5 COMMON MISTAKES MADE BY SCREENWRITERS
by Eric Toms
The Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition is one of the most prestigious writing competitions in the entertainment industry, with nearly 12,000 applying every year. Not to get too technical here, but that’s a butt-load of scripts. As a reader I was assigned a small portion of that butt-load and over the course of readings I started to see patterns emerge. The scripts that ended up in the ‘do not advance’ pile all suffered from the same few problems.
1. No Clear Central Theme
The scripts that I couldn’t put down were the ones that had a very clear theme that was on display. Sometimes it was a dramatic question (e.g.: what is the price of truth in journalism?) sometimes it was an emotion (e.g.: loss) but no matter what it was the whole script revolved around one idea. The scripts that suffered were often the ones that tried to stand on their premise alone.
2. Undefined Characters
One of the biggest discoveries for me while reading was how often I didn’t care about the story’s plot, no matter how involved, complex or creative, if I didn’t care about the characters. The stories that had the biggest impact on me where the ones that had very defined, fleshed out, three-dimensional characters — no matter the size of the part. One story in particular featured an executive assistant who did nothing more than ask their boss if they were available for a meeting a few times throughout the story, but I knew exactly who that character was and how they felt about what was going on around them. This is pure conjecture, but I believe that some writers don’t want to hem in their characters and feel as though they’re helping the reader by allowing them to create their own character in their mind. I, for one, do not. I want a writer who has really thought about their story and their characters, and ONLY their characters, will fit inside of it.
3. Clear Action Lines
Before now I had heard other writers, readers, and executives using the phrase, “in good hands.” What they are referring to is a writer who understands that a reader is trying to imagine a whole new world using text. Using clear action lines are paramount here. A writer who really knows how to use clear action lines understands that it may have been 10, 20, or 30 pages since you last saw a character, so they offer a lifeline and quickly bring the reader back up to speed as to who DOMINO SANCHEZ is. Or if a particular sequence is chaotic or hectic the writer understands that their reader may need a recap to completely understand everything going on.
4. Know Structure (Ebb and Flow)
The best stories are the ones where once you finish you feel like you’ve been on a journey without leaving your seat. The scripts that I read that gave me that wonderful feeling had an excellent understanding of infusing and releasing tension. Writers who know how to, for lack of a better term, torture their audience and push them to a point where they almost can’t take any more, only to release the tension and allow everyone to relax utilize the three act structure to their benefit.
5. Edit, Edit, Edit
The writer Alan Moore once wrote, “An author of any story must know exactly how long their story must be…. then cut it in half.” For very selfish reasons, I was always delighted when I would open a script and it had a low page count. That usually meant that I could read a script with time leftover to rewatch Fleabag. But the truth of the matter was that the best scripts were the ones with zero fat on them. They often came in late to the story and did not overstay their welcome. This is often easier-said-than-done, especially when it came to the thriller and horror genres. In those specific genres the writer must build tension by teasing a potential action. This teasing can very easily go from, “Don’t open that door!” to, “Do something already!” Which is why editing is so vital to all stories.