My Pet Peeves: 8 Technical Screenwriting Mistakes
Often, when we talk about screenplays and TV pilots, we talk about craft. Story. Characters. World. Themes. Plot progression. Story turns. All incredibly important when it comes to building a screenwriting career. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 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. But just as important as understanding the craft of screenwriting, is understanding some of its technical requirements and expectations, because getting the technical details wrong can mean having your screenplay or TV pilot thrown out before it’s even read.
With that in mind, I decided to put together a short list of my pet peeves when it comes to the mechanics of screenwriting. Those things that annoy me and pull me out of a read.
What are those? Let’s dig in!
When you read screenplays and pilots regularly, you become incredibly familiar with what right formatting looks like. People who read with great regularity can tell from a mile away not only if the writer is not using standard software, but also if he is cheating the font or the margins. It’s easy to tell if the pagination is off, or if dialogue columns are too wide. When the writer goes to a font different than the standard, it becomes all the more obvious, and can often result in a page count that would have been different had proper formatting been deployed.
When observing formatting that is visually “off” as soon as I open the screenplay file, a question is raised before I’ve even read the first action line: Why? Why is the screenplay not in the right format? Did the writer not know better? Is he trying to recreate Final Draft in Word (a largely losing proposition for anyone who’s tried)? Is this his first screenplay? Or is he cheating the font or the margins in order to make the story fit within page count standards? Some competitions have gone on record saying that they will toss out a screenplay if it is wrongly formatted. While I don’t go that far, for me these visual indicators do serve as red flag.
Not properly titling your digital script file, or the screenplay/pilot itself
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve downloaded a script to my iPad for future reading, only to then find out that I don’t have complete information about the title of the script or the name of its scribe when I sat down to read it. And it’s incredibly frustrating then going back and trying to hunt those down.
The worse offenders are the ones who have titled their screenplay or pilot file something akin to PILOTOct.4, and failed to include a project title or writer name on the title page, leaving it with the standard dummy data in parentheses (SCRIPT TITLE). In these cases, I have to dig through all of the writers for whom I owe reads, find their emails, and see which one sent me the offending file.
Your file name should always be titled: ProjectTitle_AuthorName or some variation of this.
The title page should clearly identify the title of the screenplay and its author. If we’re talking about a pilot, the title page should include the name of a show, not the name of the individual episode, or the episode number. Until the show is picked up for development, it is a stand-alone pilot. In addition to the writer’s name on the title page, contact information should be included on the title page, such as an email and/or phone number. If someone gets a hold of the script, reads it and responds to the work, they don’t want to then have to go and hunt down the writers’ contact info. If the writers is represented, then the name of the rep and contact number/email is sufficient.
Misusing LATER or CONTINUOUS in sluglines
In John Zaozirny’s PDF of various twitter threads, one complete thread is dedicated to time-of-day distinctions in sluglines. While this thread did become a source of much online argument, I do agree with John, specifically when it comes to the use of – CONTINUOUS and – LATER in time-of-day distinctions. Why? Let me break it down:
Have you ever seen something like these scenes, back to back, with the following sluglines?
EXT. MARY’S HOUSE – DAY
INT. MARY’S HOUSE – CONTINUOUS
Now, if you the initial scene is, say, an establishing shot of EXT. MARY’S HOUSE, you may think that going with – CONTINUOUS when you go inside is a natural choice as the story continues from the outside to the inside but… no. The natural progression of storytelling dictates that whatever comes next is the continuation of the story. Therefore, the distinction of – CONTINUOUS should be reserved for shots that track continuous action, such as a walk-and-talk going from the outside of the restaurant (EXT. JUDY’S DINER – DAY) to the inside of a restaurant (INT. JUDY’S DINER – CONTINUOUS) in what could be a single, uninterrupted shot.
There’s also a bone to pick with the distinction of – LATER as our timeline tracker. Again, the natural progression of any story dictates that, unless a scene is singled out as a FLASHBACK or FLASH FORWARD, or the script plays around with multiple timelines, – LATER is just the natural story progression. However, all too often, I’ve read scripts in which sequences take us from location to location, with the time-of-day identified only as LATER in scene after scene after scene. In such cases, at some point I will usually start backtracking, and examining what the original time of day distinction was (did we start out in DAY or NIGHT? does it make sense for all for the consequent scenes to have happened – LATER? And… once again… why – LATER?) all of which, once again, yanks me right out of the read.
