There was no shortage of “don’ts” back when we were growing up. So many choices, most of them bad. So much to remember, most of it useless. And sure enough, now that we’re adults, the “don’ts” just keep racking up. Here are ten that come to mind that I’d like to share with my fellow screenwriters:
1. Don’t imitate. Emulate.
It’s easy to try to imitate a favorite screenwriter or director. You may fail miserably or have uncommon success. Either way, you’re missing the point of reading great scripts. Your goal should be to understand the writer’s method. Are they setting a mood, or the pace of the action? Have they transported you to a bygone era? Are the action and dialog deadly sharp like a knife’s blade, or meandering like a hillbilly hound dog? Above all, what makes you want to continue reading it? Learn from example and then emulate.
2. Don’t write what you know if it just ain’t that interesting.
“Write what you know” is sensible advice as a starting point. If you’re a forensics examiner, or a criminal defense lawyer, or an oil rig worker in the North Sea you’ve probably got some great stories to tell. Most others need to take the adage a step further and “write what you observe”. Interesting things will naturally stand out. Regardless of where you spend the bulk of your waking hours, the really great stories are in the relationships among people. These could be heroic or romantic or filled with conflict. And they happen all around you every day, if you pay attention.
3. Don’t let accuracy get in the way of story.
I’ve seen this so many times. People start out in screenwriting with a story that needs to be told — oftimes, their own. This is a noble pursuit that may or may not lead to success on the page. Where these stories fall short is when the story itself takes over and the intended screenplay falls by the wayside. It becomes unwatchable because you want to be accurate and forget that your audience is expecting to see a theatrical motion picture. Instead, you’ve written a personal diary and your audience is you. Be mindful that you may need to alter the facts in order to tell a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end.
4. Don’t try to manually format your script. Here’s why:
There’s no substitute for industry-recognized screenwriting software. It’s not just about the expectations of the studio reader (who will probably get the PDF version anyway). It’s about your ability to write without concern for margins and page breaks. It’s about your ability to examine the structure and timeline of the story with embedded outlining tools. Will you be shooting it yourself? Screenwriting software becomes even more critical, not less. What’s your budget? How many locations? What props? So many facets of filmmaking are built into screenwriting software, and for good reason. At the end of the day, you’re going to want your script to be shootable. And that’s more than just the words on the page.
5. Don’t assume. Check facts. Preserve your credibility.
A movie can quickly be ruined by a bad accent or a statement of fact that’s simply not true. A poorly-researched screenplay would share the same fate. While it’s true that many sticklers, especially in the SciFi/Fantasy world — really need to get a life, it’s also true that if you can’t deliver a believable premise to your target audience, then it’s video game over for you.
6. Don’t make every character talk like you.
When developing your characters, paint enough background for each individual so that the way they speak reflects the way they were brought up and then evolved to the current point in time. Voice must also reflect state of mind. Education, awareness, motive, and so much more, can be discerned simply by the way that a character speaks.
7. Don’t drop out of present tense. Even during flashbacks. (But dialog has no specific tense.)
It’s an easy rule to follow. When writing action, stay in the present tense. But new writers are more likely to make the mistake of dropping into past tense when going into a flashback. From the audience perspective, unless there’s a voice-over narration, the occurrence of a flashback is a strictly visual experience. Let the director resolve any confusion that may cause.
8. Don’t be obvious. If it makes sense to go right, go left.
You might be perfectly happy to lead the reader through your story to logical outcomes. But how much more interesting would it be if something illogical (but believable) happened instead? Imagine also how that might stimulate your own creative juices to explore scenarios you might never have otherwise considered.
9. Don’t overlook opportunities.
Weird stuff happens all the time. Incorporate it into your script. It doesn’t need to be the centerpiece but if it can fill in a gap, use it. Once something happens in real life, it enters the land of the credible. That’s especially true of SciFi and Fantasy.
10. DON’T STOP WRITING
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.