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:

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

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.”

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!’”

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.”

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 the 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.” 

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

As for me… Can I say what they said? And I will also add to 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.