The only time in which I am not bothered by – LATER is when it is used to show time passage within the same location. So we’re in the same place we were in before, but are slugging the scene anew, to identify the passage of time. Note, however, that many professional writers illustrate this passage of time by simply breaking the scene with the word LATER positioned in its own action line to illustrate the passage of time.
Lack of specificity in location identification
Unless you’ve written a single location movie, and for which you’ve created a uniform slugline format (INT. HOUSE/BEDROOM – NIGHT), it’s important that you provide some specificity in your sluglines, in order to give the reader clarity as to the geography of the story. Therefore, if there is a plurality of characters and locations in your screenplay or pilot, each should be distinct from the other, you can have LAURIE’S HOUSE or SMITH HOUSE, in a manner that allows us to quickly follow where you are taking the reader. The same is true for restaurants, streets, etc. You only need to establish them once, but every time they appear after, we should have no question about which location it is based on the slugline.
Not properly introducing characters
Whether you’re a lover of elaborate, witty character descriptions, or prefer to go for simpler identifiers such as age and general character descriptors, the first time a character appears on the page in a screenplay or pilot they should be introduced with their name in ALL CAPS, as well as, in the very least, their age/age-range and a broad description. The exception is when you meet a character that will only be present for one or two scenes and does not have a name, in which case they can be introduced (still in all caps) with a broader BITTER COP or ANNOYED RECEPTIONIST that gives us an idea about their characters without eating up too much real estate.
When it comes to those central characters, for me, it doesn’t matter if the character is blond or brunette, if they are tall or short, unless their physicality has significance for the story. I care more about their essence, about who they are, rather than how they look, unless looks have bearings on character and story. And that’s what I’m looking to find on the page. If you just introduce KELLY and tell me nothing else about her, I don’t know whether she’s 15 or 75, a powerhouse or one of life’s more pathetic creatures, and the absence of that knowledge is going to impact the read in that it will force me to make some wrong assumptions, which I will have to then correct and adjust throughout the read as I figure it out.
If you don’t properly introduce KELLY the first time she appears on the page, but instead bypass the all caps and just keep going without any indicators that this is my first introduction to this character, you are likely to halt my read entirely. Instead of continuing on with the flow of the script, I will stop and backtrack. Who’s Kelly? Have I met her before? What page/scene/part of the story did she appear in? Not properly introducing your characters on the page is a great way to pull the reader right out of the story.
Not sure what your character descriptions should look like? Check out this great blogpost highlighting the 25 Most Iconic Character Descriptions in Film History.
Including scene numbers in a non-shooting script
When I interviewed Heroes & Villains manager Chris Coggins for my book, Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches, she told me:
“I really hate when writers put in scene numbers. It’s not a shooting script. You do not have your greenlight. This is not scene 23, this is page 12. Like… unless you have a greenlight. Unless this is your shooting draft—your white draft—leave out scene numbers.”
I don’t disagree. Scene numbers belong in a screenplay draft that is barreling towards principle photography, not in a spec screenplay or pilot.
Starting an action line with “We see”
As a rule, almost anything included in an action line should be something visual, that we can see. Therefore, “We see” is redundant, and takes us out of the storytelling. If you feel you must use something sort of guiding indication, instead use FIND. Just my preference.
Submitting unread drafts
Recently, a writer sent me a draft of a screenplay and… something wonky started happening in the third act. Action lines were formatted as dialogue. In a number of different sequences. Making the third act look like a bit of a mess, and the writer’s choices confounding.
Once I spoke to the writer, what happened became abundantly clear: When converting the screenplay from one format to another, some action lines, which began with a character name in order to direct our mind’s eye effectively within the action, converted as dialogue sequences, rather than narrative action. But, unfortunately, during the read itself, this took me completely out of the narrative as I tried to figure out what the writer was doing.
Things like this do happen. Which is why it is that much more important to be sure to go over any draft that you are submitting after file transfers or conversions, to make sure that everything is showing up as you intended.
Awesome article! What did you mean by FIND? I’m not familiar with that term in this context.
Think of it as something like this:
FIND Maggie, standing on the seashore, staring at the ocean…
Good advice. Having read several scripts written by other people I really struggle to get into a script that is badly formatted or has multiple spelling errors. Some mistakes can be tolerated but if you are pitching to an agent it should be squeaky clean and precise. Go online and look at some badly written scripts then avoid doing the same.