According to The Scriptlab, the most important character in your screenplay is your protagonist: your hero. Without them, there is no story. Good stories are about character growth and change.
1) CREATE AN INTERESTING PROTAGONIST YOUR AUDIENCE WILL HOPE AND FEAR FOR
When creating your hero, audience connection is key. Your hero needs to be an interesting somebody who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it, and also a somebody that the audience cares about – somebody they hope will obtain the main objective but fear the goal will be thwarted – by external forces or by the hero him/herself.
2) SYMPATHY VS. EMPATHY
Creating a hero that we feel sympathetic toward is a huge help. It’s almost impossible not to care if we feel sorry for someone else’s misfortune, not to mention that sympathy often equates to likability – and a likeable hero is easy to hope…
I still consider myself an amateur, so don’t think this is coming from some place of superiority. But I’ve helped lots of screenwriters with less writing experience than me and I see a lot of the same mistakes crop up time and time again.
So seeing that lists rule, here’s my personal list of the top ten mistakes made by amateur screenwriters (in no particular order, other than # 1):
1). Bad Formatting
I put this very first because it’s the one I see the most and it’s SO important to have proper formatting if you’re going to submit to a production company or a contest. My most popular screenwriting service is editing/formatting fixes for a reason. No reader worth their salt will bother going past the first 5 pages if the formatting is crap. With the availability of free screenwriting programs such as Trelby or Celtx, there’s really no excuse. I’ve used both of the aforementioned programs and prefer Trelby for it’s simplicity and compatibility with the industry standard Final Draft.
2). Writing For A Big Budget
Hey I’m not telling you to NOT write that 200 page, 500 million blockbuster with Will Smith and Brad Pitt fighting off aliens from the planet Oprah. But the odds of that being sold over a small, 90-page, indie-minded script that could be made for under a million are slimmer than Eminem circa 1999. As a new screenwriter, doesn’t it make more sense to write something with few characters and locations thus making it more appealing to a production company? Exactly. I mean it worked out for that guy that wrote a little film about dogs and a reservoir ( 😛 ). So there’s no need to create more roadblocks than there already are to your screenwriting success.
3). Not Asking For Feedback
In order to know you’re on the “write” track (see what I did there?) you need to get feedback on your writing. Whether it’s your mom or a professional service of some sort it helps to get notes to know what’s working and what’s not when it’s time to tackle the dreaded re-write. Just be sure to wait until you’re finished a first draft before you start shelling out the bling if you decide to go the pro service route. Which leads me to my next point…
4). Asking For Feedback Too Soon
You’d be surprised how many writers have contacted me with messages like “I just wrote the first 5 pages of my script can you give me notes?” As much as I’d like to take some poor sap’s money I have this annoying little thing called a conscience. So I usually reply telling them to at least write a first draft before paying someone for notes.
5). Not Learning The Craft
It amazes me how so many new writers just start writing a screenplay without knowing anything about it. While I admire their gumption (finally found a reason to use that word!) they should at least do some research before writing FADE IN. When I finally made the decision a few years ago to take screenwriting seriously, I went online and read articles, joined forums, listened to podcasts and eventually took the writing program at Vancouver Film School. And it turned out I already knew a lot just from things I learned on my own. While some of my fellow classmates hadn’t even read a screenplay before! I’m not saying you need to go into debt like I did to learn the craft, but a least read a couple screenplays before you start.
6). Unoriginal Stories
Coming up with new and original screenplay ideas is hard these days. It seems like everything’s been done. And it’s not like Hollywood is bursting with new ideas either. But that doesn’t mean you should be lazy with your story. You just have to take something that’s already been done and put a new spin on it, like what Evan Daugherty did with Snow White And The Huntsman. Sure the movie didn’t turn out to change the face of cinema, but it did result in Daugherty’s scoring a 3.2 million payday. It could also be worth your time to check out public domain stories that could be adapted for the big (or small) screen.
7). Cliched & On-The-Nose Dialog
There’s no way around it: your dialog has to be exceptional to make any kind of impression these days. So it’s surprising to still be reading scripts with bland and cliched dialog. Here’s a tip: say it out loud after you write it. If it sounds bad, it’s ’cause it is. Or better yet, get some friends together for a table read. And check out Scott Meyers from Go Into The Story’s awesome “Definitive List Of Cliched Dialog” post. It’s a great read. And if you’re unsure what on-the-nose dialog is, then you’re probably guilty of it.
8). Thinking Their Script Is The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
Okay maybe your “Chinatown” meets “The Matrix” screenplay will start a balls-out bidding war, or maybe it’s a pile of crap. It’s hard to not toot your own horn when it comes to your own writing, I’m totally guilty of it myself. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people post on a forum saying their script is so amazing and “there’s no way this won’t sell” only to read it to see they can’t even format properly (Can you tell I’m a formatting Nazi?). Being objective about your own work ain’t easy, which is why getting feedback is so important.
