The Top Five Critical Mistakes Most New Screenwriters Make
So you want to be a screenwriter. You know you’re a good writer and you start daydreaming about writing film scripts — the big deals, the parties with celebrities, the L.A. sunshine…once the Hollywood bug bites you, it’s almost impossible to exterminate.
The truth is getting your script read is extremely difficult, but if you do, there are newbie mistakes that will land your script in the trash and stop anyone from reading your work again. Fix these 5 errors fast:
1 — Writing what can’t be filmed.
This is the biggest mistake brand new screenwriters make. Once you think about it, it makes sense, but for book authors and blog writers, some screenwriting rules aren’t immediately obvious. Never write, Bob didn’t like Sally or Sally decided she needed new shoes or Sally thought she didn’t like Bob. Why? None of those sentences can be filmed.
While it’s best to leave specific camera shots to the director, there are ways to show internal thought processes that CAN be filmed. Sally looks at Bob. Bob: “Sally is there something wrong?” Sally smiles and looks away, then she looks back, glaring at him. The audience knows something’s up; the idea that Sally and Bob don’t get along is now planted in their heads; the payoff comes later, when it turns out they were right.
2 — Telling, Not Showing.
You’ve probably been hearing “show, don’t tell” in English class since the fifth grade, but it’s still easy to do by mistake. Don’t tell your story through exposition. Can you imagine if I walked up to you and said, “My name is Brigette. I was born in…..” and just proceeded to tell you my entire life story and everything I’d done. People just don’t do that. A story is better if it’s revealed slowly.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use dialogue (more on that next), but let each important part of the character’s backstory be revealed slowly, one at a time. One of the best examples of it I’ve ever seen was in 2006’s Superman Returns. Lois had been denying she was Superman’s lover throughout the entire movie. Then her little boy picks up a piano and hurls it across the room. No words necessary.
3 — Unbelievable dialogue.
So, what’s bad dialogue? Bad dialogue is unrealistic and/or too long. One or two very successful screenwriters have gotten away with wooden dialogue (I’m looking at you, George Lucas), but I don’t recommend trying it. Action movies are notorious offenders.
And writing dialogue for women and POC can become offensive fast. If you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, I would ask for help from a co-writer who is, or simply choose to tell a different story.
The way I try to create realistic dialogue is to picture the character and tell their entire backstory in my mind. Ask yourself every question about the character you can think of. Answering these questions can help you write realistic dialogue. Who the person is will come out in how they speak.
4 — Thinking you don’t need a professional script critique.
I would never write a query letter to anyone without the script going through 3 different analysts first. People who read many scripts every day know the good from the bad from the ugly, and also know what’s selling right now and what isn’t. They can advise you on everything from grammar to storyline to marketing.
Take advantage of their wisdom and edit, edit, edit.
5 — Putting a script in an envelope, getting a random studio address, and sticking it in the mail.
First, most studios will not read a script from a writer without representation. Why? They’re terrified of being sued. If you just send your script to a studio, you will get it back, with a note that says “We did not read this script. We opened the package to ascertain what was inside, and then returned it to sender. We cannot read unsolicited scripts.” Smaller studios may be willing to read it if you sign a waiver, so don’t be afraid to query them.
What should you do? Write query letters to agents and managers based on your level (in your case beginner) and who reps writers who write similar stories asking for representation. To be honest, the odds of hearing back are very low.
Most scripts are read as a favor. To this day, the best way to get your script read is to befriend a reader/someone in the industry who lives in your building, goes to the same playground, the same dog park, or who sits at the same bar you do. (I lived in the same building as a successful screenwriter who got his big break because he sat at the same bar as Billy Bob Thornton, seriously. I begged for the name of the bar, but turns out it’s closed, boo) Becoming part of an artistic community is the fastest way to network and send the message you’re here to stay.
Write well and have a realistic view of how the industry works and your chances of success greatly increase.
Brigette worked for one of the top 5 screenplays analysts in Los Angeles, and has been screenwriting for years