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When screenwriting, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Try not to get too hung up on creating the perfect first draft, but keep in mind these screenwriting pitfalls to avoid:
Characters have similar names
Nothing is worse than having three characters in a script with the names Riley, Ryan, and Rita. It can become confusing in a screenplay or manuscript, especially for the reader. To avoid this, a good strategy I use is to list out the letters in the alphabet from A to Z and make sure I never use the same letter (if I have a cast list of under 26 characters, that is.) What you also want to make sure of is to look out that you aren’t using similar character names, even if they don’t start with the same letter. Such as Harry and Larry, or Goldstein and Goldberg.
The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle.
A common rule for screenwriting is “Arrive late, leave early.” Don’t spend a lot of time setting up for a scene. For example, let’s say you are writing an argument between two characters while eating dinner. You wouldn’t show the character chopping vegetables and setting the table while the other character watches football? Get to the meat of the scene as quick as you can.
Typos and grammar errors
This should be an obvious one. Nothing is worse than typos in a script (especially, if you’re a lucky writer, and you’ve got your script into the hands of a producer!) Check out grammarly.com. It’s my go-to spellcheck, and it does wonders.
People say exactly what they mean
What’s more cinematic? This was a problem I had to overcome, and I’m still working on. In a bad script, a character tells what they feel. In a good script, a character shows what they feel. What is more effective? A character saying “I love you” to another character? Or a character sacrificing themselves for their love?
We’re introduced to too many characters on the first page
Your screenplay isn’t War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
To learn how to format your screenplay properly, this book is a helpful guide.
Much of the information is impossible to actually show on the screen
Chances are, that if you’re a writer, you’ve written literary. Books, essays, etcetera. It can be quite a hard transition from writing literary to writing for the screen. Don’t spend a lot of time describing the setting or the characters. Do as little as possible, aiming to keep to about four lines of description.
No major conflict
There needs to be some change to the character’s world. Whether it’s a small conflict like trying to deal with high school drama (Mean Girls) or the world is at risk (insert any Superhero movie here) YOU NEED CONFLICT.
The first screenplays I began to read were written by John Hughes – not a shocker if you know me personally. Even the screenplays he never directed, he wrote in shot notes, like “C.U. Character Name.” For screenplays, you should avoid this. Even if this is a project you want to make yourself, and the writer and director are interchangeable, I still advise against it. One should not give direction in the script – that’s for the director to do when he or she crafts the shot list and storyboards.
Here are a few examples:
“Is that all you got?”
“We’ve got company.”
“You look like shit.”
“We’re not so different, you and I.”
It’s difficult to create something original, and in the end, you’ll never create something that is wholly original. But you can learn from other movie’s mistakes and avoid lines like this. Read it out to yourself, and think; “Have I ever heard this line said outside of a movie?”
If I see another generic bully trope in a movie, I’m going to scream. Give your characters some originality, whether their side characters or main characters, make your characters feel real and draw from real life as much as you can.
Actions you cannot film
Writing “The character thought…” is an absolute no-no in screenwriting. Unless we hear the thoughts through narration or see it through a projection (Prime example is Cady in Mean Girls), then don’t include it in the screenplay. Do not say that the character is smelling something if they don’t actively mention that they smell something. Do not say the character is sad; show them crying. Do not say the character is happy; show them laughing.
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