Common Mistakes in Beginner Scripts

Over the years, I’ve noticed some trends in beginner scripts, and I’ve seen some of the same problems again and again. Here are some archetypal weak scripts.

1. The Combover

This is a script that lacks a true second act. If the premise is werewolf cop, the cop won’t become a werewolf until midpoint.

Writing eight vivid, high concept sequences that fully utilize a premise is hard work, it’s much easier to write stalls and dialogue. These scripts communicate poorly because they show a lack of faith in the idea they’re selling. It’s like a combover – a doomed attempt to hide a lack of content.

SOLUTION: Condense the first 50 pages to the first 25. Write 4-8 dynamite ideas that stem from premise and reflect an understanding of genre and make sure they’re actively explored in the second act.

2. Too much World Building

Combover scripts tend to be a underimagined. These scripts are vividly imagined, but in the wrong direction. If the premise is werewolf cop, there will be 50 pages about the origins of werewolves, the politics of werewolves, the need for the masquerade, and the sixteen types of werewolves, but few coherent action sequences.

Writers of these tend to be nerds who found comfort in vivid worlds during unhappy childhoods (1). They’re writing to create a world of their own, but their early drafts are more about showing off the world than they are about using them to entertain others.

SOLUTION: Tell the story in one page in a different setting. That will shake the story loose from the setting and show the universal, archetypal base at the core.

3. Affable Chatter

These scripts are written by people with an ear for dialogue, who know it and lean on it. Like an athlete coasting on athletic ability, these scripts coast on an ability to write pleasing dialogue at the cost of actual jokes or dramatic content.

These scripts tend to be glib, readable, but thin. Often times, they suffer from a certain reluctance to put the characters in any real pain, which is great for life but death for drama.

SOLUTION: Make the protagonist sweat. Start him in a comfort zone and then make him suffer and change. Find out what would really make him suffer, then do it to him. The gift of gab is an armor, take it away so he has to earn it back.

4. Hopeless Romance

These scripts tend to be written by the lonely. They’re romantic movies where the girl is the girl ends up being the stakes (there are female driven and gay versions of this archetype, but not nearly as many). These tend to reflect a lack of practical experience dating.

Making the girl the stakes makes the main character seem weak and dippy and tends to make the woman feel like a trophy to be earned.

SOLUTION: Give the main character a goal that isn’t tied to the love interest. Then the story gains frisson based on how the love interest complicates the pursuit of the main goal.

5. Glorified short

These tend to be stories that could be told as a 3 minute music videos that have been stretched out to feature length, because, let’s face it, screenwriting is a lottery business. These tend to have a lot of filler, a lot of talking about the action.

SOLUTION: If you suspect that you might have this problem, try writing a 10-20 page short version of your script. If you don’t miss anything about it, just make that short.

6. Artistic to a fault

These scripts are written by the kinds of people who write off all screenwriting books as worthless hackery. They tend to be atmospheric, narratively loose, and marked by dream sequences and cinematic homages.

These scripts reflect an admirable contempt for convention and a nice courage, but often fail to fully communicate what’s in the writer’s heads. It’s hard to note these because the authors often will take any whiff of the familiar to mean “make it hacky.”

SOLUTION: Be clear. Articulate exactly what you want to say and ask yourself if that’s being conveyed. If it’s not, make it so. If it is, but most people are turned off by it, consider how it makes you feel.

7. Fill in the Blanks

The opposite of the previous. These are scripts that are blatantly written in SAVE THE CAT/HERO’S JOURNEY beats. The problem is, they lack the fun scenic moments to obscure the bones.

Beginning writers often mistake the ability to frame a story in conventional beats with being entertaining. These scripts have the structure, but they lack any sense of poetry, or even lowbrow fun.

SOLUTION: If you can write one of these, you’ve internalized the structure, now it’s time to stop leaning on it. Write something more organic and find the structure after the fact.

(1) I get more flack from this line than almost anything I’ve written. I’m tempted to redact it, but it’s honest, and as a nerd who found comfort in vivid worlds during my unhappy childhood, I’m claiming N word privileges here.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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