Five Screenwriting Pitfalls to Avoid

Nathan Marshall

I spend a lot of time on my website, www.scriptfaze.com, talking about things writers SHOULD DO to improve their writing, and to make their scripts as snappy and sellable as possible. I’m also amazed by all the great tips and insight provided here on the Script Frenzy website—what an amazing resource! That said, I figured it was time someone went Debby Downer for just a minute, and covered a few pitfalls that all writers should be careful NOT TO DO while crafting their latest script.

So, here are five common mistakes that every screenwriter should AVOID:

1) SUPPORTING CHARACTERS AS SOUNDING BOARDS

It’s true. Your antagonist needs people to talk to, and there’s no better way to sneak in a little exposition than to craft a witty conversation between your hero and their best friend, their mom, or even that stranger they bump into on the subway. The problem many writers run into, however, is forgetting to make these supporting leads fully formed characters—and not just sounding boards for your protagonist. Now, I’m not saying every person with a line deserves ten pages of juicy scene work. Sometimes, you can relate everything an audience needs to know about what makes a character tick in just a couple lines. However—if you’ve chosen to write a character into your film, they can’t just be a blank slate that keeps asking your hero bunch of convenient questions. Every character must come off as a REAL PERSON, and their actions and dialogue should always appear to be motivated by their individual desires, goals, and attitudes.

2) OBVIOUS ENDINGS

This note might sound a little, well…obvious. And yet—it’s one of the more common mistakes that writers make while embarking upon a new career in screenwriting. The bottom line is this: Your audience is smarter than you think. If you drop a hint early-on in your screenplay about an upcoming wedding, contest, or apocalyptic stand-off, they will immediately ASSUME that this event will cap the end of your movie. And if your hero happens to be a skittish wife, struggling musician, or underdog super hero, they will also assume your antagonist’s ultimate OUTCOME during this climax. Setting specific expectations CAN be a good thing—but only if you later subvert them. Don’t make the mistake of leading your audience down an expected path to an expected conclusion.

3) TONE SHIFTS

Have you ever been sitting in a movie theatre watching a thriller or a serious drama, when suddenly the plot went loopy or the characters said something totally WRONG for the moment—and everything in the theatre started to LAUGH? If so, you’ve experienced a TONE SHIFT. TONE is fragile thing, and once you’ve locked down the specific FEEL of your script—be it a broad comedy, a serious thriller, a lighthearted drama, etc.—you must be careful to MAINTAIN this tone from start to finish. There is no better way to lose your audience than to pull the carpet out from under them mid-way through a script, and have your tone SHIFT from one genre to another. Now, I’m not saying there can’t be comedic moments in a dramatic movie, or a poignant scene in the middle of Superbad. Be careful, however, that these outside-the-norm scenes feel true to the movie you are writing.

4) RUN-ON DESCRIPTION

Screenwriting is all about characters, plot, and dialogue—NOT the details of a room’s décor, the minutiae of the changing seasons, or the blow-by-blow of every step a character makes. Novels are wondering things. And if you’d RATHER be writing a novel—NaNoWriMo will be here before you know it! Screenplays, however, ARE NOT NOVELS, and your description blocks should be as focused and minimalistic as possible. Before your movie graces the screen of a local multiplex, it must be picked out from BUNDLES of other scripts by interns, agents, and producers. You may have written the best jail house movie since Shawshank Redemption, but if you’ve spent the first two pages describing death row’s dust bunnies—no one is ever gonna read it.

5) WEAK PROTAGONIST

This one is the most important, and unfortunately—the most common. I’ve done it myself: Written a whole script full of badass supporting roles, crazy unexpected plot twists, and death defying stunts—only to reread it, and realize my lead character was BARELY PRESENT. Sure—he’d be there in all the scenes, generally fulfilling his role as leading man—but everyone else around him was just… COOLER. Surprising, a lot of writers make this mistake. Smaller characters are easier to spice up, while the PROTAGONIST is often saddled with back story, subtext, and mixed motivations—all of which can make him withdrawn and uninteresting. To combat this, make sure your hero is always ACTIVE and that he INFLUENCES every scene he is a part of. And give him some personality! Sure, the vigilante soccer mom leading your story may be entirely based on YOU—but shouldn’t she be the funny, witty, zany version of yourself that usually only comes out on trips to Disneyland? I think so.

Nathan Marshall has written dozens of screenplays, and is presently developing an hour-long television show for CBS/Paramount. In 2008, Nathan created the website www.scriptfaze.com, which offers free tips and advice for screenwriters.