Typing Faster

October 26, 2009

13 Things Bad Screenwriters Commonly Do (That You Shouldn’t)

Filed under: Craft — petertypingfaster @ 5:00 am

Courtesy of Brad Schreiber over at Filmmaker IQ comes 13 Things Bad Screenwriters Commonly Do. Brad’s a former development exec, and judging from my own experience in the development trenches, he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

So what’s on his list?

  1. Wrong Format Slug Lines – Personally I’d add improper formatting period, but slug lines are a good place to start.
  2. Overly Detailed Character Descriptions – Just give us the bare bones, enough to give us the flavor of a character. We don’t need all the details, especially because your Mulatto midget with a lisp is probably going to get changed in casting.
  3. Too Much or Too Little Detail in Narrative – This is a Goldilocks problem, you need to get it just right. Don’t give us so much that the read crawls to a halt. Don’t give us so little that we miss action that’s important to the story.
  4. Narrative That Won’t Read on Film – Don’t write things that you can’t film. I don’t care what your character’s thinking. Thoughts don’t translate. Give us things that we can see.
  5. Back-to-back Scenes in the Same Location – I’d say this one is more personal preference than anything else, but, if possible, figure out a way to show the passage of time creatively.
  6. Deus Ex Machina – Just don’t do it. Please.
  7. Clichéd Dialogue – Try to come up with something new and exciting. It’s why we got into the business, right?
  8. Camera Angles, Music Cues, etc – Don’t direct the director. You’re just going to piss him off, and it makes you look like an amateur. And besides, there are ways you can imply camera angles without actually using them. Do that instead.
  9. Lumpy Exposition – If you’re going to lay pipe, then try to disguise it as something else. Stick it into the middle of an argument between two characters. In an action sequence. Have it come from an unreliable narrator. Do something interesting with it to bring it to life.
  10. “Ho-hum” Reaction To Death, Injury – Again I think there’s a little personal preference in this one, especially considering how dependent it is on genre. If you’re writing a comedy, or an action movie then you’ve got some leeway. If you’re shooting for a degree of reality then it better feel real.
  11. Poor Creation of Tension and Motivation – Things have to be logical. They have to build. You can’t just have two characters getting along, and then all of a sudden they’re at each others throats. There has to be a reason for it, even if you don’t reveal the reason until later. It has to make sense.
  12. Unreal Action – Action in your screenplay has to have an internal consistency. You can’t tell a story in the real world, then all of a sudden everyone can fly. It has to be logical.
  13. Show Don’t Tell – Film is a visual medium, never forget it.

It’s a pretty good set of rules to live by. Take a stroll through your own writing and make sure you’re not committing any faux-pas.



  1. Gotta disagree COMPLETELY on number 4. Part of your job as a writer is to paint the picture for the reader any way you can. Just because something can’t be shot (Like a well placed ‘Oh shit’ to help the reader feel your char’s reaction) can do wonders for the reader. As always, new writers should read actual produced scripts and see how the tricks work. Nothing against dev people, of course, but they’re one tiny part of the machine, and aren’t nec looking for the same things prods are. Bottom line: make your script as un-put-downable as possible, any way you can.

    Comment by Adam Barken — October 26, 2009 @ 8:18 am

    • That’s a good point. I’ve got no problem with the occasional unfilmable. Every now and then that’s exactly what you need to kick your script onto another level. But I do think that they should be used sparingly. They should be the spice, not the meat, of the dish (can you tell I’m watching Top Chef as I write this?). If all the description in a script is “You could tell by his face that he was thinking of Paris,” it’s going to be problematic.

      Comment by petertypingfaster — October 26, 2009 @ 10:16 am

  2. Gotta flag #5. More often than not I use it in regards to #8. Totally a grey area.

    Comment by jabberwock — October 26, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

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