As a screenwriter trying to break into the film and television industry, you are constantly bombarded with what you should do and How? ‘Or’ What you should do it. Here we are going to focus on a general list of things you should avoid do when writing a script. We will cover:
- Simple Format Guidelines and Expectations
- story elements
- character elements
- And more
The list is meant to be a simplistic approach to keeping common red flags and errors in your scripts. It’s based on industry guidelines and expectations, as well as the mistakes professional screenwriters like me have made – and learned – along the way.
75 things you shouldn’t do when writing a script
1. Don’t put WGA numbers on your cover page (or anywhere in your script). They are only used for disputes.
2. Don’t put US copyright numbers on your cover page (or anywhere in your script). They are only used for disputes.
3. Don’t put mailing addresses on your title page (email addresses are fine these days).
4. Don’t put loglines on your title page.
5. Don’t include a synopsis in your script.
6. Don’t include a character breakdown in your script (like you see with games).
7. Do not include scene numbers in your spec scripts – they are for production or collaboration purposes only.
8. Do not include draft color pages—these are for draft production only.
9. Don’t include CUT TO transitions in your scripts – they are unnecessary and implicit with every scene title.
10. Don’t include camera directions (medium shot, camera dollies, etc.) – that’s not your job.
11. Avoid referencing specific song names – it’s not your job, the reader may not know them and the studio may not be able to secure the rights to them anyway.
12. Try to avoid using CONTINUOUS in your scene title because most people overuse the term anyway.
13. Try to avoid using a lot of fancy transitions (Iris In, Iris Out, Flash Cut To, Jump Cut To, Match Cut To, Match Dissolve To, Smash Cut To).
14. Don’t write paragraph descriptions of scenes. Instead, focus on blocks of one to three sentences (top). Fragments are welcome.
15. Don’t use poetic scene descriptions – that’s for romance.
16. Avoid using too many parentheses (firmly, softly, eloquently). They age quickly for readers.
17. Avoid using fancy vocabulary. This slows down reading. Keep it simple.
18. Avoid overly specific technical terms in the description of the scene. To write tactical machine gun instead of Storm Beretta Mx4. To write special forces helicopter instead of Boeing A/MH-6M little bird.
19. Don’t write the credits at the end of the script – wasted space.
20. Don’t direct the actor by telling him where he should have a beat between dialogue.
21. Don’t overuse the ellipse in your dialogue.
22. Don’t use symbols to represent swear words ([email protected]#$), just write the swear words. Hollywood swears. They will not be offended.
23. Do not overuse underlined words in your dialogue. Use them sparingly.
24. Don’t overuse CAPS in your dialogue. Use them sparingly.
25. Don’t overuse CAPITALS when describing your scene. Use them sparingly.
26. Do not overuse exclamation points in your dialogue. A necessary in a sentence is sufficient.
27. Don’t ask your characters to state the obvious in their dialogue.
28. Don’t rely on exhibition dialog.
29. Avoid Too Much dialogue on the nose.
30. Don’t trust the stuff in your script. There must be interesting stories and compelling characters to back it up.
31. Don’t write a talking head story for your spec scripts. Hollywood doesn’t want it, unless you’re a talented director who’s made a strong, talking masterpiece. They don’t want them as spec scripts.
32. Don’t be too busy formatting. Focus only on using the location header, scene description, character names, and dialogue.
33. Don’t go into too much detail about a character’s wardrobe. It’s not your job.
34. Don’t go into all the major details of the production design of every scene. It’s not your job.
35. Don’t use the scene description to mention a character’s inner thoughts.
36. Don’t just write your version of a popular movie. Give him something new. A new turn or direction taken.
37. Avoid clichés and stereotypes.
38. Don’t include scenes that don’t advance the story.
39. Don’t include funny scenes and jokes that aren’t partial to the story and character arcs.
40. Don’t take the first ten pages to introduce the characters.
41. Don’t take the first act to introduce the characters.
42. Don’t have perfect characters that are too good or “boy scouts” or “girl scouts”.
43. Avoid having overly specific political viewpoints in your script. They will be off-putting and are not market-friendly.
44. Don’t make your antagonists too bad. It’s boring. Give them justifiable points of view, even if they are biased.
45. Don’t follow the screenwriting guru to a page number. These types of scripts are too predictable.
46. Don’t just tell us. Show us.
47. Avoid slow starts in spec scripts.
48. Do not write a spec script longer than 120 pages. Focus on the sweet spot of 90-115. It doesn’t matter if an Oscar-winning screenplay you read was 130, 140, 150, or 180 pages.
49. Do not introduce too many characters in the first pages. Readers will lose track of it.
50. Don’t have too many spelling mistakes in your script. Even the pros have a few. But if your script is loaded with it, it won’t sit well with industry insiders.
51. Don’t have too many grammatical errors in your script. See #50 above for further explanation.
52. Don’t have too many namesake/homophone errors in your script (there, their, they are, etc.). Again, see #50 for further explanation.
53. Don’t go into the details of a character’s backstory. We only need what is essential to the window of the story you are presenting.
54. Don’t stray too far from Night and Day in your scene headers. It’s a viewing and production thing.
55. Do not include illustrations in your script pages.
56. Do not deviate from general formatting margins in your script. Get software.
57. Do not put personal messages, forewords or afterwords in your screenplays.
58. Don’t end your storylines on a cliffhanger.
59. Do not include end locations for sequels and franchises.
60. Don’t write a screenplay based on intellectual property you don’t own.
61. Don’t write sequels to franchise movies. They will not be read.
62. Do not send hard copies of your scripts to managers, agents, producers, directors or talents. They will not be read.
63. Do not attach your script to query emails. They will not be read.
64. Don’t send your script anywhere unless it was requested via a request or referral.
65. Don’t write a script that can’t be defined as a specific genre or subgenre – or a hybrid of two genres. Hollywood can’t market a comedy tragic horror drama set in space.
66. Don’t sell your script to leading agents. Per policy, they will not read your queries.
67. Don’t sell your script to a general list of popular producers (Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc.). They will not read your queries.
68. Don’t sell your screenplay to a company that doesn’t make movies in the genre your screenplay is in. It’s a waste of time. Do your research.
69. Avoid writing too long query emails when you market your script.
70. Don’t rely on writing groups and paid script coverage to proofread the script for you. Feedback is good. But you’re going to have to learn how to do it yourself.
71. Don’t put all your eggs in this one basket that is one script. Market it. Submit it to major competitions. And then move on.
72. Don’t just have a few scenarios. You need to build your stack to the point where you have 3-5 amazing scripts.
73. Don’t take six months and more to write a screenplay. After these first two scripts, learn how to write like a pro within professional deadlines. Focus on being able to complete a script in 2-3 months.
74. Do not be discouraged rejection. The rejection never ends – even when you’re a pro.
75. Don’t become a cynical screenwriter who blames everything and everyone for your lack of success.
BONUS TIP: Avoid being overly paranoid with marketing your scripts. If you do your research (IMDbPro) and only market legitimate entities, you’ll be fine. Nobody wants to steal your work. It’s cheaper for them to settle for an option or buy it, than to deal with litigation.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, first as a liaison with Sony Studios and later as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a product writer, meeting Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as numerous production and management companies. He previously had a development deal with Lionsgate, as well as several writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackoutstarring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle and Bruce Boxleitner, the thriller feature film of the hunter Creed, and many lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies