15 Common Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid for a Better Script

common screenwriting mistakes

Screenwriting requires precision, creativity and an understanding of basic storytelling mechanics. Even the most passionate writers can fall into common screenwriting traps. Avoiding those mistakes is what will help you write engaging, professional and marketable screenplays.

This article will help you identify and avoiding 15 of the most common screenwriting mistakes.

Follow these tips and you’ll be better equipped to hook your audience, impress industry folk and get your stories onto the big screen. Let’s get into it!

Mistake #1: Overwriting Action Lines

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Screenwriting newbies often make the mistake of overwriting action lines.

Action descriptions in a script are meant to be clear and concise. When they get too detailed or flowery they slow down the script and confuse the reader. Remember that readers (often, potential producers and directors) quickly skim scripts to get a sense of the story.

Overly descriptive action lines disrupt that flow and makes the script feel like a novel, not a screenplay!


Overwritten Action Line:

The blades of grass quiver gently in the soft breeze as John walks through Central Park, his brow furrowed in deep contemplation, staring off into the distance as he ponders the complexities of his relationship with Mary.

Concise Action Line:

John wanders through Central Park, deep in thought.

In the first example the action line is too descriptive, giving too much information about the grass and John’s face. In the second example we get the same info without the extra detail.

Writing Clear Action Lines

  1. Keep It Simple: Use plain language to describe actions. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Only describe what the reader needs to know to understand the scene.

  2. Show, Don’t Tell: Instead of describing emotions or thoughts, show them through actions. Instead of “John is angry” write “John slams the door.”

  3. Use Active Verbs: Active verbs make action lines more interesting. Use “runs” instead of “is running.”

  4. Limit Description: Only describe what’s necessary for the scene. If it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal something about the character, leave it out.

  5. Avoid Specific Camera Movements: Avoid getting too specific with camera movements in your action lines. Detailed camera terms can overshadow the story. Use more general descriptive terms instead.

  6. White Space: Short paragraphs and sentences create more white space on the page. Aim for action lines that are 2-3 lines long at most.

Mistake #2: Weak/Cliché Characters

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Using clichéd characters can kill originality in your script. Clichéd characters are shallow and it’s hard for the audience to connect with them.

These characters often have no personal goals and are one-dimensional. Predictability is boring and viewers can see what’s coming a mile off.

How to Create Interesting Characters

  1. Subvert Expectations: Instead of using tropes, subvert them. For example if you have a “bad boy” protagonist give him unexpected traits like being a volunteer or a poetry lover.

  2. Develop Backstories: Create detailed backstories for your characters so you and your script readers understand their motivations, fears and desires.

  3. Focus on Character Arcs: Make sure your characters change significantly throughout the story. A well-written character arc turns a flat main character into a dynamic one.

  4. Create Complex Personalities: Don’t make characters all good or all bad – instead, give them a mix of virtues and flaws.

  5. Make Them Unique: Make characters stand out with creative character descriptions focusing on memorable traits or features, or even unique character names.

Mistake #3: Incorrect Formatting

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Proper screenplay formatting is important for script readability and professionalism.

A well formatted script means the reader can follow the story and “see” the scenes in their heads. These technical details are what you need to attract the attention of producers, directors and other industry folk. Incorrect formatting makes a script look amateurish and can get it dismissed before the reader even gets to the end of the first page.

Proper formatting also means the script follows industry standards. A well-formatted script is a sign of professionalism and shows that you respect the film industry and the reader’s time.

Where to Learn Screenplay Formatting

First, check out my article all about screenplay formatting! If you still need more help, here are my go-to’s:

  • Screenwriting Software: Programs like Celtx, Arc Studio Pro and Final Draft format scripts to industry standards so you can focus on your story.

  • Books: “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier is the ultimate resource on screenplay formatting with examples and explanations.

  • Online Courses: Coursera offers screenwriting courses that include lessons on formatting, taught by industry pros.

  • Script Libraries: Reading and analyzing scripts from successful films is a great way to learn. Sites like StudioBinder have a huge library of professional screenplays.

Mistake #4: Lack of Conflict

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Conflict is the engine of any great script because it creates tension and stakes.

It challenges characters, so that they grow and evolve. Conflict makes your story interesting – without it, the story has no direction and the characters have nothing to overcome.

