Updated: Jul 20, 2021
If you haven’t been taught by a professional in the industry, writing a screenplay seems like a difficult task to complete. Screenwriting differs a great deal from typical prose writing and has its own set of rules that must be followed. If you don’t follow the rules set by the industry, you won’t be taken seriously as a screenwriter.
The purpose of this post is to point out some common mistakes that I see, as an editor, in screenplays. For now, let’s focus on mistakes in film screenplays because TV writing is different. For now, let’s assume you’ve written a screenplay for a film and you want to check it for errors and avoid novice mistakes.
If you have any questions or concerns about the content of this post, please shoot me an email. I’m happy to help in any way that I can!
“I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing—I mean, I think it’s blueprinting.” – Robert Altman
So, you’ve finished writing your first screenplay. Congratulations! However, before going through and looking for errors to correct, it’s pertinent for you to review some things about screenplays. First, you need to understand the purpose of the screenplay. Unlike a book, the screenplay isn’t meant to be read by the audience. It essentially serves as a blueprint for your film. Remember, film production involves hundreds of people and the screenplay is meant to inform the actors, producers, directors, and others on how to make your film. So, your film script is meant for two purposes: to sell to a studio (option) or to entice an executive, investor, or production company to fund production. So, write it as such.
In order to write the best screenplay, you need the best software. The film and TV industries overwhelmingly use Final Draft and sometimes Movie Magic Screenwriter. If you can’t afford new software, try Celtx or another free screenwriting software to get your script complete. Keep in mind that scripts have specific margins for each element and using screenwriting software to write your script makes the task that much easier.
Speaking of formatting, there are certain rules that apply to certain elements of a film script. The best resource you need in order to understand those formatting rules is The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier, a well-known authority on screenwriting. He also has a website where people can ask questions that may or may not already be covered in the book. The Screenwriter's Bible is updated constantly. Also, if you know any screenwriters or film professors, ask them questions and get their insights as well. Any resource can help.
In order to write great screenplays, it’s a great idea to watch a lot of movies. All movies start out as a screenplay. Don’t just watch good movies. Watch bad movies too and figure out why they were bad and avoid making those same mistakes in your own screenplay. Go to a movie theater or use streaming services to stay up to date. Take notes if you think that helps.
Finally, you should read scripts. There are tons of sites where you can download movie scripts and read them. Take note of the formatting and the verbs used and other elements. Pick good movies and bad movies. Reading scripts will help you write better scripts. Just as reading books helps you write better books.
“I always say when you write a book, you’re a ‘one-man band’ whereas, when you finish a screenplay, it’s just a sketch.” – Diablo Cody
Common Mistakes In Your Screenplay
Not Understanding Elements of The Screenplay (and how to use them)
When it comes to sluglines (also called, scene headers/headings), you must think of time and place. Now, that may seem simple to you, but you might find yourself creating a slugline like this:
EXT. POLICE PRECINCT - DAVID’S DESK - AFTERNOON
There are things wrong with this slugline. Can you spot the mistake? Well, unless David’s desk is outside there should be an INT where EXT is. INT is for interior and EXT is for exterior.
You never want to limit the camera view. Keep in mind that most films are “single-camera”. No, it doesn’t always mean there is one sole camera, but generally, films are shot with a limited number of cameras. So, you've got to set up a master shot—meaning, you must tell the director where the camera is aiming. At David’s desk, you’re not going to see anyone or anything else around the precinct. So, avoid limiting the camera if you can. If it’s pertinent to the story to have a limited view, then do that.
The film crew needs to know the basic time of day. Time of day needs to be either NIGHT or DAY. You can elaborate more (dusk, dawn, etc.) in the action lines. Also, make sure that anytime you change locations (or a master shot) of a scene, create a new slugline to reflect the change. You don’t want to confuse the production team.
Lastly, for keeping things less confusing and easy to follow for someone reading your script, make sure your locations keep and maintain the same name throughout the script. Don’t use “POLICE PRECINCT” in the 1st half of your script and randomly change it to “PRECINCT 25”. That’s just confusing. So, keep it consistent throughout.
This particular aspect of the screenplay is self-explanatory. The Dialogue prompt is where the character speaking is named. Make sure you spell the character name consistently throughout your screenplay and ensure that you don’t switch it up and confuse the reader. Don’t change “Charles” to “Charlie” halfway through the screenplay.
The Dialogue is placed directly under the prompt. Write engaging and entertaining dialogue. Watch some movies to get a feel of how characters interact with one another.
In the diagram above, you’ll note that parentheticals (sometimes called wrylies) own a line of their own and are placed below the character's name and before the dialogue. The overuse of parentheticals will make you look like an amateur. If a character is supposed to feel a certain way, you must SHOW it in the action lines or accompanying dialogue.
