Experts Weigh In: Screenwriters’ Biggest Mistakes 

Mistakes. We all make them. Once some perspective is gained, we tend to look back and shake our heads. If only we knew better. If only someone made us aware.

Perhaps the most common mistake you hear about writers making is including typos and spelling errors in what is supposed to be a clean, finished script. I once heard a major competition organizer say that about half of the scripts submitted are disqualified right off the bat due to formatting errors. But what else? What are the other mistakes that writers regularly make that they could stand to correct?

When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, John Zaozirny, who repped The Black List’s 2016 topper BLOND AMBITION said: “If I am suggesting something and at the other end you are like, ‘no, I’m not going to do that’, I’m not excited about working with you because you don’t seem really open to collaboration. Also, I don’t want to put you in a room with my friends who are executives, my friends who are agents, because you’re probably going to tell them the same thing that you are telling me. Nobody wants to be in the scenario where they’re working with someone who’s not collaborative. Not open to making something better. Who’s closed off. Generally, the more experienced a writer is, the more open they are to collaboration, to ideas coming from anywhere. Let me put it this way: not all amateur writers are closed off to other people’s ideas but most writers who are closed off to people’s ideas are amateurs.”

To take this a step further, I decided to use just that question for my next installment of  EXPERTS WEIGH IN. In my ongoing quest to arm screenwriters everywhere with valuable information, I asked my expert friends in the screenwriting space: What is the biggest mistake that you see writers make, be it career-driven, or related to craft?

Celebrated television writing guru Jen Grisanti, who also instructs for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, told me:One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is that they choose the wrong way in to the story. Their inciting incident or series trigger doesn’t have a personal dilemma that links to the pursuit. Therefore, we don’t feel the emotional impact of what the writer is trying to say.”

Renowned reader Andrew Hilton, who could be found through his site Screenplay Mechanic, had this to share: “Recycling movies writers have already seen is a common misstep.  Some new writers also overwrite their material and cripple their story by weighing down their pages with too much detail and description. Another common pitfall is a failure to reign in the imagination – nobody is going to make a $200m movie from a first-time writer.  If you want to break in, try to write something in a more realistic budget range. If you write a great movie that can be produced for $5m or less, your odds are infinitely better than the writer who tries to craft a big tentpole epic. Many new writers try to prove they can work in every genre. In theory, that sounds like a great idea because you’re proving your versatility.  In reality, it conveys indecision and suggests the writer isn’t sure what genre they’d like to make a career working within. Finally, absorb feedback without taking it personally. If a writer gets defensive of their material and clearly can’t handle criticism, they are very unlikely to succeed.”

Working writer and Script Anatomy founder Tawnya Bhattacharya said: “Writing material they aren’t passionate about because someone else pushed them into it or because they think they can sell it. And sending out material when it isn’t ready. You get one shot to make a good first impression — don’t blow it.” 

Pilar Alessandra of the OnThePage writing studio, as well as the successful podcast by the same name, had this to add: “Thinking the reader (and audience) is dumb.  Readers and audiences want to be challenged. They don’t need to be spoon-fed information or treated as though they’re just a market. They want something they’ve never seen before.”

Danny Manus, who has been reading and consulting on scripts for over a decade, told me: “I’ve seen ’em all. The BIGGEST (other than common typos…grrrr) is hard to say. But I think the most common mistakes made are due to a writer not outlining or truly knowing what their story is about before starting to write. Poorly developed characters, dialogue that isn’t genuine, poor structure, inconsistent tone or pacing, lack of tracking or lack of setups and payoffs – it all comes from not having a strong enough outline to start.”

Reader – and talented writer in his own right – Rob Ripley – kept it simple: “The biggest I see made by most writers is overwriting – too much story (which usually means too little serviceable plot), too many characters, too many ideas.”

Equally simple but powerful were consultant Ruth Atkinson’s two cents: “A weak idea and/or poor execution.” 

Celebrated career coach Carole Kirschner, who also works with Humanitas and the CBS Mentoring Program shared: “Doing a very slow burn… so the elements that grab the reader emotionally – and get them excited — don’t happen for several (or more) pages.”

And finally, Hayley McKenzie, screenwriting consultant extraordinaire who operates across the pond under her shingle Script Angel said: “On the page it’s opening scenes being considered ‘set-up’ so they lack intrigue or fail to raise any dramatic questions. In terms of their career, it’s when writers play to their strengths (which is great) but fail to address their weaknesses. For example writers great at plot consistently writing boring stock characters, or great character-writers writing scenes with no story point.”

The biggest mistake I see writers make builds on what Hayley said: If there is a weakness, in your script, your chops, your presentation or your meeting skills, it’s your job to strengthen it. When you’re being read by people who read scripts for a living, when you’re meeting with executives who meet with dozens of writers every week, don’t allow yourself to believe that your weaknesses are something that you can hide. Instead, work to strengthen, or in the very least compensate for, them. If you’re weak on structure find a class or a consultant that will take you to task. If you are nervous and meek in a room, go try your hand at an improv class. While you will likely always have some things that you do better than others, the goal is to be able to show up, both on the writing and career front, as a smart professional.

Want to check out my previous EXPERTS WEIGH IN post about the First Steps to a Great Screenplay or Pilot script? You can do so here.