Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Even Usain Bolt had to learn to walk before he could run, so why would screenwriting be any different?
It isn’t. The road to better writing contains many pitfalls of various shapes and sizes, which the aspiring screenwriter will have to overcome if they aspire to greatness.
Still, a bit of preparation can help you avoid the most obvious of these, and concentrate on the really important issues such as creating compelling characters and interesting stories, and what have you.
So, here are some tips to help you avoid some of the most common mistakes made by rookie screenwriters.
1. Incorrectly Formatted Sluglines
Sluglines typically contain three pieces of information:
a) whether the scene is interior (INT.), exterior (EXT.), or both (INT/EXT).
b) where the scene takes place
c) whether it is day or night
That’s pretty much it.
So, say your scene took place in a park in the middle of the day. What would that look like?
INT. PARK – DAY
That’s it. You don’t put the time of day, what is happening there, or who is there. You don’t mention the weather, or anything else you can think of. Just those three pieces of information in that order.
Sometimes DAY/NIGHT will be replaced with “continuous” or “later”. Sometimes, for a period piece, you will put the date in there, but for most purposes that is all you need.
2. Similar Names
There’s nothing quite like reading a script where the two main characters are named Tim and Tom. You forget which one is which, and have to really concentrate to make sure you know which character is talking.
Don’t do it.
There are books of names. Literal books. There is no need to have characters with similar names. Of course, not everyone has to have a name like Zarathustra, but make it easier for whoever is going to read your work and give them if not interesting, at least obviously different names. Clarity is your friend.
3. Scene Numbers
This is only a small point, but it screams “amateur”. Scene numbers do not belong in spec scripts.
Neither do cuts, smashes, fades, dissolves, or any other transitions (with the exception of the very beginning and the very end). They aren’t your responsibility, add nothing to the script, and just take up space.
Cut them all.
5. Title Sequences
Again, not your responsibility. Don’t tell us where they appear, or how you envisage them.
6. Over-Use of Capitalisation
Whilst SOME use of CAPITALISATION can be USEFUL, TOO MUCH is TIRING and NOT VERY HELPFUL. If every OTHER word is CAPITALISED, then it is difficult to SEE which ONES are important.
Try to keep capitalisation to only sounds, introducing characters for the first time, and the occasional piece of IMPORTANT information.
7. Directing On The Page
This generally takes a couple of forms. The first is the use of phrases such as “we see”. Whilst this can be useful in small doses, there is a tendency for some new writers to start every other line with this. Usually, it adds no new information, and can easily be cut.
The second form is more severe. It talks about PANS and ZOOMS and DOLLIES.
You are not the director. This is not your job, nor your decision.
You don’t (or shouldn’t) tell the costume designer what stitching to use, and you don’t tell the director what to do with the camera.
If you need to bring attention to a certain point, it should be implied through the action-lines.
8. Over-Directing Actors
In the same way you don’t tell the director how to shoot the thing, you don’t tell the actors which facial muscles to use, or how to interpret your dialogue.
Sometimes this takes the form of precise character movements in the action-lines, sometimes through the use of parentheticals (occasionally for every piece of dialogue!)
If you have written good dialogue in a good scene, the tone will be implicit on the page. If you need (or feel the need) to tell the actor how to deliver every line, then your script is probably rubbish, and the actor will likely hate you.
9. Overly Long Action Blocks
Screenplays are not novels. Therefore, pages full of thick blocks of action text will not help you find favour with the reader.
You might think all that information is necessary, but it probably isn’t. All it is doing is slowing down the script and boring the reader.
White space is your friend.
Try to keep your blocks of action to less than five lines (personally, I try to keep them to three, max). It will make the read feel more pleasant and make it easier for the reader to keep track of what is happening.
There is nothing worse than sitting down to read someone’s screenplay and finding it riddled with spelling mistakes and simple typographical errors. It is rude and lazy.
Whoever is reading your script is most likely doing you a favour. Show some respect and make an effort to make it a pleasant read.
Of course, you’ll likely never catch every error, but at least make an effort, otherwise you might find the reader checking out after page one.
So there we go. Ten tips to help improve your first script(s). Of course, this isn’t every error rookies make, but if you follow these tips your script will look (and more importantly, read!) a lot better.