As Syd Field said, “All drama is conflict. Without conflict you have no action; without action you have no character; without character you have no story; without story you have no script”.

How to Introduce and Sustain Conflict

  1. Layered Conflict: Have both internal and external conflict. Internal conflict is a character’s personal struggle, external conflict is outside forces.

  2. Raise the Stakes: Make sure the conflicts have high consequences. The higher the stakes, the more the audience will be invested.

  3. Conflict in Every Scene: Make sure every scene has some form of conflict, whether it’s a character disagreement, an obstacle to overcome or an internal struggle.

  4. Character-Driven Conflict: Have conflicts that are tied to your characters’ goals and motivations. This makes the conflicts feel more meaningful.

  5. Subvert Expectations: Avoid predictable conflicts by subverting audience expectations. Introduce unexpected twists and turns that challenge your characters in new ways.

Mistake #5: Too Much Exposition

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Too much exposition can slow down a script by dumping too much info on the audience all at once.

When characters spend too much time explaining the plot, backstory or setting, it can stop the narrative dead in its tracks and makes the dialogue feel unnatural.

Showing Rather Than Telling

  1. Use Visuals and Actions: Instead of having characters explain their feelings or situations, show them through their actions and the environment. For example, instead of a character saying “I’m sad” show them sitting alone, staring at a photo or doing something melancholy.

  2. Subtext in Dialogue: Have characters reveal info indirectly through their conversations. This engages the audience in figuring out the underlying meaning of the words.

  3. Reveal Through Conflict: Conflict naturally brings out exposition as characters clash and reveal their motivations and backstories.

  4. Environmental Cues: The environment can provide context and background info without explanation. For example, showing a character’s desk cluttered with overdue bills can convey financial stress without a word being spoken.

Mistake #6: Poor Dialogue

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Bad or pointless dialogue can kill a screenplay cold. The most common mistakes here are:

  1. Unnatural Dialogue: Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real speech will pull the audience out of the story. This often happens when writers use strangely formal language or don’t capture each character’s unique voice.

  2. On-the-Nose Dialogue: This is when characters say exactly what they think or feel without any subtext.

How to Write Natural Dialogue

  1. Read Aloud and Revise: Reading your dialogue out loud will help you spot awkward phrasing or unnatural speech patterns. Revise those moments to add depth.

  2. Use Subtext: Write lines that imply more than they say. Have characters speak around their feelings or intentions, not directly about them.

  3. Show, Don’t Tell: Instead of having characters talking about how they feel, show their emotions through actions, reactions and body language. Let the audience infer what’s going on inside.

  4. Study Real Conversations: Listen to how people talk in real life. They often speak indirectly, change subjects or leave thoughts unfinished. Incorporate those elements into your dialogue.

  5. Vary Sentence Structure: Like in real life, characters should speak in a mix of short, medium and long sentences.

Mistake #7: Inconsistent Character Motivation

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Character motivation drives the plot and the audience’s understanding of a character’s decisions.

When motivations are consistent, characters feel real and their actions make sense. When motivations are inconsistent, characters will break the internal logic of the story, and your viewers will be confused.

How to Make Motivations Consistent

  1. Create Detailed Backstories: Having a full backstory helps characters’ motivations come from their past experiences and personalities. Knowing a character’s history allows you to predict how they’ll react in different situations.

  2. Define Clear Goals and Desires: Define what each character wants and why they want it.

  3. Use Character Arcs: Make sure character development is gradual and logical. Characters should change in response to the story’s events – but those changes should be consistent with their motivations.

  4. Use the “8 Drives” Technique: This involves listing a character’s wants, needs, fears, loves, strengths, weaknesses, worldview and how the world sees them.

Mistake #8: Starting Scenes Too Early

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Starting your scene too early can mess up the pace of a script and lose the audience. To keep the story compelling, try starting scenes in the middle of the action so that every moment moves the story forward.

Scenes that start too early often have unnecessary setup that slows down the story. By jumping in to the action, you’ll make the story more dynamic. It also respects the audience’s intelligence and lets them fill in the gaps with visual and contextual clues rather than exposition.

How to Identify and Cut Unnecessary Scene Setup

  1. Start with Conflict: Start scenes with conflict or action that engages the audience. This could be a confrontation, a high stakes decision, or a pivotal moment. Instead of showing a character waking up and getting ready, start with them in the middle of something important.

