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This Scene Sucks: Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid

By Timothy Cooper

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Check out this awesome scene from my (non-existent) upcoming screenplay, Birds vs. Bees.

Sure, I'll admit that I wrote this opening scene specifically for this article, but there isn't a single error in it that I haven't read in actual screenplays hundreds of times. I'm serious.

Can you spot all 15 (or more) errors?

Script readers are the gatekeepers who read the thousands of scripts that land on the desks of producers, directors, actors, studios, production companies, agents, and managers. Their job is to read new screenplays all day, every day. Don't make their job hard; make it entertaining! Your job is to make them sit up and take notice.

Do you think you spotted all of the errors in my opening scene? The 15 reader pet peeves I illustrated above are shockingly easy to fix, and will bring your script that much closer to making readers recommend your script to their boss. Let's review:

1. Characters are described in excruciating detail.

Physical descriptions, including race, height, clothing, etc., matter far less than most first-time writers think. Leave the costuming up to the costume designer. And don't restrict the casting unless it's VITALLY important that your character have blue eyes, or be of Vietnamese descent. What DOES matter is the SOUL of the character. What are they LIKE? Are there a few words that get to the heart of this character's flaws, desires, or persona?

2. Characters have androgynous names.

A girl named Sam or Kyle or Devin. A guy named Stacy or Robin or Sydney. Anyone named Casey, Taylor, or Jamie. Sure, they're perfectly lovely names...but they don't work in scripts. Remember: The reader won't be paying as much attention to your characters as you did. If they're reading multiple scripts a day (which they are), they could easily miss the character's gender in your initial character description. You can still come up with unique, memorable names without confusing the reader.

3. Character names begin with the same letter, and/or look similar on the page.

Sam, Sarah, Shari, Shannon: Sure, these might be completely different characters in your mind, but they're pretty difficult to grasp for someone who might have to pick up and put down your script multiple times, and isn't as invested in the characters as you are. Also, if using a screenwriting software program, you're giving yourself an extra step every time the autofill feature tries to complete that character's name! This tiny fix will make a big difference in the reader's experience.

4. The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle.

Yes, many conversations begin like this in real life. But on the page, it's crushingly dull. Instead, enter the scene mid-conflict by jumping in as late as you can (without being confusing). Then, make sure to exit the scene before it has all been neatly wrapped up. This leaves lingering questions that help push the reader into your next scene.

5. Typo.

If you've written the most amazing story in the world, of course a few typos won't make a difference. But when we see typos right on the first page, it doesn't give us a lot of confidence that you're submitting your best work. If you're not adept at, say, recognizing the difference between “your” and “you're,” consider using a script proofreading service (or an eagle-eyed friend).

6. People say exactly what they mean.

Sadly, there's no subtext here. In this line, Sam is laying out backstory; she's explaining the past in an obvious way. This saps most of the tension and takes us out of the scene. Incorporate the backstory in a different way; if possible, mask it with action. Remember, most people (except kids) rarely, if ever, say precisely what they mean.

7. The actual action of the scene is unclear.

Choreography is important. The reader wants to get a sense of what the film is going to look like, at least for the key beats. So make sure the action is described AS IT HAPPENS, not after the fact. In this case, describe Sam washing her hands right when she does so.

Part of the reason the action is unclear is that we have no sense of the physical space we're in. What does this kitchen look like? We don't need a complete blueprint, but a one-sentence description would help the reader understand and visualize the scene. In this case, the window, sink, and layout of the room should have been mentioned earlier in the scene, so that they didn't just materialize out of the blue when they were required for the action.

8. We're introduced to too many characters on the first page.

Introduce us to just a few characters at a time. It's like going to a party: If the host tells you everyone's name at once, you won't remember a single name. But if you start by talking with just one or two people, then move on to the next small group, you're way more likely to get to know and care about each individual.

9. Formatting issues.

Actions should not be placed in parentheticals; parentheticals should only be used for occasional emotional clues or pauses. Bonus tip: It's always smart to have at least a couple friends who understand screenplay formatting read your script's final draft. They'll spot errors you inevitably missed because you've been reading the same script over and over for months.

10. Much of the information is impossible to actually show on the screen.

It's okay to include a little bit of background in the character descriptions, but include too much and it looks like you don't understand film. This is a VISUAL medium. A lot of your character backstory—perhaps all of it—can be filled in by the director and actors. So don't put nonvisual information in the action descriptions; instead, save that space for actual actions.

11. Long chunks of text.

Substantial paragraphs of action or dialogue aren't completely forbidden. But a reader's eye will naturally skip over huge chunks, especially because big blocks of text often mean you're describing the action in way too much detail. Remember, we only need the major beats!

12. An unimportant character is given too much weight.

If someone only has a few lines, they probably don't need a full-sentence description, or even a name. Readers just don't have the brain space to waste on characters who aren't going to return in a big way.

13. No major conflict.

A shortage of serious, life-altering conflicts is the enemy of every screenplay, at both the scene and the story level. This weak attempt at adding a hint of mystery via a random subsidiary character doesn't cut it; there's still no strong reason for this scene to exist. No, that doesn't mean characters need to be fighting all the time—far from it. But underneath EVERY SINGLE EXCHANGE, there needs to be some source of tension that is being created, heightened, or temporarily resolving (to lead to the next conflict).

14. Unnecessary parentheticals.

Don't give actors line readings, or tell the director what to do, unless it's absolutely vital to understand the line's meaning. No one likes being told how to do their job!

15. Clichéd dialogue.

The worst thing you can do as a writer is give us exactly what we expect. Sure, we've all seen movies with clichéd, outdated, predictable, laughable, or boring characters and dialogue—but that certainly doesn't mean we're interested in seeing that again! We want to be taken by surprise at each story turn, at each piece of dialogue. So if it's a line we've seen a million times before, change it up and give us something we didn't quite expect...or even the exact opposite of what we expected.

Okay, that was a lot of errors. But when consulting on even experienced writers' screenplays, I see these sorts of issues every day. Don't let easy-to-avoid mistakes sink your script before it ever gets past the reader. Instead, give readers what they want: a polished, conflict and tension-filled script that they get to “discover” and pass on to their boss!

About Timothy Cooper

Timothy Cooper is an award-winning filmmaker and comedy writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote the feature film Away from Here (starring Nick Stahl, Alicia Witt, and Ray Wise), and wrote and directed the Writers Guild Award-nominated web sitcom Concierge: The Series (starring comedians from Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Bridesmaids, and more). He was a contributing joke writer for host Colin Quinn at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards, and for host Larry Wilmore at the 2015 Writers Guild Awards. He's written commercials and industrials for a range of companies, including Super Bowl spots for Google. An in-demand story analyst, lecturer, and script consultant, Timothy has taught screenwriting and storytelling skills to hundreds of clients throughout the world, and teaches weekly screenwriting workshops in New York City through his company, Blueprint Screenwriting Group.

Screenwriting Article by Timothy Cooper

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