Top 5 Screenwriting Pitfalls To Avoid
In any business there are many common mistakes that are made by millions of people on a daily basis. Screenwriting and the movie business is no exception. There are no perfect screenplays that exist by any means, however there are tons of screenplays that get passed over for the same reasons. Below are five common examples of why readers may get bored with the screenplay you worked so hard to finish.
#1: The Overall Story Is Just…Boring
This may seem obvious, but the main culprit for this issue is that your concept may not be strong enough. Developing a strong concept that resonates with people is one half of the equation and executing that concept in a creative way is the other half. So, those are two pieces of a puzzle you will need to get right just to keep people awake while they read your script.
The concept is the core idea that runs throughout the entire screenplay. Your screenplay’s concept should get you excited just thinking about it and although it doesn’t have to be original — it has to feel original.
One way you can begin creating your concept is to start with a question such as “What if…?” What if aliens invaded our planet on Independence Day? What if a mercenary robot was sent from the future to kill a woman before she gave birth to a boy who grows up to be the world’s only savior? What if a spy was sent undercover to infiltrate a group of criminals and discovered he has been fighting for the wrong side of justice?
You can also think of movies you felt were pretty bad and use those as a starting point. That’s right — bad movies can serve as a jumping off point for your awesome concept. As a writer, you shouldn’t just think of a bad movie like the average consumer. Use it as an opportunity to exercise your brain on what YOU would have done to improve things. What would YOU have done differently that could have saved this story from being a flop? Would you have had a more interesting villain? How would you have changed the overall plot if you had total control? After you’ve answered some of those questions you just might find that you have a completely new storyline on your hands!
Once you’ve come up with a story concept, challenge yourself to go a step further by making sure the story actually says something. I’m not talking about the dialogue within the story — but the story itself. What’s the purpose of this story? Does it have a theme? If not, then think about what it is your hero will learn once he reaches his goal. He or she should not be the same person they started out as in the beginning of the story. The plot to your cool concept is really just a visual way of showing how your characters resolve their inner journey or flaw.
In the boxing drama Rocky — Sylvester Stallone didn’t just play a boxer who wanted to beat the champion. He played a small time boxer who got a rare chance to fight the heavy weight champion by the stroke of luck. Rocky didn’t believe in himself. He didn’t have any real self esteem and believed he was a loser. He took the fight to prove to himself that he wasn’t a bum — and he was willing to risk his life in the ring to prove it. The story’s concept is more of a love story and has a strong theme about self doubt. it wasn’t just a boxing movie. Get it?
If you’d like to dig into more ways of how to create a strong concept check out the eBook below.
#2: Your Screenplay Starts Off Too Slow
Not that your story always has to begin with explosions, fist fights and car chases but at some point the audience is going to expect something interesting to happen related to the overall plot. Unlike a novel, a screenplay is meant to be written with brevity broken up into beats and moments. Within those beats and moments should be emotional experiences that move the story forward at all times. Just because you intend for a character to die a slow death doesn’t mean it should literally be a slow read. Always keep in mind how your script would play out if you were watching it in the movies. One of the key things most great scripts share in common is good pacing.
Pacing isn’t a set speed at which things must happen, however things should happen at a pace that feels organic and natural to the audience. A lot of times genre plays a key role in how you pace your story. If you’re writing a horror film then perhaps show us something creepy or scary every five to ten pages. In a thriller, we’ll expect a certain amount of suspense and action. Within a comedy the basic idea is to keep the crowd laughing, so whether there’s a punchline every ten pages will depend on the story — but for God’s sake make sure you get to the point!
#3: The Writer Runs Out Of Gas At The Mid-Point
Like any long journey, you can’t finish unless you know where you’re going. Imagine yourself having to navigate through a jungle. If your map is clear and to the point you will be able to get through with no problems. Now, picture yourself trying to get through that same jungle without a map. You’d be wandering around until you eventually died! Crafting an effective story is the same way. You need to know where your main character is going otherwise you’ll bore your audience to death.
A lot of writers get stuck at the mid-point because of many reasons. They haven’t thought the entire story through to the end, they’re unclear what the character’s goal is, the characters never change thus creating an extremely long first act…the list goes on. So how do you get through this part of your story known as the mid-point? Well, let’s take a look at what should happen in your second act. Here’s a quote from Syd Field:
An important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story.
What is your character’s worst nightmare? In the second act of the story — show us. Ramp up the danger and fear factor for your main character. Turn the heat up. Your story should take us on a rollercoaster ride filled with emotions. That is not to say there has to be massive alien invasions and buildings exploding, but there should be some type of change in the tone of the story. The stakes get raised, a ticking clock appears, the A & B storylines come to head…any of these will do. Just don’t bore us with the same stuff you showed us in the first act.
#4: The Climax Doesn’t Hit The Audience Or Reader Hard Enough
If your audience or readers have made it to the third act of your story, then chances are they’re expecting your hero to face a major setback. This is your story’s climax. The climax is the point of no return for your main character. It is the psychological or physical challenge that forces the main character to commit themselves totally to their goal. If you’ve managed to keep the audience interested up until this point and they make it all the way to the end, yet they feel UNSATISFIED…this may be one of your weak points.
Let’s take a look at some examples — WARNING: SPOILER ALERT.
Rocky IV tells the story of how retired heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa witnesses his best friend Apollo Creed get murdered in the boxing ring by a challenger named Ivan Drago. Drago seems like an unstoppable killing machine and is quickly challenged by Rocky who must travel and train in the Soviet Union to get revenge. Rocky risks his life in the ring as he gets beat to a pulp, almost just as bad as Apollo. The climax happens when Rocky, barely standing, refuses to give up and shows so much heart that the Russian crowd begins cheering for him instead of Drago.