  2. Use Visual Cues: Rely on visual storytelling to convey context and background info. Show don’t tell. Instead of having characters talk about their surroundings, show the environment and actions to provide the necessary details. A bare room, a broken window or a hurried pace can convey a lot without words.

  3. Trim the Fat: Review each scene and identify what doesn’t contribute to the plot or character development. Cut out those parts to streamline the story.

  4. Ask the Hard Questions: Evaluate each scene by asking if it advances the plot, develops a character or introduces essential info. If it doesn’t do one of those things it may need to be reworked or cut. For example, if a scene’s only function is to show a character’s mood, consider integrating that mood into a more action-driven context.

Mistake #9: Overuse of Parentheticals

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Using too many parentheticals in a script can be a problem and disrupt the flow. Parentheticals are brief instructions within dialogue to indicate how a line should be delivered.

While they can be useful to clarify intent, too many will clutter the script and not allow for creativity on-set.

Ways to Convey Tone and Action Without Parentheticals

  1. Use Strong Dialogue: Write dialogue that says what you want to say. Well written lines don’t need additional instructions. For example, “I can’t believe you did this” can be delivered many ways depending on the context and the actor.

  2. Rely on Context: The surrounding action and context can convey the tone. Describe the character’s action or the situation leading up to the dialogue to give clues about how to deliver the line. Instead of (angrily), show the character slam a door or clench their fists before they speak.

  3. Trust the Actors and Director: Let the actors and director interpret the script. They will bring their own creativity to the performance and enhance the dialogue in ways you wouldn’t have thought of.

Examples Parenthetical Mistakes

Too Many:

Oh, great. Another meeting.
I can't wait.
(rolls eyes)

Not Enough:

Oh, great. Another meeting.
I can't wait.

In this example the too many parentheticals clutter the dialogue. The revised version lets the actor play the sarcasm and frustration.

Mistake #10: Lack of Subtext

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Subtext is a powerful tool in screenwriting that adds depth to dialogue and action. It represents the unspoken thoughts and feelings of a character.

Subtext enhances a script by allowing characters to communicate more than what they actually say. It encourages the audience to read between the lines and discover hidden meanings. In real life, people often mask their true feelings, and subtext mirrors this behavior.

Subtext also creates intrigue as the audience tries to figure out what the characters are really thinking and feeling.

How to Add Subtext

  1. Use Visuals and Actions: Show characters’ emotions and intentions through their actions and body language instead of explicit dialogue. For example, a character who is angry might slam a door or clench their fists instead of saying, “I’m angry.”

  2. Use Irony and Sarcasm: Characters can ‘say one thing but mean another’ using irony or sarcasm to convey their true feelings. This makes the audience work to find the underlying meaning.

  3. Create Tension Through Conflict: Subtext often emerges naturally in conflict scenes. Characters may hide their true intentions or feelings while in a verbal or physical fight and the subtext will surface through their actions and reactions.

  4. Layer Dialogue with Hidden Meanings: Write dialogue that has multiple meanings. Characters can discuss mundane topics while hinting at deeper issues. For example, a conversation about the weather can reflect the characters’ emotional states or relationship dynamics.

  5. Use Repetition and Silence: Repeating certain phrases or leaving pauses in dialogue can create subtext. Silence can speak volumes about a character’s internal struggles.

Mistake #11: Weak Endings

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A bad ending can kill the whole movie and leave the audience unhappy.

Like a sour note at the end of a beautiful song, a bad ending will overshadow all the good that came before.

How to End Strong

  1. Know the Ending Before You Start: Having the ending clear from the beginning can guide your story and make sure all the plot points lead logically to it.

  2. Resolve Main Conflicts: Make sure the main conflicts of your story are resolved in a believable and satisfying way.

  3. Complete Character Arcs: Characters should change throughout the story, but their arcs should be complete by the end.

  4. Give an Emotional Payoff: The ending should resonate with the audience emotionally. It should be a cathartic release that matches the story and character journeys.

  5. Balance Closure and Openness: While you should resolve the main story threads, leaving some things open to interpretation may make the audience think.

Mistake #12: Ignoring Feedback

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Getting and using feedback on your script is one of the most common screenwriting mistakes. It can be difficult to hear criticism about the work that you spent so much time on!

But, feedback brings fresh eyes and new perspectives. It will show you areas to improve that you wouldn’t have thought of.

