Common mistakes found in a screenplay
– the 3 only rules to write a good story
I often read scripts from beginners that have mistakes in them that really should be easy to spot and fix by even a writer who loves his own work and has a hard time spotting bad parts in his own work. Why do pretty much all beginner writers still make them? Writing is hard if you just think your product is good without putting any passion into it. If you want to dig deep and understand story structure and character development then once you do it will be like wearing X-ray eye glasses. You will automatically spot bad story structure and hollow characters in all the work you see and read. Personally I give feedback on every script I receive as do thousands of people. But here is the problem, if I find glaring errors on the first 5 pages I can stop reading. Then there is no point in me reading the full script if I already have given you useful feedback you can spend 2 weeks on implementing. Implement it and come back and then people will read to page 10 as so forth. If you make someone read your screenplay till the end while enjoying it then your screenplay makes you more unique than being a Ph.d. student. This is a rare event. If we put all scripts ever written into a pile and pick one at random what’s the chance that this script is something you will enjoy reading to the end and make time for? Most screenplays feel like work to read because they don’t follow 3 simple rules or have problems with the formatting.
When I write a movie I follow 3 great “universal” laws. Every line of text must either progress the plot or reveal character. And the plot must be progressed by characters wanting something and therefore making something happen.
3 universal rules for story writing. Every line must at least:
… and the plot must be advanced by characters and nothing else.
That’s it. If you follow these 3 rules you will in my mind create a good story. I might not find the topic interesting but I will still see it for what it is: a well crafted story ready to be sold and filmed. If you follow these 3 rules I will give you full feedback on your script. That means spending 3 hours on your script for free. But of course the topic at hand has to be somewhat interesting to me. Otherwise someone else will give you good feedback. We all want to read good stories. That’s what we live and breath for. So a good captivating and well written story is good news for readers. Unfortunately this is a rare event.
But why did I say these 3 rules exists? Couldn’t it be one rule? Or 5 rules? Because these rules are natural rules that are part of the world. They were created with human beings. And I will explain why they are true.
You break these rules by telling the story in an extremely linear but incoherent way. And this is done by ignoring laws of nature. The real world does follow simple rules. People are born with certain personalities and physics around us work a certain way. By simplifying the story you are ignoring these facts. Human beings do not have a free will. They do what they their wants, needs and personalities make them do. There is no God, so nothing is forcing them or stuff around them to do something to make something else happen. Randomness rules the day but it does not pick and choose. It happens. Watch a documentary about any war and notice how people are dying left and right. No matter if they are good or bad morally or at fighting. But in a story you put weight on the non-random stuff. What did the generals do? What did the platoon leaders do? What happened to the ones who survived the war and were successful in their mission? You are not a God in your story. You cannot influence or change your story. Only the characters are there. They make every single little thing happen. They don’t even know you are there and they certainly would notice you if you influenced their story. Acting like they wouldn’t notice this God is deluding yourself.
These forces exist in your universe: randomness and characters making choices. Randomness and characters making good or bad choices. Randomness and characters experiencing good or bad outcomes. Only the choices can drive progress towards a goal and create a plot. Randomness is not striving towards one side or the other.
But why are you not a great storyteller if you let random events or unrelated events be a big part of the story? Surely these things are natural? Example: Let’s say you want to tell your friend about how you found 100 euro bill on the street. Will you tell him about all your life or even the full day? Or will you tell him about the events that lead up to you finding the 100 euro? You don’t even need to think about this answer. You know the answer already. You tell a story with the parts needed to tell it. You already know how to do this nearly perfectly. Just apply this logic to your screenplays too. If the bill randomly flew into your hand then your story is maybe 1 minute long as only 1 event is relevant to your story. If you did a lot of stuff to find it then your story is longer. Everything not related to the one event is not relevant to the story.
See? I already told a story from start to finish about a random event. But why was it not exciting? Because we are humans and like watching humans do stuff. Not random stuff happen to random people. So we want someone to want something and then try to achieve it. Again, rules of nature. But now the plot is “character wants something we see”. The character might not find that something but it’s there to guide the story along. And scenes that do not happen because of this one need or want probably need to be deleted.
Unless the plot is started the world is “normal”. Then if the plot begins everything that happens happens because of that one thing that happened at the beginning: protagonist wanting something. So a protagonist wants to date some hot girl. That event now is causing everything else to happen. If it doesn’t then it’s probably not relevant to the story. So every single event not caused by this one event at the start is not relevant to the story at hand. The third rule is actually: Everything happens because of 1 single event at the start of the story.
