I have written three screenplays in the last eighteen months, and I’m in the early stages of outlining a fourth. I did a lot of good work in these scripts, especially when it came to pacing, character development, and third act twists.
But I also made a ton of mistakes. One of the three scripts I definitely screwed up on big time. And the other two have their share of flaws, no doubt about it.
It’s easy to read books and articles about how to make your screenplays great… but here’s a piece that discusses the five sure-fire ways to screw your screenplay up.
There are basic ways to mess up your screenplay. Wrongly formatted cover page. Amateur scene headers. Misspellings. Typos everywhere. Things like that.
But on a more macro level, here are five easy ways to make your screenplay suck!
1. Too much description.
Description is a great addition to novel writing, short story writing. Description opens up the world of your story and offers the reader countless images of how to picture every scene.
When it comes to screenwriting, however, description, for the most part, is unnecessary.
A little bit of description can go a long way, telling the reader just enough to get across what a character looks like or what a setting looks like.
It’s when you overload your screenplay with description that the suck factor comes in. Do not — I repeat, do not — treat a screenplay like a novel. Don’t fill up an entire page with description! You’re going to lose your readers fast because they’ll recognize you don’t know what you’re doing.
There should be lots and lots of white space in your screenplays, not huge blocks of text.
2. Scenes that go on too long.
The general rule of a scene in a screenplay is two to three pages. You can go a little shorter than two pages, and sometimes a scene simply have to go on to a fourth page, sometimes even a fifth page.
But for the most part, if every scene you’re writing in your script goes on to seven pages, something is wrong. Remember it this way: one page of a screenplay is on average one scene in a movie.
Think about the last movie you watched: were there a ton of seven minute scenes?
Of course not. Most of the scenes were on average two to three minutes in length, and outside of a few exceptions, this is the length you always want to meet.
When you’re Quentin Tarantino, then sure, write a ten-page scene of dialogue. Write a fifteen-page scene!
But if you’re a newbie, try to stick to the golden rule of two to three pages and not ruin your chances of success by writing too long of scenes.
3. Characters without personality or goals.
This is another big one. I feel like some readers will be able to withstand your excessive description or your scenes that go on too long if you’ve written characters with strong personalities and clear goals.
But if your characters, especially your protagonist, are flat on the page, offer nothing unique or interesting, and don’t have strong goals and motivations from the beginning of your screenplay? Forget about it.
You must create wholly original characters, and yes, that includes your supporting characters.
You can’t go all in on your protagonist, making him or her super well defined, with a goal that makes sense, but then offer ten supporting characters that are all one-dimensional caricatures.
Do the work on your characters before you start the first draft. Make sure they’re all extremely well-defined.
4. Not enough conflict.
Yet another biggie. Without conflict, there’s no movie. Without conflict, the reader will put down the screenplay. Without conflict, you might as well not even get started on the screenplay.
Can you think of a movie you recently saw and enjoyed that had little or no conflict? Probably not.
Conflict and raising stakes are what make movies fun to watch.
Whenever conflict begins in a movie is when most of the audiences gets involved and wants to see for the next hour or longer just how that central conflict is going to be resolved.
Go big with your screenplay’s conflict, never go small. If there’s not enough conflict, your screenplay will be dead on arrival.
5. A weak ending.
The last way to truly increase the suck factor of your screenplay is delivering a weak ending. An implausible ending. A rushed ending. A stupid ending.
Any of the above, really. What’s the classic saying of a movie? “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” Another saying that might not be classic but you should still pay attention?
“Disappoint them in the end, and you’ve got a flop.”
It’s so true, sadly enough. A movie can be working great for 90% of the running time, but if the end doesn’t deliver, audience members won’t tell their friends to see it.
And if the end doesn’t deliver in your screenplay, the important readers won’t pass it on to more important readers.
It’s stressful, I know, but put a lot of thought and effort into your ending, and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make it better.
Have some friends look at it. Give it to writers you trust and await their feedback.
You’re competing with thousands of other screenwriters out there. Make sure you do everything you can to write a great script, and avoid the suck factor.