This Scene Sucks: 15 Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid
This article was originally written 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.Read the full article on Scriptmag.com
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