Top Mistakes in Crafting a Screenplay
by John Jacobsen
I was asked to list some of the most basic mistakes in the writers I mentor. Remember, I think writing good screenplays is hard, that it takes determination, passion and craft. And lots and lots of practice, so don’t be hard on yourself if you see one or more of these in your work.
No Outline, No Structure, No Idea
* Writing is not typing. Writing is hard work that requires, like all art forms, design and order.
* Outlining your hero’s journey (quest), the main plot points and pinches; the subplot characters; and structuring each scene helps ensure you know your story well and that everything is set up to pay off, everything is based on cause and effect, that characters arc and transform, and that your story meets at least the MINIMUM requirements of good story telling.
* 90% of stories fail and are rejected because they lack good structure
* Often I say, “Start with the end of your story and work backwards.” What is the great climax of your film that everything else is aiming to set up?
Boring, boring, BORING
* Don’t write boring characters. Make them interesting, give them quirks, let them be complex. People sometimes think that movies are about normal people in normal circumstances. Mmmm, maybe; but usually there is something special about these normal people, and the dramas are DRAMATIC, things happen and the stakes are high. Remember, the protagonist in a film is called a HERO – what makes this normal character of yours HEROIC?
* Concept – why will people want to see your film? A story about your grandfather’s widget business does not sound interesting – how can you convince us it is? By making it different, by giving it something that attracts us to it. Something dramatic, something funny, something unique, powerful and amazing.
* Create anticipation – make us want to turn the page! What is going to happen next? That requires you knowing how to set something up, and making us wait for the result. If we care enough to find out the answer to a question (will he get the girl? will she survive?), we’ll turn the page.
Telling Us Everything
* Exposition – you tell us too much, usually too soon and too obviously
* Flashbacks, voice-overs and montages – these stop the linear development of the script. A movie must keep moving forward like a shark. Flashbacks stop the story, put it on hold, and send us backwards to explain some usually unimportant piece of exposition. Yes, yes, I know and agree – there are some films that use flashbacks brilliantly. Good luck with being brilliant right off the bat, and remember Robert McKee’s line: “Flashbacks, voiceovers and montages are the refuge of the inexperienced writer.”
* No subtext, on the nose writing – don’t let your characters say what they think, except for maybe – MAYBE – at the end. I like to say, “Characters only tell the truth under great duress.” Often early drafts lack subtly and are on the nose, but for goodness sake, don’t let anyone read that. You have to code what your characters think, let them hide and protect their secrets, and help them project what they want others to see. That is rarely the truth.
* And please don’t feel the need to tell us almost anything expository in the first 5-10 pages. You have 90 more pages to tell us what is important – make us anticipate and use the opening of your screenplay to suck us in. Exposition is more likely to put us to sleep.
You’re a Golden Retriever
* No discipline – who likes to sit in a room alone for hours on end and stare at the blank page until their forehead bleeds? Not many of us, so we avoid it like the plague. A lot of us like to brag we are writing, tell people we are doing so on Facebook, but the truth is, writers write. Every day, like going to a job. They produce pages. If you want to be a writer, write every day and write as much as you can.
You Never Learned What Winston Churchill Once Said: “Never Quit, never quit, never quit.”
* Writing is rewriting – no one writes a great film in one pass. I don’t care what they say. It takes many, many attempts, and good writers know that a lot of those passes happen before anyone outside of you even sees the script. I like to say that all writing leads to better writing. Your driving forces should be to write the best film possible, not to get it done and sell it.
* Perseverance pays off – you get better the more you do something, and even when you are good it is sometimes hard to convince people to give you a chance. Don’t quit, keep trying, come about things in a new direction – believe in yourself and persevere.
And you have to submit correctly formatted screenplays. So buy good software like Final Draft.
And don’t write screenplays or make movies for the money. Do it because you have something important to say.