In this post, we share six of the most common mistakes screenwriters make (and how to avoid them). The insights will keep you on track when writing your current or next screenplay.
Are You Falling Into These Traps?
Writing a screenplay is hard enough without stumbling into the common pitfalls awaiting the novice and the experienced writer.
It is a challenging craft and a notoriously hard industry to break into. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. Talent is one ingredient. But it also takes hard work and perseverance to crack it.
Whether it is for a small independent social media series, streaming, TV, or the big screen, we want to do our best. When we sit down to write, we want to focus on the story. While making mistakes is part of the process, avoid these six writing traps.
6 Mistakes Screenwriters Make
1. Forgetting To Feed The Muse
It goes without saying that you must love movies or TV shows to want to write a screenplay. As writers, we must study and analyse every bit of entertainment that comes our way. Watching and reading must border on the obsessive.
Don’t just study what you see on the screen, study a copy of the script. The script is the blueprint. How is the writer building a story for the screen right there on the page? How are they influencing what the director and actors will bring to life?
Tom Schulman is an American screenwriter best known for writing Dead Poets Society. In The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters he says: ‘More than watching movies, I read a lot of fiction, nonfiction, newspapers, magazines, or I browse the internet. But fiction is the most important. For some reason, if I don’t read fiction, I have difficulty writing.’
2. Not Planning Before Writing
Sometimes we jump in too soon, without any map, no matter how crude or vague. Eureka! We get an idea, fire up our screenwriting app, and smash keys. ‘Fade in’ and ‘Ext. A dark and stormy night.’ We start fussing with formats and the story gets lost.
Take the time to first get the story on paper. Explore characters, plot, settings, and timelines. It will save heartache down the line. Even if you’re on deadline, roughly sketch out critical scenes on yellow legal pads in black marker.
If you prefer word processor, you could outline the story from start to finish. Some screenwriters use index cards – they pin these to a board and move things around as they go. If you’re more visual, create a storyboard.
It’s easier to drop elements or cut when it is still in a planning stage. Once you’re confident in the story and characters, only then should you start the ‘first’ draft on Final Draft, Arc Studio Pro, or Celtx.
Even then, don’t worry about page count yet, advises screenwriter Steve Muzar. ‘If you go overboard, it’s OK – you can always pull things back in your rewrite.’
3. Sticking Too Closely To ‘The Formula’
Taking time to learn craft is one thing, but it doesn’t take the place of good storytelling. An engaging plot has its own momentum – it doesn’t always conform to a template. Characters need time and space to come alive if they are to be credible.
We don’t always have to obsess over the inciting incident, major turning points, or second-act crisis. These are things that anyone learn on a free screenwriting course, or from a good book on scriptwriting.
Our scripts must flow naturally. Authenticity is more important than style or technique. The script must have heart. Without evolving your own individual style as a writer, you’re just building a robot – which will look like everyone else’s.
If you stick too close to the formula, you end up with something stiff or predictable – or even a cliché.
Charlie Kaufman, a scriptwriter known for writing Being John Malkovich shared this advice on Creativelyy: ‘Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that.’
4. Not Putting In The Hard Yards
Let’s be honest. Our first attempts at a screenplay are not going to be Citizen Kane. You can’t master anything unless you first suck at it. We all have to pay our dues. As our apprenticeship, we must write many scripts before we find our way.
Do your time. Be a constant student, even as you write and develop your story and screenplay. As with any type of writing, you must never stop learning.
The most common mistake is to show your first draft to someone too soon. The truth is that we need to write it again (and again and again).
In Cut to the Chase, screenwriter and producer Quinton Peeples gives a fool proof six-point rewrite process – from diagnosing a problem to getting feedback, and writing a new draft.
‘You’ve got to get back in that chair and churn up some magic,’ he says. ‘There is a point of diminishing returns, but after one full revision, you probably aren’t there yet.’ It’s back to the chair and bum glue.
But, Peeples gives us an encouraging thought: ‘You have less and less to work on in each pass.’ Don’t give up. Keep going.
5. Not Writing Dynamically And Visually
Sometimes we forget that movies or Netflix shows are visual mediums. Our script’s images must convey theme, character, action, and emotion. In other words, we’re painting with words like celluloid poets.
In a screenplay, the events of the story unfold as they happen. As a writer, we’re moving the eye across the page – to build mood, show a character or reflect a setting.
Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican screenwriter of the Pan’s Labyrinth says: ‘Screenplay is the toughest form of writing for me, because you need to be in the present tense. You need to be describing things as they occur.’
Top Tip: Buy our Visual Storytelling Workbook
6. Chasing Trends And Fads
Don’t try to chase trends or formulas. Just because raunchy comedies are in, don’t try to write one – especially if you don’t enjoy comedy. And if dark, edgy psychological thrillers are ‘flavour of the month’, don’t try to write one just to cash in on it.
Producers and film makers are seeking out fresh voices – not copycats. Besides, by the time you have caught up with a trend, it’s passed. Focus on what excites you, what you find fascinating. Write something visual, exciting and resonant.
The Last Word
We can all learn from our writing experiences, the successes and the failures. But, if we keep these six common mistakes screenwriters make in mind, we will make the journey a little smoother. If you’re looking for more articles on the subject, click on our screenwriting tag.
Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a screenplay, sign up for our online course: The Script
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