Because of all of this all these 3 rules are 1 rule: nature laws. But let’s see, you reveal character to progress the plot. It’s like people walking into a plane or car. The car is shown and we then see it being used. The only reason it’s shown on screen is because it’s going to feature in the plot. Revealing characters is done when it is advancing plot only. Then the plot advances because there is 1 story being told to us here. So if no story is being told there is no plot and no reason to write anything. And therefore only 1 event at the beginning is causing everything else to happen as we only have 1 plot. There, 3 rules. If you are a critical reader you would probably have tried to think up movies or books that do not follow these 3 silly rules. I have done this too, a lot. Did you think that there could be 2 events starting the story? Maybe, but then the plot is actually something that starts these 2 events. Or more likely you are thinking that some movie are unstructured or break rules to try something new. Maybe, but if the plot does not follow these 3 rules I would not really call it a plot. But more a collection of random scenes. I will explain it later.
In a screenplay the writer can play around with stuff. You can add or remove scenes or even change or move around outcomes and events. I do this all the time. But at the end the plot must make sense. So I would need to add scenes to make the new plot make sense or subtract scenes that now go nowhere. They just all have to be like pearls on a necklace. Creating a whole. Or more like bricks in a very unstable tower. If you can remove a brick it did not hold anything up and needs to be removed. If you can remove a line anywhere in your script while everything else still makes sense then maybe you should remove it.
List of common mistakes being made because the 3 rules are not being followed
I will write some mistakes I see and tell you which of these 3 rules they break. If you follow these simple rules I don’t think you will write a bad screenplay, just maybe a boring one. If you don’t follow these rules then you are either an expert writer who breaks them on purpose or you are just not there yet. But personally I have watched over 2000 movies and not a single one I liked broke any of these rules.
Randomness: Overly long dialogue scenes and pointless dialogue lines
Advance plot: No. Imagine if James Bond movies only consisted of dialogue. That’s how too much dialogue feels like. Too much dialogue is a horrible mistake to make in a screenplay.
Reveal character: Actually, you know what. I will actually say that this mistake breaks this one rule too. Overly long dialogue is most often about characters. But if it did actually reveal character it would not be boring dialogue or too much dialogue. So while you do try to reveal character you are probably repeating stuff. Are they saying something they said somewhere else? If so then… big ups.
Character creates story: No, characters say random boring stuff.
Let’s say the detective wants to search for clues. He will investigate areas and interview scummy people. Interesting activities. Then he meets Alcoholic Guy. He asks about his AA meetings. Still could be interesting. This scenes could reveal character traits that later can be used as a plot point as maybe this witness cannot be fully trusted and maybe remembers a crucial part of the criminal event wrong. Which will put the detective into trouble later on. It’s well structured and interesting. But if the detective keeps asking about the Alcoholic Guy’s life or they keep talking about the event over and over again, then you have an overly long dialogue scene. If every word does not progress the plot in some way then delete the words that don’t. The viewer does not care about their personal lives unless this is crucial for telling the story or you are one of the best in the world at writing pure pointless melodrama. Obviously the dialogue must be realistic. But not so realistic as to having some random character complain for 20 seconds straight. That’s too much.
If you can remove words or a line of dialogue while the plot itself can still be understood. Then think about doing just that. Listening to people whine, complain or talk about their own boring lifes is not always exciting. Ask yourself “What is the character trying to say and convey?”. If the answer is simple then surely you can convey it by showing a photo, a drawing or some object instead? Sometimes writers use a lot of dialogue to reveal the story to themselves while they write it. But later all that talk about things happening on screen can be removed or replaced by more activity. Show it don’t tell it. Film is a visual medium. A rule of thumb could be: each statement spoken must be max 3 lines long. This way you will force yourself to write a movie.
When I finish my screenplay I often can’t find a single line of text I can remove. They all combine to the plot I have written. But I can shorten the story by combining multiple characters into one or combining multiple events into one. Or I can remove lines that explain stuff but can be removed while the stuff can still be figured out if the viewer really thinks hard about things. At the end of the day the viewer will be interested in all the plot relevant scenes if he is interested in the plot and characters. If you have ever zoned out in a movie that’s probably because the scene was pointless and lead nowhere or was a repeat of old information.