How to Use Feedback

  1. Choose the Right People: Select people with experience in screenwriting or who have a deep understanding of storytelling. Trusted peers, mentors and professional script consultants can give you valuable insights.

  2. Be Open: Approach feedback with an open mind and a willingness to improve. Remember that constructive criticism is not a personal attack, but an opportunity to make your script better.

  3. Ask Specific Questions: When seeking feedback, make sure to ask specific questions about your script. This focus will help reviewers give you more targeted and useful feedback. For example, you might ask for feedback on character development, dialogue or plot structure.

  4. Distill and Prioritize: Not all feedback will be applicable. Learn to distill the feedback you get, prioritize the most important points and decide which notes align with your vision.

Mistake #13: Writing in Isolation

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Being part of the screenwriting community provides huge support and growth opportunities. Writers can share experiences, exchange feedback and get new perspectives on their work.

Networking with other screenwriters can lead to professional opportunities such as collaborations, mentorships and industry connections.

Resources to Connect with Other Screenwriters

  1. Online Forums and Communities: Platforms like Reddit’s r/Screenwriting and Creative Writing Forums are spaces for screenwriters to discuss their work, ask for advice and share resources.

  2. Workshops and Classes: Participating in screenwriting workshops and classes provides structured learning and peer feedback.

  3. Screenwriting Events and Festivals: Attending screenwriting events like the ScreenCraft Virtual Pitch program gets you face-to-face with industry professionals and other writers.

  4. Social Media Groups: Joining screenwriting groups on Facebook and LinkedIn keeps you connected and informed about industry trends, job opportunities and collaborative projects.

  5. Local Writing Groups: Many cities have local writing groups or meetups where screenwriters can get together to share their work and support each other. Sites like Meetup.com can help you find local groups.

Mistake #14: Giving Up Too Soon

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Persistence and resilience are essential for any screenwriter.

The journey to success is rarely a straight line and setbacks are inevitable. But, those who push through rejection, writer’s block and other challenges are more likely to be successful.

How to Stay Motivated

  1. Set Realistic Goals: Break your writing project down into smaller tasks and set achievable deadlines. For example, aim to write a certain number of pages a week or finish a draft by a certain date.

  2. Establish a Routine: Create a writing schedule and stick to it. Writing at the same time every day can help you develop a habit and get into flow.

  3. Stay Inspired: Surround yourself with inspiration by reading great scripts and books, watching films, and engaging with other creative work.

  4. Get Support: Connect with other screenwriters for support and encouragement. Join writing groups, attend workshops or participate in online forums.

  5. Embrace the Process: Remember writing is a process and it’s okay to write bad first drafts. Focus on getting your ideas down on paper and worry about refining them later.

Mistake #15: Not Reading Enough Scripts

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Reading scripts is just as important as writing them.

It lets you see how other writers approach storytelling, character development, dialogue and pacing. By studying successful screenplays, you can see what works and why.

Tips for Analyzing Other Screenplays

  1. Read Actively: Don’t just read passively; engage with the material. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. What about the dialogue? Pacing? Style? Tone? Character development?

  2. Compare Script to Screen: Watch the film or TV show while reading the script. This will help you see how the written word translates to the screen and how directors and actors interpret the material.

  3. Break Down the Structure: Analyze the screenplay’s structure. What’s the inciting incident? Turning points? Climax? Resolution? Understanding the framework will help you apply it to your own writing.

  4. Focus on Dialogue: Study the dialogue. How’s subtext used? How are characters’ voices distinct? Good dialogue reveals character and advances the plot without being on-the-nose.

  5. Look for Visual Storytelling: Pay attention to how writers use visual elements to tell the story. Screenwriting is a visual medium and good scripts often convey a lot through actions and settings rather than dialogue.

  6. Learn from Mistakes: Read good and bad scripts. What doesn’t work is just as valuable as what does. Analyze what falls flat and think how you would fix it.

Screenwriting Mistakes

Recap of Common Screenwriting Mistakes

You started where every successful screenwriter starts—wanting to learn and get better.

By avoiding these common screenwriting mistakes you’re already setting yourself up for success. But why stop there? Join my newsletter and get the tools, feedback and support to turn your script into a winner. You can also check out my story consultant services and see how I can help you in your screenwriting career!

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