Don’t Ruin a Good Read! Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid
By Lee Jessup • May 01, 2019
While I don’t fashion myself a script or story consultant (because, let’s face it, there are already enough of those – including a few really great ones – out there), the simple reality is that at this point in my career, I am reading at least one script, first page to last, per day, at least five days a week. Which is not that new or unusual for me; after all, I did spend a few years in development, and also read a lot when I ran ScriptShark.com (which no longer exists) back in the day. The only difference for me between reading now and reading as an executive? Where then I could put a script down 5- or 10- or 20-pages in if I didn’t connect with the material or see the movie in the script, today I read everything that crosses my virtual desk from beginning to end.
The reality is that despite all the hard work put into them, not every script that comes to me is a great, or even good, script, be it feature or TV. Which doesn’t surprise me. Respected reader Andrew Hilton only gives a full “consider” to a chosen few of the hundreds of scripts he reads every year. While I was at ScriptShark, only 5%-7% of scripts that came through ever received a “consider” or “recommend.” And the general industry consensus is that it’s hard to find a truly great script out there, the sort that makes you want to keep reading.
Before I continue, a disclaimer: This blog post is not meant to be the end-all about screenwriting. If I’ve yet to make this clear, it contains only my opinions, arrived at via decades of reading screenplays and TV pilots. Nothing less, nothing more.
So what are those elements that can often get in the way of a good read? Below is a list of some of the screenwriting choices that take me out of the story, if not outright frustrate me:
An inactive PROTAGONIST
I am one of those who believe that character needs drives plot, rather than the other way around. Walter White needed to make sure that his family would be taken care of financially following his cancer diagnosis. That’s how BREAKING BAD was born. The character and his need are driving the show. For any screenplay or TV pilot to thrive, I am looking for some level of clarity on the following questions:
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What do they want?
3. What stands in their way?
4. What do they stand to lose if they don’t meet their goal?
The answers to the above questions translate into the following:
- Defining who the movie or TV pilot’s A-story centers around.
- Identifying and crystalizing this character’s goal, or, as Jen Grisanti would call it “active pursuit” – a clear external goal, that has a definite finish line. This goal should inform the protagonist’s choices, and drive her choices and, therefore, resulting actions.
- Creating a clear antagonist (though there often can be multiples) and therefore a significant source of ongoing conflict, which keeps tension and escalation throughout the plot.
- Illustrating the clear stakes associated with the protagonist’s goal, which gives the protagonist’s goal heft and meaning.
- Meeting or failing to meet his goals should have clear and real consequences on his or her story, giving the journey meaning and importance.
- Without providing clear answers to the first four questions above, it’s usually a challenge to get to keep my enthusiasm as I read on.
The above rules are for screenplays from writers that are relatively new to the industry, who are seeking to establish themselves. Screenplays and TV pilots that come from established, highly regarded content creators (be they screenwriters, showrunners, or auteurs) have to abide by a different set of rules, as it’s the writer’s name and cache that will get them into a room, rather than any one piece of material they put forth.
A reactive PROTAGONIST
While a reactive protagonist is better than an entirely inactive protagonist, it’s hard to keep invested in a protagonist who is reacting to unfolding events, rather than getting on top of the plot by defining their own goal, which drives their forward motion. When I think about a movie that forced its protagonist into immediate reaction, the first one that comes to mind is WORLD WAR Z. Brad Pitt and family are having breakfast and Bam! zombies on the street. But once they manage to escape the undead (reaction) Brad then sets a new course: To race against time and across continents to stop the pandemic that threatens to decimate the human race. And it’s true in TV too. Walter White becomes proactive about making his family whole before his imminent death by cooking up meth and making money fast. Cooking meth, then, is not a reaction to cancer. It’s a proactive solution to a problem that emerges from an unexpected change in circumstance.
I don’t know about you, but when I go to the movies, watch a TV show, read a screenplay or a pilot, I am looking for an emotionally resonant experience, which, at least for me, most often shows up through a character’s internal journey, and consequent character arc. It may be a cliché, but I find that most cliches are also true: We go to the movies and watch television shows not only to be excited, scared or amused, but also to connect to the human experience in a manner both authentic and new.
