Hi Film Folk,
This week’s Film Doctor Monday Prescription is a continuation of a popular article we ran a couple of week’s back: ‘5 Jobs a Screenwriter Must Do – with examples from Awards Season Screenplays’
This week we focus on 5 things you should NOT do in a screenplay.
Now obviously, the Film Doctor team can not disclose the private specific mistakes made in the various screenplays we have read over the years but we are going to share common flaws that crop up time and time again. We’re skipping spelling and grammar here but there are countless mistakes in many of the screenplays we read so please do check them over with a friend/relative/colleague if you’re not sure. No excuses.
Now here are some flaws you should avoid at all cost!
1. Direct. Yes important camera angles and edits can (and sometimes should) be in a screenplay. It can offer added weight to a scene and further allow the reader to picture everything. The emphasis, however, is on the word important. The scene descriptions and cuts must be motivated and only included if they add to the scene. If they do not reinforce the theme/comedy/suspense – and we mean REALLY reinforce it – then keep it simple and let the story flow!
2. Assume. Another mistake many fledgling writers make (often of the writer/director kind). In contrast to number 1. the writer assumes the reader can see into their head and does not provide adequate description (not in volume of words but in usage). Therefore, what should have been ‘Jim, cautious, tip-toes into the barn. It’s dark’ ends up being ‘Jim walks into a building’. Make sure you’re using those words as precisely as a sniper. Your job is to make people picture things!
3. Tell the reader what the character’s thinking – Your characters should be established by his/her actions/inactions and dialogue. There should not be passages such as ‘Susan thinks she can do this but isn’t sure but she remembers about her small triumph earlier, thinks of her Dad and goes for it’. This thought process would be impossible to see on screen, unless you used FLASHBACK TO: which would allow us to see what Susan is thinking of. You can show character thought but it must be through a tangible facial expression or action that WILL be able to be portrayed on screen. We’re not writing novels here!
4. Distract from the story – This should go without saying but many a screenplay have scenes or characters that are completely extraneous. Yes, it might make for a good scene or the dialogue may sizzle but if it isn’t relevant to the overall story progression then the words ‘Kill Your Darlings’ should definitely come into play!
5. Not think about the market/your circumstances – This really should be number 1 in your mind before embarking on a screenplay. How many films in this genre are there? How large is the budget for those films? How big is the audience? Are those film always based on pre-existing material (graphic novels, books)? If you’re taking the time to write a 90-120 page screenplay then you MUST make sure work like yours is being produced or is in demand. Even if you’re a writer/director with all of the resources to shoot without breaking the bank, you may still not find distribution if you don’t peruse the market beforehand.
Also worth thinking about is what are your circumstances? Who do you know? What are you known for? Use your situation to your advantage.
NB/ There are, of course, exceptions to the above. Perhaps your screenplay will not be seen by anybody else as you animate it or shoot between two locations with friends. Perhaps there is a certain style or genre you’re trying to fulfil which involves deliberately going against some of these points (Before Sunrise could be argued to just be all dialogue but it is a deliberate, if still niche, style). The key is to KNOW what you need and what you want and what the industry needs before you rush in, not to brush off questions with excuses because it suits you that way. Seriously, you have to KNOW. Good luck!