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Top 4 Screenwriting Mistakes You Should Never Make

articles tips Jul 06, 2023

I'm consulting on over a dozen scripts this month so I have been doing a LOT of reading!

As I do so, I'm reminded that every time I give script notes, I usually see the same mistakes repeated from screenwriters. I want to share them in hopes that you look at your scripts with these in mind and see where you can avoid them in your own projects.

1-    Character Descriptions- Many writers resort to just noting age and ethnicity, or age and a physical description. Your character description is the prime opportunity to tell us something about how the character shows up in the world and it can color every line we read in the script after that. It makes a remarkable difference in how the reader experiences that script. Rather than just age and ethnicity, maybe consider things that are a bit more telling like…IE: ALICE (early 50’s) a former beauty queen whose youth and dreams have been extinguished by a stifling small town and caring for aging parents- OR- ROB (40’S) A false confidence and swagger mask his insecurity. 

2-    Direction vs. Intent- Many writers tend to direct actors in their action lines. Actors hate being told WHAT TO DO to express the emotion of the scene when it is cliche and unmotivated and it can detour an actor from responding to the script. I had a casting director refuse to send out a script we had many years ago until that was fixed in our script. You need to let the actors bring their training and interpretation to the story (that is why they do what they do) and instead share the emotion or expression of emotion vs. cliche action. Write with intention over direction. IE: Taking a stand vs. puts her hands on her hips or crossing her arms. She is perplexed vs. rubs her temples.  Believe it or not, most writers are guilty of this on some level. The exception is when the direction is integral to the reader understanding the action or emotion within the scene. (see #3 for an alternative way to express via emotion)

3-    Subtext- Be careful of only moving your story forward through dialogue. It is often what is NOT said that makes for a more interesting story or allows us to see deeper into our characters. How a character hands another coffee, cuts vegetables (trying to calm themselves? feverishly? etc.), or what they do in the moment before another character enters can be more telling and impactful than an entire page of dialogue or an overwritten monologue. One of my favorite scenes to demonstrate this is the final scene in Unfaithful (Richard Gere, Diane Lane). To not be a spoiler I will just say, what they did in the final scene with no dialogue and one simple police siren, was more impactful than the dialogue that many writers would have written to convey the same layered and complex emotion.

4-    Formatting- It sounds obvious but triple check for typos and that your script is formatted within industry standards. Final Draft software makes this a bit easier but it's key you read professional scripts and understand slug lines, how to write action, proper dialogue, etc.  These are things that can scream unprofessional and when it comes to typos, it feels like an insult to the reader that you didn’t care enough to be thorough before sharing. You have one shot so don’t risk an exec or even worse, an actor, putting it down because they don’t want to work with someone who is unprofessional and doesn’t care about detail. This is real!

BONUS TIP- I so often get scripts where the dialogue does not seem realistic. Would someone really say that out loud and in that moment? One of the best ways to pinpoint this dialogue is to do a table read. If you know actors, great, but any chance to have people (family and friends) read your words out loud will help you identify what is working, what is not or where perhaps there is a more natural way to say something. This will also allow you to make sure each characters voice is distinct.

Looking to elevate your screenwriting skills further? Get personalized 1:1 consultations and comprehensive script notes to help you refine your work.

~Keep Living Life Out Loud~  With Love, Sara Elizabeth

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