Writer is God and Randomness: Random events out of nowhere drive the plot along
Advance plot: Randomness advances the plot by force. If the protagonist just randomly wins all his battles because all his enemies get heart attacks then the plot is random. There is no linear advance of the plot here by letting the protagonist walk from clue to clue. It’s just luck. And therefore the protagonist might as well not be part of the story.
Reveal character: No, that’s the problem. A random event ignores everything the characters say or do. If the characters don’t matter then why are they there? Just replace them with regular dogs.
Character creates story: No.
I understand why people are doing this. It’s much easier to let a character get into trouble because of some random event than to let characters and their unique personalities interact in ways that create problems. The fact that characters need to drive the plot along is not something readers of your screenplay need to tell you. It’s something that you should feel is the right thing to do if you want to tell stories professionally. This is rule 1 of writing. All the 3 rules I presented illustrated in one single rule.
In monster movies the aliens or the big monster could have been that one random allowed thing in a screenplay. After that the characters react to each other and the monster. But even that one monster event is usually not random. Godzilla is not a random thing happening. Godzilla is the idea of an awesome power being a symbol of the atomic bomb or even the US army. Character X does something to Character Y who then does something to Character U. The characters drive the plot but in a monster movie a moral value itself or a conflict in society just got a personality too and is made into a Character. This is what a monster often is in movies: lust, greed, power, jalousy. Some moral value illustrated in an extreme way. Not random events. Eve chose to bite the apple. Then the bad events started to happen. The choice was made by a character. The snake was just a symbol for a human emotion.
Writer is God: Ignoring outcomes because you don’t know how to deal with them
Character creates story: What characters are part of the story? If all 10 characters in the story did fight well and logically is the plot bulletproof? If you remove every single scene set outside of the tower in Die Hard is the plot complete? Not really. Everyone living in that world also reacts to events. If they just follow along with the outcomes you are forcing them to follow the plot by playing God. The world is not there for the story to happen as it happens. The world is there to interact with the protagonists in a natural way.
A killer killed 100 people in a big city but in the next scene you need him to just relax in a supermarket? Well, maybe the cops are all idiots? No matter, just ignore it. He magically healed. This is by far the most common huge mistakes I see in movies. This could be a plot hole but most of these “ignoring cases” could be explained away by some extreme event happening between scenes. But it still ruins the story. It’s not a clear plot hole it’s just lazy writing where you force a lot of people to act a very specific and unrealistic way just to make your plot all fit together.
Writer is God: Romance that seems unnatural and forced
Character creates story: All human beings have a BIG FIVE/OCEAN personality. We are all born with these traits. Most of us seek love or friends. We don’t disappear from your world. We are there.
The super hot woman is lonely and can’t find love but then suddenly the nerdy protagonist comes along and accepts her even though she wears silly glasses and doesn’t love her job. How could anyone else possibly love her? Again I must state that this mistake also seems to not break any of these 3 rules. So what rule does it break? As these rules are universal and as our personality traits are universal you are breaking the rules of society and humans. Hot women would at least have some admirers. You made her lonely to create your story. It feels forced and unnatural because it is. A very hot woman saying “I have not had sex in 2 years” while constantly trying to get laid makes very little logical sense. I once read a blog post from a Danish woman in her start 20’s complaining about not getting laid because men found her too controversial. Of course a ton of men right away took the chance to write to her. Her reply was “Please don’t contact me, I have already slept with 100 men”. There is always an illusion. But this illusion is not reality. You wanting something to be true does not make it true. It just makes you biased. So characters can complain. They all are biased. But if you biases are creating the world then maybe you should read up on psychology to make the movie a bit more realistic and more interesting.
Randomness: Antagonists/protagonists getting just randomly defeated
Character creates story: When the antagonist is made super strong but is beaten in a random or easy way, then he might as well not have been strong.
This also could apply to protagonists. If a monster without human logic kills people while not getting revealed, that’s randomness too. You added this to the story by playing God. If a monster kills everyone because they make random mistakes that’s you playing God again because you want a certain outcome. The monster did not win over the people in a fair battle. There was no fair battle. It’s just a collection of slasher scenes with no end point and no progress of story. Only character personalities should cause death to themselves or people around them.
