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The Most Serious Screenwriting Mistakes

by Charles Deemer for Screenwriter's Utopia
Charles Deemer

Now that my university class is over, with a new one to begin in January, I have a break during which to wonder, as I always do, what I can do to help students avoid the most common and serious screenwriting mistakes. Term after term, year after year, I keep seeing the same errors, especially early on before students begin to understand how different screenwriting is from all other narrative forms. Here then is my list of the most common errors, in no particular order.

Fiction Rhetoric. Many of my students come from a fiction background — and it immediately shows. They overwrite at every level. They describe too much. Their sentence structure is too complex. Their paragraphs are too long, giving the script great text density and the look of a literary document. Here are some guidelines to avoid fiction rhetoric:

  • Write in simple sentences only. Remember what a complex sentence is? Right, a sentence with a subordinate clause. Avoid them like the plague! They slow down a quick reading and all screenplays are read quickly, even skimmed, before they are read carefully. Direct, simple sentences. Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments. Pretend you're in Junior High.

  • Write in short paragraphs. Each paragraph should take no more than four or five lines across the page before you double space and start a new one. This opens up the script, making it vertical, making it easier to read. If there is a new subject, a new focus, start a new paragraph. Though you can't "direct the film" in a spec script, you can in a way by your paragraph spacing. Make each paragraph a new shot.

  • Too much description. You are not the costume designer. Every time you describe a piece of clothing or something in a room, anything, ask yourself: is this essential or is it an option? Is Mary's red coat necessary? If the coat is blue, does her character change or the story fall apart? Get rid of the options, letting your collaborators make the decisions, and retain the essentials.

Expository dialogue. In general, dialogue is a clumsy way to communicate facts and figures. It takes skill to pull it off. Until you reach this level of craft, avoid doing it. Find other ways to relate essential information, preferably visually.

Chit chat. The problem with most dialogue in beginners' screenplays, however, is that too much of it goes nowhere. It is realistic, yes, but life moves much more slowly than a well crafted story does. Again, the final test is elimination: if you remove this line of dialogue, what happens? Do the screenplay and story collapse into incomprehensible gibberish? Is an essential character trait lost? If nothing happens, then why is it there? Like descriptive writing, keep your dialogue lean and mean. Exchanges of dialogue that are short and quick play much better, in general, than wordy exchanges.

Poor focus. Who is your main character, what is his or her goal, and what is stopping success of reaching it? These are the immediate questions we need answered to understand your story. You need to address them sooner rather than later. Poor focus on the main character is a common error I see. Keep your protagonist on screen as much as possible -- even two or three pages off the screen may be enough to knock the story focus askew. Keep on the main character like glue.

In my classes, I try to get students to solve the rhetorical challenges of screenwriting (fiction writing, slow dialogue) as soon as possible so they can concentrate on the story issues like focus. Screenwriting, in fact, is more about storytelling than writing as we usually think about it. Yet the rhetorical issues occupy some students for most of the term, as if they have a hard time accepting that screenwriting is not literary writing. Some have observed a trend in screenwriting to greater literary quality (The Hours script comes to mind), but it must be remembered that these examples are written by established writers. The plight of the spec script writer is different and much more competitive. To be read in such an environment requires special attention to economy so that your story is easily found and understood.

Screenwriting is the only form of writing about which it can be said: don't let your writing get in the way of your story. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Keep in focused.