9). Breaking The Rules & Not Following Structure
This kind of goes back to point #5, but structure is it’s own beast. I’m not a fan of rules myself but structure was the BIGGEST thing I learned in film school that completely changed (and drastically improved) my writing. The basic three-act structure of a screenplay isn’t hard to learn; it’s a tried and true method to writing one for a reason. Sure you might hear other writers say that adhering too strictly to it is “ruining screenwriting” and blah, blah, but you must learn the rules before you can break them.
10). More Interested In Selling Than Writing
The number one question I see asked by amateurs on forums and groups is “How do I sell my screenplay?” And I can bet more than half of these people haven’t even started writing a thing, yet they’re already asking how they can make money off it. It’s like they think screenwriting is some get rich quick scheme where you simply write it, sell it, then BOOM, you’re a millionaire. This is the wrong attitude right out of the gate. Yes, screenwriting is absolutely a business, but if money is your ultimate goal then you’ve already set yourself up for a huge disappointment.
Here’s hoping I haven’t totally crushed your dreams.
From Brooks to Beaufoy, here are 35 quotes about screenwriting from exemplary Hollywood screenwriters:
“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.” – Steven Spielberg
“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.” – Alfred Hitchcock
“Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.” – Billy Wilder
“Everything starts with writing. And then to support your vision, your ideas, your philosophy, your jokes, whatever, you’ve gotta perform them and/or direct them, or sometimes just produce them.” – Mel Brooks
“Scripts are what matter. If you get the foundations right and then you get the right ingredients on top, you stand a shot… but if you get those foundations wrong, then you absolutely don’t stand a shot. It’s very rare–almost never–that a good film gets made from a bad screenplay.” – Tim Bevan
“[Making movies is] 80% script and 20% getting great actors. There’s nothing else to it.” – William Wyler
“I don’t think screenwriting is therapeutic. It’s actually really, really hard for me. It’s not an enjoyable process.” – Charlie Kaufman
“If the script’s good, everything you need is in there. I just try and feel it, and do it honestly.” – Olivia Coleman
“What has always been at the heart of film making was the value of a script. It was really the writer who could make or break a film.” – Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
“For any role, I pretty much always go to the script, first and foremost.” – Jessica Raine
“The script is what you’ve dreamed up–this is what it should be. The film is what you end up with.” – George Lucas
“There is no point in having sharp images when you’ve fuzzy ideas.” – Jean-Luc Godard
“Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit and go back and smooth things out.” – Paul Thomas Anderson
“It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” – George Clooney
“If you put someone in a room with no script to direct, they’re just going to sit there. Writing scripts is the execution for a show. Then the director takes that and hires people. It’s like trying to build a house without any bricks. You need a great script.” – John Patrick Shanley
“You can dress it up, but it comes down to the fact that a movie is only as good as its script.” – Curtis Hanson
“Ensure that your script is watertight. If it’s not on the page, it will never magically appear on the screen.” – Richard E. Grant
“Give me a good script, and I’ll be a hundred times better as a director.” – George Cukor
“The key is – don’t monkey around with the script. Then everything usually goes pretty well.” – Steven Soderbergh
“You can’t fix a bad script after you start shooting. The problems on the page only get bigger as they move to the big screen.” – Howard Hawks
“I see screenwriting as a bit like a math equation which I have to solve.” – Asghar Farhadi
“Big budget movies can have big budget perks, and small budget movies have no perks, but what the driving force is, of course, is the script”. – Morgan Freeman
“There’s nothing more important in making movies than the screenplay.” – Richard Attenborough
“I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters.” – David Lean
“The script, I always believe, is the foundation of everything.” – Ewan McGregor
“I have always credited the writer of the original material above the title: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. I felt that I didn’t have the right to Francis Coppola’s anything unless I had written the story and the screenplay.” – Francis Ford Coppola
“I feel I do my best work when it’s all there on the page, and I feel that the character is very vivid as I read the script and I’m not having to create stuff and trying to cobble together something. If I have to do that, then I don’t entirely trust what I’m doing.” – Guy Pearce
“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.” – Sydney Pollack
“There are three things that are important for a film. Number one is story, number two is story, number three is story. Good actors can save a bad script and make it bearable, but good actors can’t make a bad script good – they can just make it bearable.” – Mark Strickson
“It’s always the story that interests me.” – Vincente Minnelli
“If you have someone on set for the hair, why would you not have someone for the words?” – Louis Malle
“The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.” – Raymond Chandler
“Once you crack the script, everything else follows.” – Ridley Scott
“I’m very lucky. I actually like screenwriting. I rarely feel a sense of doom going to my desk.” – Simon Beaufoy
“Screenwriting is the most prized of all the cinematic arts. Actually, it isn’t, but it should be.” – Hugh Laurie