A pair of frustrated hands tearing a screenplay script in half down the middle, with smoke flowing out depicting common overused movie cliches escaping the ruined pages

How NOT to Write a Screenplay: 7 Amateur Mistakes Ruining Spec Scripts

Want to write an amazing screenplay that will wow producers and captivate audiences? Easier said than done for aspiring new scriptwriters trying to break into Hollywood. It’s tempting to just open a blank document and unleash your inner Tarantino.

However, if you want to seriously impress the film industry and avoid cringe-worthy amateur mistakes, there are key screenwriting faux pas you must avoid on your first cinematic outing.

This definitive guide will overview the seven MAJOR flaws that instantly ruin screenplays, with actionable tips on how new writers can fix these pitfalls and craft genuinely compelling stories ready for the silver screen. Skip these vital steps at your own peril!

  1. Forgetting Screenplay Structure and Formatting

Perhaps the quickest way for industry insiders to dismiss your script is failing to follow standard Hollywood formatting and structural guidelines. Remember a successful screenplay has to both READ well on paper but also provide a suitable ENGINE for filming.

Ignoring structuring best practices like the classic three-act movie model or correct screenwriting layouts signals an oblivious novice who’ll be tough to work with from page to production.

Common Formatting Blunders:

  • Dense blocks of descriptive text ignoring screenplay format white space conventions. Difficult to skim-read scenes essential for swift script assessments.
  • Absent or inconsistently formatted scene headings, action lines, transitions, character names, and dialogues. A confusing layout is an instant turn-off for producers and actors.

While screenwriters have flexibility, understanding studio preferences for Arial or Courier 12pt black font on industry-standard margins (1-inch sides, 0.5-inch top/bottom) demonstrates you respect the filming and budgeting constraints required to realize your story.

Formatting remedies seem basic but immediately improve your script’s chance of serious consideration versus the vast unsolicited pile.

Structural Missteps:

  • Forgetting the crucial three-act film model used in 95% of Hollywood scripts: Set up > Confrontation > Resolution. lacking this proven pattern risks a meandering narrative. Outline first using guideposts like inciting incidents, midpoint shifts, crisis moments, and climax before drafting scripts.
  • Overstuffing Act One with excessive character backgrounds before the central drama emerges. Get to the pivotal storyline fast then wisely reveal histories.
  • No defined plot points marking act breaks. Every 12-15 script pages should have escalations to achieve the necessary timing and story pivots for a feature film structure.

Take time beforehand to study bestselling screenplays you admire. Analyze their sequencing, and the artful escalations in stakes, plus evaluate formatting discipline. Does your first draft demonstrate comparable structural chops? If not, keep polishing!

  1. Using Dense Description Instead of Visuals

Movies are ultimately a VISUAL medium meant to showcase compelling human stories via actions, expressions, and dialogue. Unlike prose, scripts struggle when dominated by lifeless blocks of description however poetically or skillfully written. Too much dense text defeats the purpose of this unique dramatic format primed for filming.

Common Descriptive Blunders:

  • Giant paragraphs light on dialogue explaining backstories, internal monologues, settings or action details destroy the white space cadence essential for visual media.
  • Relying on heavy exposition telling audiences information rather than crafting an intriguing dramatic scene unveiling ideas more organically.
  • Failing to immerse readers in unfolding on-screen moments and leaning on overloaded descriptive passages.

Veteran screenwriters master conveying MAXIMUM impact with MINIMUM words using crisp, active language free from verbosity. Compare:

Weak description: “She anxiously but calmly tries to pour the glass of water from the pitcher as steadily as she can so it won’t spill.” (22 words)

Strong action line: “Her shaking hand causes water to spill as she pours a glass.” (10 words)

Paint dynamic pictures through specific behaviors, expressions, and visual details SHOWING your protagonist pursuing objectives not lengthy narrative summaries devoid of actual drama.

