4 Common Mistakes Screenwriters Make
Writing a script for a feature film project is a complex process, that might take in the best case scenario, months, in the worst case scenario, years. It is a job that improves with practice, as most jobs really. Only practice makes perfect. After talking to one of Filmarket Hub’s analyst, Bàrbara Cadena, and reading some of her work for Filmarket Hub, I’ve wanted to analyze the four most common mistakes script analysts encounter in scripts.
- Message or Theme
A script is, mainly, the story of one or various characters to whom a series of events and obstacles occur, when trying to reach a personal or collective objective. But a script isn’t only that. It’s also to talk about something and to convey a message.
A script will talk about something, in a way that it will elevate its value. “To kill a Mockingbird”, it’s not only the story of lawyer Atticus Finch. It’s a plea against racism and injustice. “To kill a Mockingbird” talks about something. “Blade Runner” talks about identity, creation, the limits of technology…it’s not only a cop movie. “The Dark Knight” doesn’t limit itself to be a superhero movie, it talks also about war against terrorism in today’s world.
One of the most common mistakes in scripts that are analyzed by professionals like Bàrbara is the lack of theme or message. Not including this key element in a film can have grave consequences for your film: it can lack soul, transcendence…Therefore, choose well what you want to talk about (loss, human relationships…) and make it the biggest priority in your story. Make it so that the story and characters talk about that theme.
To have a clear idea of the theme is fundamental, though not essential at the beginning. Sometimes, the theme will come out later, once the initial idea has been worked on and developed further. Therefore, it isn’t necessary that when you start writing you have completely defined the theme and message of your story, but within time you should try to do so, as much as possible.
2. Establish a solid 1st Act
If you don’t establish who your characters are, their motivations, their objectives, if you don’t define well the tone the film will have…the more you advance in your writing and you try to develop the plot, mistakes and confusions will appear, and you will have to justify things that you could’ve solved structuring a solid first act.
For some, to write the first act it’s the most simple as they already know how they want to start the story. Nevertheless, any problem or mistake the first act might have will carry on throughout the whole story, not working as it should. That’s why:
- Define well your main characters and their objectives in the story.
- Define well the world in which they inhabit and don’t break their rules.
- Make it interesting. The first act has to motivate the reader (or audience) to keep reading and following the story.
David Mamet said once that if there was a thing in which Robert McKee was right is that, you shouldn’t bore your audience. A lot of film producers or analyst will drop a script if the first 20 pages are boring or have serious mistakes. So, make sure your first act is infallible.
Establish always first the basis for your first act, but most of all, do that in projects that are fantasy or sci-fi. Because these are alternate worlds, the explanation about them must be more exhaustive and more justified in the first act, which usually becomes longer in these cases. If the story asks for it, the first act can have 10 extra pages based in that reality you’re trying to create.
Another mistake analysts find often is the vague genre definitions of the film. Without a doubt, combining genres can be an enriching way of giving the story more layers and nuance. There are examples for all genres: Central Intelligence (action comedy), 500 days of Summer (dramedy), The Orfanage (drama horror), Alien (sci-fi horror)…
The problem comes when one doesn’t have a clear idea of what genre or genres the story belongs to. If you’re writing a thriller, you can’t introduce supernatural elements in the middle of the second act or in the middle of the third act if you haven’t presented that idea in a sound way before (coming back to mistake nº2).
There are films that seem to have surprising twists, like, From Dusk till Dawn (R. Rodríguez, 1996). The first part of the film seems a sort of modern western with some action. Until the vampire fest breaks loose at the Tity Twister. Even then, it is still an action film. It doesn’t suddenly become a horror film. The film is loyal to its original essence.
One must know what type of film he’s writing to be coherent with its nature. That doesn’t mean you can’t use elements from other genres. But what isn’t advisable at all is to jump from a genre to another halfway your script, without a clear justification. In that case, the reader will get lost or, even worse, will feel fooled.
If you need to give that genre twist, it is very probable that what you are facing is a plot development issue, and therefore, you don’t know how to advance. Giving a 180 degrees turn won’t help you solve that, and will take from the script’s identity.
4. Floppy Endings
As I’ve said before, writing a film script is a complex process and it has its timings. You start with a lot of energy and you write for a lot of days, hours, but as weeks pass by, and you keep writing, your motivation decreases and the only thing you want to do is to finish it once and for all.
A lot of times we write a script without having a clear idea of where or how it will end, and we think we will get through that while writing the rest of the script. But the day comes when you need a third act and you’re a bit in over your head, and you write it without developing or working the scenes.
The problem with this is that the ending of the movie is usually what the audience will stay with. How many times have you seen movies with very interesting beginnings and that in the end, they fall into a well-known genre routine? That is why to write an ending that will fulfill the expectations you have created throughout acts one and two.
If you know the ending, it will be easier to get there. Everything that happens on the road there will make more sense because it will be going in the right direction. You will avoid characters to fall into ruts and you will make the action advance.