Whether our protagonist comes to trust and believe like Luke Skywalker, find and claim her own voice and agency like June in THE HANDMAID’S TALE or realize that he’s moved on and no longer needs to prove himself to anyone like Bradley Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, I find that my experience is richer when my protagonist is, in some way, transformed. Whether there is a moral lesson to be learned, or simply a completed personal evolution that brings us to the story’s conclusion, a meaningful internal journey that evolves alongside our external goal is, for me, what makes a viewing or reading experience particularly memorable and meaningful.
For more on this, check out Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler’s HERO’S TWO JOURNEYS.
Mistaking ACTION for PLOT
Action is not plot. It’s just that: Action. Movement. Plot is action in the name – and pursuit – of a tangible goal. Which is to say: action is plot only if it moves the story forward, and affects the goal by either bringing the protagonist closer to it or further away.
Lacking CHARACTER descriptions, omission of age or age range
A short while ago, I read a script that opened with a slugline, and went straight into dialogue. After three such pages, without any further character descriptions, I decided to put the script down, and told the writer as much. The reason? Without basic character descriptions, the WHO of it all, I just couldn’t get myself invested in the material. In essence, what was being said by these characters didn’t matter to me because I didn’t know who was saying it, and why I should care.
While character descriptions will vary in length and detail (for more on this check out my blog post EXPERTS WEIGH IN: 8 TIPS FOR WRITING GREAT CHARACTERS) from writer to writer, for me, I need to know who the story is about. If the writer doesn’t want to provide the exact age, then age range or life stage is a great substitute; I am less interested in physical descriptions unless they are of direct importance to the plot (recently I read a script where one of the characters was described as having luminescent skin which, because it had no bearing on the plot, I found to be really distracting), and more interested in broader descriptors that speak to the characteristics of the role.
Over-written ACTION lines
When industry folks open a new script for a writer they don’t do, they often flip through the script (be it paper or digital) in search of tell-tale signs that the script is written by a novice. One of the biggest indicators of a new writer just figuring out his way is chunky action lines, that quickly morph into action paragraphs, describing every prop in detail, directing the action and choreographing everything from fight scenes to love scenes on the page. Success in screenwriting is very much about economy of language. Saying the most with the least. Making every word in every action line matter and count. It’s the writers who succeed in this task, and even develop their own unique style, who often find success in their chosen profession.
DIALOGUE that quickly becomes MONOLOGUE
The other thing that makes an industry exec set a script aside? Long, chunky dialogue, which often stops reading like dialogue all together, and instead becomes a monologue. Unless presenting a case in a courtroom, narrating a promotional video, delivering on a particular storytelling narrative style, providing voiceover to let us into our characters’ innermost thoughts (which was used to perfection in YOU, but otherwise, even if necessary, should not be overused) or giving a wedding toast or a speech, commencement or otherwise, characters should not speak in monologues, short or long. Dialogue is about subtext as much as it is about the words spoken. So consider what is the very minimum that your character can say, as opposed to the most eloquent and longwinded way to say what could be said much more ineloquently or succinctly. Not sure what that looks like? Nowhere is the economy of dialogue and consideration for subtext most evident than a David Mamet play, so if you are not sure what I’m talking about, check out his work.
And yes, there are exceptions. If you are Aaron Sorkin or another writer of that ilk, the rules don’t apply, so feel free to ignore me.
DIRECTING on the page
From camera angles and movements to precise (which often translates to tedious) choreography of everything from fight scenes to chase scenes and love scenes can easily take the reader out of the script, or become belabored and exhausting to read. Therefore, contain action lines, remove any CUT TO:/WIDE ON/PAN ACROSS’s that are not an absolute necessity to the clarity, narrative style and focus on the story, and instead keep our story moving forward at a steady, preferably even zippy, pace.
TELLING instead of SHOWING
While some writers may opt to insert some thoughtful, choice novalized lines into their feature spec or original TV pilot script, for the most part I prefer keeping action lines just for that: Visuals. Economical. Action. Therefore, refrain from providing backstory in your action lines, telling us what a character thinks or feels, or explaining to the reader something that took place at some point in the story, but wasn’t included in the script.
Let me wrap this up by acknowledging that some of the best screenplays and television pilots have succeeded while breaking some of these rules. But if you choose to break the rules, you may also make a choice to write the sort of sample, be it feature or TV pilot, that shows that while you can be a disruptor, you are also able to deliver just as well when playing inside the screenwriting box.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...