Dialogue must speak for itself. If a character has to be “sarcastic” in tone, you may not need to write a parenthetical for that line of dialogue. The context of what’s being said should be enough for the actor to understand. Don’t direct the actors. That job belongs to the director.
Action lines act as a sort of narration of what’s happening on screen. Since the action on screen happens as we watch it, the action lines should be written in the present tense. Use active verbs to describe the action as well. Therefore, make sure your action lines read like this:
Dave walks into the office.
As a rule of thumb, avoid writing large blocks of text with action lines. Try to break up any paragraphs of action that exceed 3 lines if possible. It’s much easier to decipher them that way. There are, however, exceptions to the rule.
As a writer, you have probably learned to avoid passive voice as much as possible. Because scripts are written in the present tense, active voice, you’ll want to avoid using passive voice in your script. Not only is it harder to read, but it also dulls the action in your script.
The use of the present progressive “-ing” verbs should also be avoided. They require the words like “is”, “am”, “are”, “was”, and “were” which instantly turns an active voice sentence into a passive voice sentence.
He is sleeping. ---> He sleeps.
Active. Present. Tense— there’s no exception to this rule and not writing your screenplay in active, present tense will hurt your chances of selling your script or getting it produced.
You’ve been learning how to write a “spec script”, the script written by the writer used to entice a director, producer, or production company. Your script should not include camera directions like “pan to” or “fade in” or “dissolve to”. Those camera directions and transitions are reserved for the director.
Transitions and camera directions are included in a “shooting script”. This script includes revisions and the director’s camera directions and transitions. So, until then, don’t bring them into your script.
Overly Described Settings
If you’ve been a novel writer all of your life, you’ll find describing settings in film scripts more difficult. Remember, your screenplay is a blueprint, so you don’t have to explain every nook and cranny. In fact, take a moment to give a brief glimpse of the setting and the art department will fill in the blanks for you. Remember, your screenplay is meant to be sold and produced. Adding flowery language to the screenplay is moot.
The only time where you might add specifics is when a prop or set piece is pertinent to the story (especially as a means of exposition).
When working on character descriptions, don’t write them like a novel writer might. In film, you must be vague in a lot of ways to allow the casting director the freedom to cast the part. There are exceptions where a character’s race or appearance may be pertinent to the story. In all other cases, follow this formula:
Name + age + various descriptors (if important) + character type (biker, dancer, etc.)
Anytime a character appears on the screen for the first time and will need to go to hair and makeup, you must CAPITALIZE the name.
DAVE, 20s, the baddest drag queen in town, wearing a pink boa, enters.
When it comes to age, you may write a specific age or range. Sometimes writers put the age in parenthesis: DAVE (20s)...
Remember that you must write character actions that we can see on screen. Use strong verbs to describe behavior and mannerisms. Dave WALKS versus Dave SAUNTERS creates a very different image on screen and in the mind of the reader. Don’t forget that.
Telling Vs Showing
Screenplays describe what will appear on screen. As a writer, you’ve probably heard “show, don’t tell” a thousand times. Nothing could be more important in a screenplay. Keep in mind that people watching your film won’t be able to hear the thoughts of your characters, so you must describe an action or place dialogue in areas where you want the viewer to understand how the character is feeling. Keep it simple. Don’t use “thought verbs” – saw, knew, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, thought, understood, etc. in your screenplay.
Describe the “thought verb” actions by showing. He slammed his fist on the table = he’s angry. Don’t write, “He was angry” in your screenplay. This does nothing for the person watching your movie. They must see this emotion on screen.
“Writers aren’t exactly people… they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Script readers, producers, directors, and others will look for any reason to reject your script (they have 1,000s more where yours came from). Use this post as a launching pad for correcting mistakes in your screenplay before you submit it. Mistakes do happen, of course, but the only thing we can do about them is to know the rules and standards of what we’re doing. Keep a lookout for the following:
· Scene Headings (INT or EXT, Location, Night or Day)
· Action Lines (Avoid large chunks of text, use present tense active voice)
· Dialogue (Keep dialogue tighter than five lines if possible or break up large chunks of dialogue with action)
· Parentheticals (Use sparingly)
· Master shot (Don’t limit the camera to one spot unless necessary)
· Descriptions (Must be able to see on screen, avoid “thought verbs”)
· Be consistent (Keep names and scene locations consistent throughout the entire script)
Read your script over and over again and look for these common mistakes. Remove them, rewrite, repeat. It would be a good idea to start your script off by writing a treatment. Knowing when and where your screenplay is going will help you articulate your scenes better. Think it over.
If you’re having concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m always happy to help. Good luck.
IMDB (Internet Movie Database) – Know who wrote, produced, and starred in movies
IMSDB (Internet Movie Screenplay Database) – Read scripts of various movies
Dr. Format – Help from Dave Trottier
Final Draft Tutorial – How to use Final Draft (YouTube Video)
Mike Duplass – Article: 8 Improved Tips For Success in The Film Industry