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TIPS FROM THE PROS: What's the easiest thing for screenwriters to do wrong?

Professional screenwriters answer the question, "What’s the easiest thing for screenwriters to do wrong, and how can they avoid doing it?"

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What’s the easiest thing for screenwriters to do wrong, and how can they avoid doing it?

Stephanie Allain - Producer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan)

The easiest thing for a screenwriter to do wrong is turn a script in too soon. Making a deadline means nothing if the script isn’t undeniable. Turn it in late rather than still in need of another pass. Examine every line, every word. Read it out loud. Check for story holes and logic problems that can kill the suspension of disbelief. Check for typos! Give it to someone who has never read it. Above all, trust one or two good readers who will challenge you and push you to do your best.

Bruce Feirstein - Screenwriter (Tomorrow Never Dies, The A-Team movie)

There are a lot of things that are all too easy to do wrong: Writing stuff that’s not wholly original (“It’s like Die Hard, but ...”), creating clichéd characters (“This time, the computer geek is a black guy! Think Ving Rhames ...”), or describing scenes that can’t be shot (“He tumbles over the side of the most amazing waterfall ever! Awesome!”). But for me, there are two simple mistakes [that are easy to make]: 1) Not making your lead character proactive. Your hero can’t go through the script just reacting to things. He has to move the action; the audience has to be wondering, “What is he going to do now—or next?” Audiences don’t pay to see reactive characters. The hero has to be the master of his destiny which also helps to attract a star. 2) Forgetting that your scenes have to be about conflict. In any script, on any page, in any scene, you should be able to ask, “Who is the hero? What does he want? What’s preventing him from getting it?” This is a key concern to keep in mind. Even scenes that are primarily about advancing the story or laying out exposition must have an underpinning of conflict. Keeping these two things in mind makes all the difference between a good first draft and a really good second draft. And for all the years I’ve been doing this, I still find myself fixing these two things before I turn in a draft to the studio.

Brian Spink - Literary Manager/Producer (Benderspink)

The most common problem I’ve seen is not writing enough new scripts, meaning that screenwriters continue to try to sell or get representation for the current script they have—they can’t seem to put it to bed. If you’re not getting traction on a script, if you’re sending a logline around and people aren’t asking to read it, then maybe there’s something not appealing about it. I think writers have a tough time, and they’ve worked hard admittedly, but it’s difficult to divorce yourself from a script once you’ve written it. Maybe it’s not the right concept, or it’s not executed well—just keep writing. That’s the one thing writers don’t do. They don’t continue to write new stuff, which they should because they’re only getting better each time. Once you’re five, 10 scripts in, look at the first script, and you’re going to think, “Holy shit, I didn’t know what I was doing.” Look at it as a learning experience. No writer sells every script he writes—it’s nearly impossible. Chalk it up to a learning experience; you became a better writer because of it. It’s like a breakup: It’s tough for the first little bit once you decide to move on, but once you do, you’re better for it.

TIPS FROM THE PROS: What's the easiest thing for screenwriters to do wrong? by Robert Piluso | Script Magazine #scriptchat

LEFT : (Stephanie Allain) CENTER : (Bruce Feirstein) RIGHT : (Brian Spink)

Stephen Susco - Screenwriter (The Grudge films)

A screenwriter can write an idea in a vacuum without being aware of modern cinema, not having seen a lot of movies. Also, not educating themselves on story in general, not watching as many movies as possible, not reading as many books as possible. Another mistake a screenwriter can make is not being collaborative because film is by its nature a collaborative medium.

Antwone Fisher - Screenwriter (Antwone Fisher, ATL)

The easiest thing to do wrong is to write for yourself. You have to always remember that you’re writing for other people. What seems funny to you may not be funny to other people. Like Syd Field said, get some of your closest friends and have them read it, or go and say this line to them and see if they laugh. But it’s hard being alone and writing because you get lost in the sun, and before you know it, you can write a whole bunch of crazy stuff that no one wants to read.

Originally published in Script Magazine September/October 2007

Get more tips on mistakes to avoid in Timothy Cooper's webinar
Don't Write a Script That Sucks: Avoid the Top 25 Mistakes Readers Hate