Remedies to Show Not Tell:

  • Analyze produced screenplays in your genre observing the balance between dialogue, action description, and white space. Then edit your draft accordingly.
  • Read passages out loud and cut unnecessary sentences bogging down fluid visual momentum.
  • Share drafts with trusted filmmaker colleagues. Ask them to locate any dense blocks slowing down the imagined film unfolding in their mind. The tougher the criticism the better at this refining stage if you seriously want to master cinematic visual storytelling techniques.
  1. No Clearly Defined Hero’s Journey for Lead Character

Hollywood obsesses on stories revealing profound transformation. The most beloved movie icons – think Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, or Neo from ‘The Matrix – all traverse a version of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey blueprint. Their inward and outward odysseys resonate universally as they battle inner demons to achieve renewed clarity of purpose by the story’s end.

Surprisingly few initial scripts evidence an overt character arc for protagonists. Just a procession of events befalling a passive pawn devoid of any definitive change from the initial state by the climatic scenes.

Major Character Pitfalls:

  • The protagonist has no substantive evolution from Act One to Act Three. They simply react to increasingly dangerous plot events rather than forge proactively through their Hero’s Journey. Readers need to experience transformation.
  • Confusing screen time chasing too many minor characters rather than focusing predominantly on lead POV guiding us through escalating tensions. Whose ultimate tale are you really telling?
  • Backstories are delivered upfront via exposition dumps instead of skillfully threaded through escalating conflicts between foils and impact characters that pressure the protagonist to grow in order to overcome obstacles.

Creating Compelling Character Journeys:

  • Isolate precise before/after character traits PLUS actual behaviors demonstrating this emotional and psychological metamorphosis. Then build requisite escalating conflicts to justify such radical internal rewrite.
  • Define 1-3 character foils that challenge everything the protagonist believes forcing painful reconcilations as they pursue outward MacGuffin goals plus inner self-realization.
  • Remember – heroes must EARN transformation through active choices confronting fears based on revelatory backstory nuggets revealed strategically over time through layered in flashbacks.
  • Outline the key arc journey mile markers using templates based on field-tested Hero’s Journey character models like Christopher Vogler’s game-changing examination of mythic writing in his guide, ‘The Writer’s Journey’. This will aid constructing a tight, filmic three-act structure with ample plot and thematic support needed to sustain 120 pages.
  1. Forgetting Critical Importance of Theme

You surely envision spine-tingling sequences plus snappy dialogue exchanges between quirky leads for your passion project screenplay. But have you isolated the vital THEME binding everything together working on profound levels beyond sheer entertainment spectacle?

What IS your movie actually about beneath-the-surface drama and genre trappings? Universal concepts separate celebrated screen stories from short-term flashy filmmaking forgotten quickly in an endlessly crowded theatrical marketplace.

Major Thematic Missteps:

  • No evident unifying theme present resonating beyond a slight premise hook or basic vengeance motifs. Lacking embedded humanity beyond the trailer moments.
  • Issues of character agency get abandoned early once flashy set pieces or elongated subplot cul de sacs sidetrack progressive narrative drive.
  • Protagonist has little substantive arc related to thematically-rooted behavior changes from false assumptions toward renewed enlightenment by the final sequences.

To Inject THEMATIC Significance:

  • Isolate ONE Central Organizing Principle as North Star before writing extensively – Family bonds? Overcoming self-destructive patterns? Avenging injustice despite personal cost? Then ensure every story beat resonates appropriately.
  • Script worksheets detailing how each major sequence, character contribution and dialogue exchange escalates audience understanding of your core theme through emotional reveals and weighing arguments centered on the prime principle at play underneath overt machinations.
  • Evaluate your designing principle – does it support potent high concept logline with franchise viability beyond single contained storyline? Is it primal enough to yield prequels and sequels expanding epic story universe?
  1. Boring, Cliché Dialogue Lacking Visual Economy

Dialogue serves TWO crucial functions in successful screenwriting: 1) Communal currency of film/tv media propelling story. 2) Indirect exposition when seamlessly layered contextually into exchanges rather than via obvious monologues stating information we need spoon-fed awkwardly.

Yet poorly executed dialogue derails suspension of disbelief – the crucial audience buy-in surrendering willful skepticism because drama feels truthful even within fantasy settings.