In Creed II, after winning the championship belt, Adonis (Apollo Creed’s son) is immediately challenged by Drago’s son. Adonis is filled with all types of emotions as he listens to the son of the man who killed his father taunt him in the media. Against Rocky’s wishes, he faces Drago and gets knocked unconscious, almost losing his life the same way his father did. Drago is disqualified because of the type of punch he landed and the fight is called off. While Adonis is able to keep his championship belt, his injuries are serious and he realizes for the first time he is afraid, confused and doubts himself. The climax hits us when Creed is given a certain amount of time to either get back in the ring with another challenger or forfeit his belt. The media and public questions if he really is a champion if he doesn’t fight Drago in a rematch. Adonis agrees to fight Drago again, this time having Rocky train him. He risks everything and there is no turning back. If he gets injured or killed, what will his fiance and new born baby do? Do you understand how the stakes are raised at this point and the goal becomes even more critical to achieve at this point?
In the movie Titanic, the climax happens when the entire ship is sinking and Rose has to make a split decision by escaping on a small lifeboat or waiting for Jack (her love interest) who is nowhere to be found at the moment.
The Karate Kid
Remember the original Karate Kid movie? Daniel is a new kid in town who gets bullied to the point of desperation. The bully named Johnny is a martial arts student and terrorizes him at every opportunity he gets. An older man named Mr. Miyagi teaches and trains Daniel martial arts and has Daniel challenge Johnny in a major karate tournament — Johnny accepts and agrees not to bully Daniel while he trains for the fight. During the tournament fight, which happens in the third act, Daniel fights his way to the finals to face his nemesis Johnny — until the climax hits us like a wrecking ball! Johnny’s sensai instructs one of his students (Bobby) to disqualify himself by injuring Daniel just before he faces Johnny. Take a look at the scene for yourself.
This is what some would also refer to as an “all is lost” moment because Daniel is injured and it doesn’t look like he will be able to face Johnny in a showdown. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for the audience because we’ve been rooting for Daniel the entire story to take Johnny out and redeem himself.
So ask yourself, does your climax have a strong emotional impact on the reader or the audience? Or is it something we’d sleep though?
#5: The Characters Are Cliche Or Forgettable
Noone wants to spend over an hour watching a bunch of characters we’ve seen a million times before. There are a number of ways you can lose a reader or audience’s attention with your characters if they’re not crafted carefully and are not well thought out.
Make sure that your characters are all three dimensional in some kind of way. What do they do when they’re in front of the public eye? How are they when they’re around friends and family? What secrets do they have? Don’t just show us a bunch of surface stuff like how pretty they are, what kind of car they drive, eye color, etc.
Here are a few things to avoid when you’re developing and writing your characters into your story.
The characters talk a lot instead of showing us with actions.
It’s a natural mistake to have your characters tell us everything in an exposition dump rather than creating clever ways to show us instead. You may think you’re doing your best rendition of a character similar to someone from a Tarantino movie, but you’re probably not. Dialogue is challenging to a lot of writers and is not something to just glaze over when doing your rewrites. Whatever you do, make sure your characters are mostly showing us instead of telling us…or doing both at the same time. The fastest way to put people to sleep is to make them listen to minute details within a conversation that are key to the plot. You’d be surprised how short the average person’s attention span is.
You’ve modeled the main character after yourself.
No offense, but most likely your life isn’t as interesting as you may think it is. If it’s not something folks would want to pay money to see then you should probably avoid this common mistake. Using aspects of your life is okay, but when your character is confined to what you would and would not do then you’ll run into problems creating this fictional story because you’re stuck on it being realistic and synonymous with your personality.
We’ve seen this guy a hundred times before and your version is no different.
The hooker with a heart of gold, the nice guy that always finishes last, the hero who wakes up in the hospital and yanks out their IV’s regardless of how bad they’re hurt, the list goes on. It’s okay to use cliche and tropes so long as you bring something new to the table.
You’ve got a token minority character in your story — but he or she is based off stereotypes and other characters you’ve seen before.
This one falls under the category of cliches and tropes, but not in a good way. For instance, if you’re writing a minority character into your story ask yourself some of these questions:
- Does the African character have to be a warlord or somehow completely uncivilized with the rest of the world?
- Similarly, does the African American guy have to be a thug, criminal, servant or the most disposable character to be killed in the face of danger?
- Does the Asian guy have to be a nerd or sexually awkward in some type of way? Quick examples: Kal Penn in Van Wilder, Steve Park in Fargo or Jet Li in Romeo Must Die who couldn’t get a kiss from the love interest (Aaliyah) to save his life.
- Also, avoid the Arab or middle eastern terrorist who is obsessed with taking down America. Arabs specifically have a long history of stereotypes within classic Hollywood films — everything from belly dancers, harem girls to oil sheiks.
- Native Americans have been depicted as bloodthirsty warriors out to spill the white man’s blood and kidnap or rape their women in classic cowboy and Indian movies — be sensitive to that as well.
- Does your Latino male character have to be some form of a “latin lover” or the Latina female character portrayed as “exotic”? Hispanic characters in television have a history of being gardeners and lawn care people before having an occupation more akin to a lawyer or corporate professional.
The villain is overtly evil with no redeemable qualities.
Villains are humans too. Before they became a villain they probably started out the same way you did (assuming you’re a good person lol). Try to think through scenarios that would make a normal person turn into a bad person. Did the justice system fail them when they witnessed a loved one murdered? Were they bullied all their life? Did they face some type of abuse? Do they suffer from mental illness? There are a multitude of options you can pick from to make the villain not only interesting, but compelling. Remember, he or she doesn’t have to be likable, but we do need a reason to empathize with their motivations.