What Not to Write

Written by: Ellin Stein
Published: Feb 11, 2009

Between working one-on-one with writers as a script consultant and working in the development departments of off-Hollywood companies like Miramax and Zoetrope, I've read quite a few scripts. While their virtues are all different, the same mistakes come up over and over again.

This list will probably be familiar ground to anyone who's ever taken a screenwriting course and these problems obviously occur most often in scripts by inexperienced writers. But not always - you'd be surprised how often they turn up in scripts submitted by top agents.

Reading a script is a bit like getting in a car with an unfamiliar driver. If you set off smoothly and the driver seems to know what he or she is doing, you'll relax and enjoy the ride. But if within five minutes the car stalls out, you're thrown forward by sudden braking, and the driver swerves to escape a collision, you're going to stay tense through the whole trip. As a writer, you want to encourage the perception that you are in full control of your medium so the reader assumes you know what you're doing and stays receptive. I don't believe in prescriptive formulas for screenwriting, and I hope anyone reading this will remember rules were meant to be broken, but avoiding these common pitfalls will encourage the reader to approach your script in a state of expectation, as opposed to dread.

1) NO LOOKING, NO NODDING, NO ENTERING, NO EXITING. Many writers don't bother to hone the interstitial business, the paragraphs between dialogue. In fact, every word you write is a chance to show the reader you can create dramatically compelling narrative that pulls us into the story and makes us want to keep reading. Don't use the business to describe meaningless action like walking or glancing, unless it reveals character or sets up a significant development to come. Nodding does not reveal character - give the character a line so we know why they're agreeing. Similarly, why tell us someone enters? If they speak in a scene, they're obviously there. On the other hand, "John enters the room, unaware that his coat is on fire," will keep us reading.

2) DON'T SOUND LIKE A MEMO. A variation on the above. Make sure your writing in the interstitial paragraphs is involving. So, "as John comes into the living room, everyone else falls silent. He opens the closet door, then steps back in horror - there's a moldering body inside" is fine. "John enters. He walks over to the closet and opens the door. He notices a body inside" while accurate, will send us to sleep.

3) DON'T BE TOO FLOWERY. At the same time, don't try to be overly poetic or "literary", like this line I'll always remember for the wrong reasons (from a script sent in by a big agency): "the moon chases its orbit across the sky." You want to set the scene without being overly descriptive but at the same time give us any significant or telling detail. Show your talent for dramatization by describing characters and scenes in pithy, vivid prose.

4) NO TREADING WATER LINES. Like the interstitial paragraphs, dialogue must pull off the trick of sounding naturalistic while in fact being highly crafted. But it's possible for dialogue to be too naturalistic. You have very little room to tell your story, so every line needs to count. Make sure it needs to be said, and at that particular moment, for a reason. Don't have characters saying something just to have something to say. It happens all the time in life, but this is art. Not that every bit of dialogue has to be laden with significance, but every line should tell us something about how the character feels, or wants other people to think he feels, or should advance the story. Of course, it's all right for a character to say things like "really?" or "ummm" if you want to make the point that they're kind of a boring person without anything interesting to say, or that in these particular circumstances they want to say something innocuous.

5) NO PASSIVE VOICE. Writing 101. "The envelope is torn open" hardly has the dramatic impact of "he rips the envelope open".

6) BE SPECIFIC. "Maybe some laundry on the floor", "the action goes something like…", "they discuss his trip". You're the writer, this is a universe you're creating, so don't leave it up to other people to fill in the blanks. The first draft will be the only place where what you say goes, so make the most of it

7) BUT NOT TOO SPECIFIC. Don't direct. Even if you're planning to direct the script yourself, even if you are a director who's turned to writing, for purposes of the script you are only the humble writer. This means being very sparing with directions, both for the camera and for action. You make a story cinematic by revealing character through action, not by specifying camera angles or every little detail of what happens in the shot. Tell us what's essential for moving the story along and leave out the rest. The director, if that ends up not being you, is going to ignore all your brilliant ideas anyway.

8) LET THE ACTORS DO THEIR JOB. By the same token, don't tell us what the actors' expressions should be, unless it's not what we would expect, e.g. "as the coffin is lowered, there's a faint smile on her face". Write the scene properly so we know what the characters are feeling and then trust your actors and director.

9) NO KEEP OUT NOTICES. There's no need to put copyright notices, "Registered with WGA", "an original screenplay", etc. on your cover page. It goes without saying you've taken all the necessary precautions, and to stress the fact evokes a high school notebook with "Private property! Do not open!" on it. You want to give the impression you have no need for such warnings because if anyone were to be so stupid as to try to rip you off, your lawyer, manager, and agent would be on them like a ton of bricks. In any case, your problem is far more likely to be getting potential financiers to read through your script to the end rather than their being so enamored of it they want to rip it off.

10) TYOPS. No one's going to pass on a totally brilliant script because of a few spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, but they don't help matters. For one thing, typos create an impression of carelessness, and if you can't be bothered to care passionately about every word in your script, why should anyone else? Secondly, grammatical errors or poor usage (unless intentional in the dialogue) suggest you are not really in command of your craft. As noted above, you don't have to be a great literary stylist, but if you don't seem to know when sentences just don't sound right, the reader will lose confidence in you (I know Quentin Tarantino is dyslexic and the original script for Reservoir Dogs was far from a model of spelling and grammatical correctness and was written on the back of a cocktail napkin or something, but I'll bet Lawrence Bender cleaned it up before it went out. It's also true that many producers, in the tradition of Sam Goldwyn, wouldn't know incorrect usage if it fell on them, but development staffs tend to attract English majors, who care about these things).

Also, while imperfect punctuation is hardly going to undermine your credibility, not putting question marks at the end of questions in the dialogue or putting question marks where they don't belong suggests you're not really hearing how the dialogue will sound when it's spoken as opposed to written. Similarly, the grammar police will not be monitoring your comma use but how you use commas indicates you're hearing (or not) how a line will be phrased and you're aware that actors need to breathe now and then. Finally, lots of exclamation points do not add dramatic excitement.

The problems I've mentioned are all very easy to avoid and it doesn't require an enormous amount of talent to do so. Unfortunately, getting them right is no substitute for the ability to bring a story to life. The perceptive reader will have noticed I've avoided dealing with the big issues, like creating believable, involving characters who get up off the page and walk around, or tight, fast-moving structures. Those things are hard to get right. It's more like the difference between showing up for a job interview in a torn T-shirt and dirty jeans or looking sharp. It doesn't really affect how qualified you are, but it never hurts to make a good first impression.

About the author:
Ellin Stein is a scriptwriter, script consultant, and former story analyst for companies including Miramax, Zoetrope, and New Line.

She has written about film for publications including The New York Times, Variety, and the Daily Telegraph and is the author of a cultural history, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream.

Ellin currently teaches screenwriting at Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. Follow her on Twitter: @ellinst