Major Dialogue Mistakes:

  • Leaning on tired cultural idioms or familiar references signals amateur screenwriting oblivious of lasting resonance. Avoid pop culture phrases dating your material.
  • An articulate character verbally explains the information we should SEE instead through actions in adjoining sequences rather than dialogue info dumps. Remember films SHOW rather than tell.
  • Characters sound indistinguishable from each other tonally. Do a Ctrl+F search in script for overused speech fillers like ‘Look,’ or ‘You know’. Simple fixes instantly elevate.
  • Lines not serving clear narrative function or underscoring known traits/objectives for specific characters at that moment. Every exchange should have consequence – avoid time filling rambling.
  • Actors can’t say lines as written naturally or lines go on past concise impact. Read aloud always.

Level Up Stale Dialogue:

  • Eliminate first obvious line response for fresher, unexpected exchanges revealing inner thinking. Watch films without sound to analyze tangential conversations conveying subtext not just plot.
  • Improve generic vocabulary with unusual emotional descriptors and visual observations rather than relying on curse words which rarely require imagination from writers.
  • You don’t need dialogue spanning multiple sentences to register character perspective when precise actions demonstrate inner state too. Remember less can mean MORE on screen when peeling away verbiage.
  • Listen to natural conversations on public transportation noticing not only word choices but also silence gaps. Play spot the difference between poor exposition and nuanced subtext.
  1. Deus ex Machina or Nonsensical Endings

You finally reach Act Three – the final reckoning where your hero emerges to defeat villains after tribulations testing their willpower and skills to the utmost degree…or do they?

A clumsy climax unraveling preceding smarts established throughout Acts One and Two can utterly sink months of meticulous screenwriting craft evidenced leading up to these critical finales. Endings disappointing audiences due to implausible hero victories, unearned reveals or simplistic resolutions must be avoided.

Major Ending Pitfalls:

  • Eleventh hour introduction of new backstories, locations or characters never previously hinted pivoting climax action feel strangely deus ex machina rather than a satisfactory wrap up for pre-established events. Cheap tricks!
  • Chance occurrences, freak deus ex machina interventions, unbelievable coincidences or acts of Gods rather than protagonists MAKING choices to proactively win the day based on revelations finally grasped.
  • Villains omnipotently and consistently more powerful than hero throughout suddenly falter illogically. Heroes should prevail via difficulty redemptive choices completed after much suffering, not random luck shifting context suddenly.
  • Thematically the endings fail to complete narrative subtext arcs undertaken during prior acts from ignorance toward meaningful change regarding human truth embedded poignantly within genre conventions explored across earlier reels.

Satisfying Script Endings:

  • Catalog key story strands needing emotional or factual resolution after 100 pages bouncing protagonists through escalating battles. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory as heroes earn wisdom resolving fears holding them back initially.
  • Explore contextually-logical climax locations making thematic sense as heroes return full circle to origins of inciting incidents but profoundly changed in abilities and self-beliefs preparing winning (possibly tragic) outcomes.
  • Heroes touchingly utilize lessons grasped, tools gathered from mentors plus apply allies advice at films end to proactively win on their own terms demonstrating hard-fought character arc revelations finally clicked internally after much circumstantial plot trauma.
  1. Starting Scripts Without Detailed Outlines

You awaken one night buzzing with visions of a killer concept for franchise movie gold featuring a maverick team thrown together fighting long odds…Now open Final Draft and feverishly type this imagination explosion before ideas disappear so you can at least knock out raw first draft, right?

WRONG! This rash instinct plagues novice screenwriters yielding unfinished or structurally imbalanced scripts seriously hampering marketability. Seasoned spec writers ALWAYS labor extensively on finely tuned outlines before commencing official FADE IN.

Outlining Blunders:

  • Figuring you’ll “discover” great plot points or ending twist surprises through the drafting journey allowing muse magic manufacturing compelling structure on the fly. Serendipity is RARE. Architecting smart reversals still requires outlining craft.
  • Assuming an intriguing premise alone sustains engaging pacing and layered character dimensionality needed across 100+ pages. Mesmerizing audio-visual stories blending substance with spectacle require forethought and rewriting.
  • Midpoint stalling when initial bright ideas fade without detailed sequence beats pre-listed to hit escalating conflicts needed as runway heading into final confrontation climax payoffs.

