Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Most Common Screenwriting Problems

This is my first post in about a month because it's the end of the semester and I've been reviewing so many student screenplays that my eyes are bleeding like poorly placed stigmata. I'm so exhausted that I've even lost the ability to craft a compelling opening sentence.

I thought this might be a good time for me to make a list of the most common problems that I saw in all of this semester's scripts while they're still fresh in my mind. Here's a categorized list:

- Too many ellipses. (Also in descriptions.)
- Using parentheticals to tell the actors how to deliver their lines.
- Having a character say how he's feeling instead of using subtext.
- Meaningless words, such as "uh" or "well" or "anyway."
- Writing about conversations in description, instead of writing the words in dialogue.
- Emphasizing words in dialogue with caps, bold, underline, Italics, etc.
- Expositional or on-the-nose dialogue.

- Following a slug line with dialogue instead of description.
- Putting dates or times in the slug lines instead of in description or dialogue.
- Not writing a new slug line when the action moves to a new location.
- Too many typos.

- Descriptions too wordy.
- Using anything other than active, present-tense verbs.
- Using too many adverbs.
- Writing what the characters are thinking.

- Protagonist doesn't have a clear, tangible external goal.
- Protagonist doesn't have an internal flaw that makes his goal difficult for him to achieve.
- No antagonist.
- No helper character.
- Supporting characters have nothing to do with the central conflict.
- Protagonist not sympathetic.

- Setup: Doesn't establish clear protagonist with an internal flaw that affects his daily life.
- First act: No catalysts that push the protagonist to begin pursuing his external goal, or that aren't effective at doing so.
- Second act: No point of no return event at the mid-point. End of second act low point doesn't relate to protagonist's external goal.
- Third act: No resolution for protagonist's external story and/or internal story. Protagonist doesn't demonstrate any internal growth.

I hope these are helpful!


  1. Excellent list! This goes on my wall by my computer.

    BR/David from Sweden

  2. Another problem I've noticed in many student screenplays is writing in such a way as to assume the audience is telepathic. That is, the writer assumes the audience can read his or her thoughts, giving no information as to how or why things happen within the story. An example is the recent Christmas special for Doctor Who, "The Time of the Doctor". The main character is a time traveling alien with a time ship that is infinitely larger inside due to transdimensional engineering. He lands on a planet with one, tiny farming community of maybe a few dozen individuals. The planet is threatened by war on a massive scale from a multitude of alien invaders come to prevent an event from happening, namely, the Doctor's people returning to the universe from a pocket dimension in which they have been trapped.

    If the Doctor leaves, the aliens will burn the planet. So he stays for centuries, defending the small town from the alien invaders. It is never explained why the Doctor cannot simply have evacuated the town's inhabitants rather than trap himself there for hundreds of years. The writer assumes the audience won't question this. He also assumes the audience will not wonder how a world where the days last only a few minutes at a time can support any sort of farming. Ask the writer and he'll simply dismiss the questions as nitpicking, but these are serious plot holes that really ought to have been addressed.

    1. Yeah, a lot of longstanding shows like this have established a level of expectations with the kind of premises that the audience will and will not accept. In fact, some people would argue that it adds to Dr. Who's kitschy appeal, though I agree with you that it's usually best to avoid this kind of thing.