Experts Weigh In: 10 Crucial Screenwriting Mistakes

Experts Weigh In: 10 Crucial Screenwriting Mistakes

Lee Jessup, a member of our screenwriting faculty at the upcoming Willamette Writer’s Conference and the author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches and Getting It Write: An Insider’s
Guide To A Screenwriting Career shares how to avoid ten screenwriting mistakes.

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Experts Weigh In: 10 Crucial Screenwriting Mistakes

If there is one inarguable truth when it comes to building a screenwriting career, it’s this: The first step
to becoming a working screenwriting professional is delivering on the page, which makes the stress of
getting it just right all the more intense. In order to figure out what you need to do to get it right, you
need to understand what not to do, as well. Therefore, I turned to some of my brilliant, generous
screenwriting expert friends and asked:

What are some of the mistakes that any screenwriter may make on the page that a screenplay or pilot,
no matter how promising, would not be able to recover from?

Here are 10 crucial screenwriting mistakes that you should avoid if you can:

Number One

Screenwriting consultant extraordinaire and On The Page maven Pilar Alessandra kept it simple: “(At all costs, avoid) sexual
violence as the way the protagonist teaches another character “a lesson.” (Yes, I’ve read that … more
than once).”

Number Two

Leading TV writing consultant, my good friend Jen Grisanti said: “The mistake that the writer makes that
they can’t recover from is having a weak setup. If the writer fails to define a clear goal and we don’t
know what the character wants and why they want it, the story fails. When the goal is clear, the actions,
obstacles, and stakes link back to it. When the goal is undefined, there is nothing for these story points to
link back to and this creates a story with no momentum.”

Number Three

Carole Kirschner, author of HOLLYWOOD GAME PLAN, career consultant and the woman overseeing
both the CBS mentoring program and the Humanitas New Voices Prize for fresh voices shared: “This may
sound petty, but incorrect formatting and lots of typos/mispellings. It shouts out ‘beginner!’”

Number Four

Andrew Hilton, one of the industry’s most sought-after readers, agreed with what Carole said and took it
further: “Don’t mess with the format. Prove you can write brilliantly within the constraints of the
industry format first. Then, if you succeed in doing so, you might enjoy more freedom to mess with the
accepted style. Don’t write about writers or behind the scenes of the business. Producers don’t want to
explore that world. Don’t turn your audience against your hero. If the protagonist does something the
audience hates or can’t condone, that will almost certainly undercut the whole movie. Take David Ayer’s
SABOTAGE – we hate all of the characters and the story never recovers.”

Number Five

Tawnya Bhattacharya, the woman behind my favorite LA-based TV writing program (which also offers
online classes), Script Anatomy, and talented working writer in her own right, agreed with Carole and
Andrew on types, and also added: “I suppose it depends on the reader and their pet peeves. Some will
toss a script for typos, whereas others may be more tolerant. I know that I’m out when I’m confused and
can’t follow the story and have to keep rereading something to make sense of it, or when I don’t buy a
character doing a particular thing… but the list goes on really, because writing is a craft. You know, in his
book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell said something like (and I am paraphrasing here) a single catastrophic
event, like a plane crash, occurs not because of one major error, but rather out of an accumulation of
many small missteps. The typical flight disaster involves seven consecutive errors. Personally, I think it
takes even fewer mistakes to create a disastrous script.”

Number Six

No Bull Script Consulting’s Danny Manus, who also worked as a highly regarded Development Executive
told me that the one mistake a screenplay can’t recover from is: “A bad idea. And not having an ear for
dialogue. With the latter, the script could recover but only if resuscitated by a different writer. But the
larger mistake that scripts can’t recover from is a writer’s refusal to make changes and be collaborative.
Without that, your script’s dead in the water no matter what’s on the page.”

Number Seven

Another of my favorite readers, Robert Ripley, who is also a talented writer and a contest winner in his
own right, said: “For my two cents the single non-recoverable mistake is to use the ‘only put on the
page what the camera sees’ as dogma and forgetting about the reader. A reading draft isn’t a movie or
TV show yet, so there are key moments that need to read in a way that helps us piece things together.”

Number Eight

Hayley McKenzie, a former UK-based development executive and now the owner of UK-based script
consulting service Script Angel told me: “There are mistakes that put you off (sloppy writing, a script
littered with typos which shows a lack of attention and care) and as a reader you might pass on the
script, but as a coach you can help a writer get themselves out of almost any mistake. As a script editor
with over twenty years’ experience in development and production, I’ve seen many unpromising first
drafts turn into brilliant polished shooting scripts. With the right help and guidance, and enough effort
by the writer, almost anything can be rescued.”

Number Nine

And finally, script consultant Ruth Atkinson, who works with both the Sundance Labs and Film
Independent, said: “It’s pretty essential that a script have proper format because then as a reader I can
relax and just pay attention to the story (which is hopefully hooking me emotionally). If the script has a
lot of errors (typos, grammar, improper slug lines or character intros, confusing description) I’m going to
have to work really hard to visualize the story in my mind’s eye and that’s just going to take me out and
frustrate me. So rather than engaging in the narrative I’m lost in the format which means it’s unlikely
the script is going to work successfully.”

Number Ten

As for me … can I say what they said? And I will also add that one thing that takes me out of the
script and is pretty unforgivable is poor research. If I know your subject matter, the world, the history of
the world, or the mechanics or devices or technology used in it better than the writer does (and, for the
record, I am not that smart!), that takes me right out of the script. The writer should always, ALWAYS be
the authority about what they are writing, so they should do the research, understand the arena within
which the story is set, and know how things work better than the rest of us. So get that right, along with
spelling, characters, a winning idea that starts with a fantastic set-up, and of course, all set in the proper
format, and you are on your way to writing a screenplay that’s undeniable.

For more ideas from Lee, check out her blog. Lee will be teaching two sessions, Landing Representation in Film and Television and The Business of Screenwriting at the upcoming Willamette Writers conference this August
3rd through the 5th. Join us!