Outline First Strategies:

  • Catalog engaging genre set pieces and character cameo ideas on whiteboards BUT resist script writing itself. This brainstorming outlines critical waypoints while allowing new inspiring plot puzzles to emerge from that creative board.
  • Construct a Single Line Story Summary stating hero objective plus obstacle nemeses preventing goals in under 15 words. This distillation focuses scenes service those prime vectors.
  • Identify five Core Character Arcs spanning internal realm (maturity, intellect, emotional walls) and external realm (professional, social, relationship). Then craft escalations pressuring growth when these trajectories interweave cyclically over three acts.

For Oscar-winning scribe Akiva Goldsman, screenwriting starts with extensively pre-planning highly structured narratives until crystallizing satisfying conclusion resolutions.

Only then does he attack pages at full speed with a total confidence story in place ready for adaptation magic making such spec scripts incredibly hot commodities when this gold standard development gets evidenced on paper for industry decision-makers.

Key Takeaways: Fix Screenwriting Pitfalls

Still pumped to write that first potential blockbuster screenplay crackling with franchise DNA? Heed warnings from this script doctor! Even pros initially faced brutally humbling script rejections early on before mastering vital revisions separating amateur screenwriting attempts from epic entertainment embraced passionately by global fandoms.

By avoiding these seven fatal Hollywood screenwriting flaws marring inexperienced spec scripts, new writers can craft genuinely crowd-pleasing stories on their own journeys toward seeing dreams envisioned come alive powerfully on worldwide theater screens:

✅ Embrace screenplay formatting and structural principles demonstrated in produced scripts to enable smooth filming translation.

✅ Write concise, visually-driven action lines not weighted down by dense paragraphs showing not telling story information to achieve maximum viewer engagement.

✅ Feature a clearly-defined heroic lead character undergoing meaningful emotional and psychological growth from bold new choices propelling confronting apt theme resonance and definitive audience takeaways.

✅ Ensure not just flashy plots but profound human themes arise through escalating set pieces pushing protagonists to grow abandoning false assumptions toward embracing wisdom hard-won as three acts builds towards satisfying climax resolutions.

You’re now armed with insider tricks separating winning, commercial scripts from lackluster spec drafts relying too heavily on flimsy premises or thin stereotypes. Avoid painfully common beginner mistakes callously dismissed by jaded industry readers inundated with subpar submissions lacking proper polish and heart.

Time to get YOUR big idea ethically down achieving excellence standards. Happy writing scribes!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?

The #1 rule is to always put the story first. Develop a compelling narrative and memorable characters before worrying about formatting and other technicalities. Focus on crafting an engaging tale that readers can’t put down.

What a screenwriter should avoid?

Avoid dense blocks of description, unnecessary exposition, thin stereotyped characters, stale derivative dialogue, chaotic structure lacking cohesive arcs, preachy tones detached from integrally embedded themes, plus excessive backstory slowing narrative momentum.

What not to put in a script?

Don’t over detail mundane actions unless revealing nuances. Avoid blocks of monologues stopping, not propelling, dramatic action. Resist spelling out setting elements covered by skilled directors. No need to micromanage eventual filming choices.

How do you not start a screenplay?

Never start writing pages without an extensive beat outline detailing all three acts. Don’t begin scripts hoping a brilliant idea alone will sustain 100+ pages. Such rashness dooms most unplanned first drafts unfinished. Architect story first.

What is the hardest part of writing a screenplay?

The escalating complication conundrums confronting the protagonist must seem impossible to overcome until the climax reversal earned through resilience and revelations. Engineering continually surprise obstacles tests writers the most.

What does vo mean in a script?

VO stands for “voice over” in a screenplay, indicating dialogue coming from an off-screen source heard over the scene action. This technique conveys inner thoughts or narrates exposition over visuals unfolding.

What are the three C’s of screenwriting?

The essential three C’s pertain to crafting compelling characters, cunning plots full of causality linking scenes, and containment ensuring consistency staying truthfully within writing rules unique to script format and filmmaking production needs.

Why do most screenplays fail?

They collapse under cliches, dense text, formulaic beats, unbelievable protagonists without substantive change through escalating morally difficult choices, plus endings having deus ex machina cop outs rather than hero validated wins.

What is poor screenplay?

Any script evidencing thin narratives, derivative uninspiring stories filled with stale characters, illogical plots, sermonizing dialogue, plus amateur flaws showcasing writers unaware of screenplay format while ignoring film sequencing needed to manifest their stranded visions.

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