Advance plot: Nothing drove the plot to a final outcome. It just happened. The movie might have been a lot of fun but the viewers who thinks about the plot will be let down. And some people will think critically about the plot and will think less of the story. Again, this is all if you even can make it fun. I highly doubt it will be any fun without a plot.
There needs to be an interaction all throughout the story. A fight that is made up of 10 battles where both the protagonist and antagonist learn new stuff about their enemy and the way they fight, like in Predator (1987). It doesn’t matter if there is an antagonist to defeat or a goal or dream to achieve. If the solution is random or sudden then what was the plot about? Suddenly all the former scenes would break the first of the 3 rules: advance the plot. When showing a dead body reveals as much of the plot as showing the death scene. Then the scene needs to be rewritten. There should be a reason we are seeing it happen: because characters are creating the scene.
Randomness: Extreme luck or randomness seems to help your plot make sense
Character creates story: Characters are physical beings. They all follow not only the rules we were evolved to follow but also the underlying rules of nature.
In psychology we have the BIG FIVE personality test also called OCEAN. That’s considered fact of life by many psychologists alongside g factor (intelligence) and all the perception modules in our brain. It’s hard to argue against any of these things being there and being the way we today understand them as. OCEAN is not the only true and universal factor that must be taken into account when writing a screenplay. In reality you are obeying rules found in our world or in your fantasy world. But these rules are there to be obeyed. When James Bond runs down a 50 meter long hallway and 5 bad guys with machine guns are shooting at him. Well, then the bullets hitting everything around him or just behind him makes little sense. These are professional gunmen. Then have modern machine guns. They are not tired and the hallway is well lit and narrow and James Bond cannot dodge bullets. Actually, he is not even looking back so either way he is not trying to dodge individual bullets. But why is he not hit by any bullet and why does it matter? You are not breaking psychology laws of nature. You are using extreme events and extreme randomness to help you achieve positive results for the protagonist. Ergo, you are playing God. In reality James Bond being in that situation is a huge mistake and should cause his death. Him escaping the bullet hail does not make him a good agent. It makes you a bad writer. Randomness is a major factor in creating everything but it’s just there to create the world, not to drive the plot along. If the protagonist seems to just dodge bullets all movie long I will assume teenagers created the story. This is like playing a game with save and load options. And I have only seen one movie do this right in a way that felt natural and not random, Paycheck (2003). And that’s because they could time travel and redo stuff so it made sense they dodges cars and bullets. They tried it 100 times and succeeded at the end.
Randomness: Flashback used for wow factor alone or to randomly reveal character or plot
Advance plot: If it’s a random scary dream it does not advance the plot.
A flashback can be used well. In one of my scripts I used a flashback to reveal more info to the detective. He didn’t randomly dream up stuff. He had information about an event. Then he talked to a person who had more information about that event. So I used a flashback to update the scene the reader had already come across before. Now the detective interviewing the witness were the voice overs in my flashback. I don’t know if my flashback scene works but I do know that I used it for an extremely specific purpose. To advance the plot. I feel like it was an effective tool to achieve this goal. I didn’t add it just because it was cool by itself.
Reveal character: If it’s just there to reveal character it does not advance the plot. Can you do both at once? Because you are taking the viewer out of the story here so you are not just ignoring the plot you are probably working against it. Plus it can make viewers consider that the whole movie might be a dream. Which is the most silly movie analysis theory out there 🙂
It’s easier to get a flashback scene wrong than right. There are better ways to reveal character than to randomly have a flashback scene in the middle of your screenplay. But there is also a reason flashbacks are popular. When the plot becomes a bit dry a flashback scene can present something new and exiting. But if it just reveals character you better have the reader already be in love with the characters you are now showing the lives of. Otherwise it won’t be new and exiting. It would be even more of the same. In the TV show Friends flashbacks are used to show more of the characters we already love and adore.
Character creates story: If it’s a dream it’s not something the characters actively choose. And the dream is not created by that one event at the beginning of the story. If you added randomness to help progress your plot then you added God to the story.
Morality, humor, plot
Besides the things that are mistakes that most people should probably avoid, there should also be a focus on story and entertainment. Which at the end is that whole point of writing a screenplay. That’s why mistakes happen because you try to tell a story. I will create a document about these topics too. They do seem to break with the rules given here or at least add a new essential layer to the story. The essential nature of a story is as real as the rules that guide it. Or even more so.