or even the exact opposite of what we expect.
Okay, that was a lot of errors. But when consulting on even experienced writers’ screenplays, I see them every day. Don’t let easy-to-avoid mistakes sink your script before it ever gets past the reader.
Do you want over 25 more tips like these, but in way more detail, presented in an even funnier way, using even more helpful examples and a highly entertaining presentation? Then take my screenwriting webinar:
I’ve been a reader and script consultant for production companies and producers. And I’ve figured out how to use the lessons I’ve learned to get past the readers, directly onto the desks of the people in power. Now, I’ve whittled down the hundreds of issues and pet peeves I’ve noticed over the years into the top 25 mistakes you need to avoid.
In this class, I’ll give you tips, tricks, and solutions to overcome the simple errors that everyone makes. And I’ll divulge many of the secrets that top screenwriters know and use every day.
By the end of the course, you’ll be able to avoid common mistakes and create something that readers will stay up all night reading, that they can’t put down, and that they recommend to their higher-ups. This class is going to be as awesome as it sounds—but better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Timothy Cooper wrote and directed the web sitcom Concierge: The Series, starring comedians from Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Last Comic Standing, the Onion News Network, CollegeHumor, and Upright Citizens Brigade. The series was nominated for the first-ever WGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Original New Media.
His first feature-writing credit, Away From Here, starring Nick Stahl, Alicia Witt, and Ray Wise, is set for release in 2014. Timothy’s digital sitcom pilot, We Are Criminal Masterminds, became a nationwide top-five finalist in the Samsung Second Screen Storytellers Competition at the New York Television Festival. He is currently developing multiple pilots and features, as well as preparing to direct his next short film.
Screenwriting Webinar from The Writers Store
- This course is for anyone who wants to avoid the all-too-common screenwriting mistakes that turn off Hollywood’s gatekeepers
- Develop a professional script reader’s perspective to immediately spot the pet peeves that are preventing your script from getting to the next level
- You’ll learn dozens of highly useful tips, exercises, and tricks to attract agents, producers, actors, and directors