People tend to give performers the benefit of the doubt. When a new speaker takes to the lectern, when a singer approaches the mic on America’s Got Talent, when a dancer begins their first steps, the natural human reaction is to shut up for a moment and see what they’ve got. The same holds in writing. When I read a script, a flutter of hope invariably cuts through my native cynicism. “Gee, I hope this is good.”
You can count on a modicum of good will from the average reader. Unfortunately, beginners tend to write in a way that burns out that good will almost immediately.
I’ve been experimenting with Youtube Live. My show format is simple, it’s just me and a friend reading screenplays line by line and pointing out the things that confuse us. This is both fun and cathartic for me, because it allows me to illustrate common, simple problems that people tend to make, problems that can sour a reader on even the most promising of stories. Here are five common problems that you should strive to avoid.
ONE. Unorthodox formatting
Some people will tell you that a great script could be written in crayon and still get bought. Those people haven’t thought that scenario all the way through. While a script’s greatness is unaffected by the medium used to write it, if it looks like the work of a lunatic, a reader may be prejudiced against seeing it’s greatness. A writer ought to have a solid enough grasp on what looks “right” so that any breaks from expectation look like intentional artistic flourishes, not moments of ignorance.
A few years ago, there was a version of Celtx were the font looked slightly off. I always winced when I had to read these scripts because I had been burned by experience. There was nothing that precluded a script written in that format from being great, but experience had taught me that scripts with that font were less likely to be any good.
TWO. Egregious spelling/grammar mistakes
I’m really guilty of this one. People tend to be much better at spotting the mistakes of others than their own, as we tend to judge others by what we see from them and ourselves by our intention. I’m actually way more forgiving of spelling mistakes than a lot of people because I’ve spent a lot of time reading the works of writers who are too established to give a shit about the little stuff. Still, try to keep the first ten pages free of mistakes, especially if you lack any other cache. Once the reader is hooked on the story, you can get away with a lot more.
I’m almost positive that I’ve made at least one glaring typo/usage mistake in this very article. It’s a bad look, isn’t it?
THREE. Introducing characters with unfilmables
Unfilmables are bits of scene description that convey information that couldn’t possibly be conveyed without dialogue. The camera can show me someone’s age, race, and physical attributes. It can’t show me that they’re the oldest of sixteen children, that they have just stopped believing in God, or that the young woman with them is their step-sister.
Bad scripts introduce characters like this: JANE (30) enters. She’s the foreman of the company, but she’s off duty today. She’s a snarky, aggressive spitfire who always quotes Raymond Chandler. Today is her birthday. All the camera sees is a woman entering. Everything else will have to be externalized via behavior, well chosen shots, or dialogue.
FOUR. Needless choreography
Choreography is a term I use to mean unnecessary description of common actions. If someone is lying on the couch eating chips, my brain can fill in the blanks. If the script spends a quarter of a page describing exactly how they’re positioned, how they bring the chip to their mouth, there had better be a really good payoff for that information and soon, otherwise I’ll feel like the script has punished me for paying attention and I’ll be tempted to start skimming.
FIVE. Vocabulary and Jargon that requires Wikipedia
When I read a script, it’s like I’ve Quantum Leaped into a new scenario. Some people might catch that reference, and know that I’m refering to a Scott Bakula sci-fi show about a guy who keeps jumping into different people’s bodies in different time periods. Other people won’t, and they’ll be shut out by that analogy unless I go out of my way to explain it.
This is a roundabout way of illustrating that people need context on the openings of scripts. When I start reading, I’m trying to create a working understanding, a who/what/where. I want to be let into an imaginary world, not shut out. If a first page is laden with SAT vocab words, neologisms, or things I can’t picture, I’m probably going to go to Google to look it up. That puts my attention outside your story, where you don’t want it to be.
All these mistakes are easier to avoid by empathizing with the reader. Often we get so eager to tell our stories that we forget someone has to read the damn things. By considering the point of view of other people, it’s becomes easier to avoid these common pitfalls, and more rewarding to make our scripts reader friendly.