Ten Mistakes Every Screenwriter Makes

1.  There is always one character too many.

Changing a character’s gender or ethnicity can often unlock a story.  More often, eliminating a character is the answer, and better to do it now and save the editors a lot of unnecessary work.

When I taught screenwriting, I used to recommend taking an acting class instead.  Acting class drove home the principle that every character has to have something to do in a scene, otherwise they’re just furniture.  And if I couldn’t find enough things for a character to do, that was a sign that maybe that character should be dropped.

2.  Every movie contains its own review.

“This is terrible.”  “I don’t believe this.”  “Why are we here?”  Lines like this should be avoided, even if appropriate to the scene, lest the viewer be tempted to answer, “Yes, it is.”  “Neither do I.”  “Good question, let’s go.”

3.  Doppelgangers.

In Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” both Albert Brooks and John Lithgow play men who’ve married young women and had children late in life.  It’s a minor flaw in a movie with many flaws and much genius, but duplications like this are often a sign that an obsession hasn’t been fully worked through, especially if the screenwriter has failed to hang a light on the situation—i.e., have the characters themselves note the coincidence.

4.  “I don’t want to be the guy who learns.  I want to be the guy who knows.”

Before 1980 I heard very little talk in the movie business about arcs, journeys, stakes, engines, motors, notes, and ticking clocks.

The “arc” concept comes from actors.  Actors want to have somewhere to go with their performance.  But not every character needs to grow and change, except maybe in a Lifetime movie.  Steve McQueen, the author of the above quote, knew people came to see Steve McQueen.

“Engines” and “motors” and “stakes” are big in Playwriting 101.  They’re often transparently artificial.  As Henry James said, the writer’s only obligation is to be interesting.

There have always been “notes” in the theater, but the first time I ever heard the term was when, during an intermission of “Burn This,” Gordon Davidson visited the audience to ask Ulu Grosbard for his notes.  And I’d been writing screenplays for more than 15 years.  After “Jaws,” the studios made a lot of money, hired a lot more development execs, and twenty-somethings swarmed into Hollywood, many boasting Ivy League degrees.  (Before 1980, people in Hollywood didn’t talk about where they went to college, except for David Begelman, who lied about going to Yale; Peter Bart kept his stint at the London School of Economics securely under wraps.)  Hearing pitches and giving notes—according to formulas laid down by Robert McKee et al–became part of the industry, as they never had before.  And the totally predictable romcom was born.

If a bomb has to be defused or the entire Eastern seaboard will expire in a mushroom cloud, that’s a legitimate “ticking clock.”  In the otherwise lovely “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman’s first feature as a director, the over-the-hill musicians have to put together a gala that brings in a lot of money, or their rest home will go under—and this is only the most recent example of a “ticking clock” that actually gets in the way of the movie.

5.  Invisible Martians.

Jorge Luis Borges observed that H.G. Wells wrote one novella about Martians attacking the Earth, and another novella about an Invisible Man.  What he didn’t write was a novella about Invisible Martians attacking the Earth.  (He also didn’t write “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”)

There are “A” stories and “B” stories, and then there are “A” stories competing with each other.  On the one hand, “Flight” is the story of a pilot who, because of his substance abuse, safely lands an out-of-control plane.  On the other, it’s a conventional story of a man who comes to realize he has a substance-abuse problem.  The script cleverly knits the two stories when Denzel Washington has to get high in order to make an appearance before an investigating committee.  But for the most part, the two tracks run in parallel, pulling focus from each other, and failing to answer the question, “Should William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize be taken away because he wrote his books under the influence of bourbon?”

6.  Premise-fighters.

In Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Sissy Spacek, playing Kevin Costner’s wife, accuses him of caring more about John Kennedy’s assassination than he does about his own family.  Yes, and so does the audience.  That’s what we’ve come to see, so can we please get on with it?  The premise-fighting function mainly falls on wives in movies, roles that are often thankless to begin with.

When the protagonist is the premise-fighter, the situation is even more annoying.  Once “Manhattan Murder Mystery” gets down to business, the results are amusing, but Woody Allen wastes a lot of screen time telling Diane Keaton she’s crazy for suspecting their neighbor has killed his wife.

7.  Naming names.

The screenwriter knows the characters’ names.  So does the director, and the actors.  The audience doesn’t.  All too often, characters will talk about “Bill” or “Emily” or “Jimarcus,” and the people watching the movie (except for the very attentive) have to guess who’s being referred to.   (Sometimes, owing to cuts in the editing room, the character’s name has never been spoken.)

Same goes for dates and times.  We’ll be informed that something happened “a month ago” or “last week” or “this morning,” and our own sense of how much time has elapsed is totally different.  Movies create their own sense of time, and screenwriters get specific at their peril, often cramming several scenes into one “longest day,” when they could easily have been spaced over a week or more.

8.  Auteur, auteur?

Screenwriters often complain that directors get credit for things that are spelled out in the script.  (In the old Z Channel magazine, F.X. Feeney described a sequence in “The Sender” as “one of the most bizarre scenes in movie history,” and gave sole credit to the director.  When I told him the director had pretty much shot what I’d written, he apologized—but with a shrug.)  If William Holden’s character in “Sunset Boulevard” is to be believed, audiences used to think the actors made up their lines as they went along.  Yes, but for the most part, the screenwriter’s relative anonymity is well-deserved, and screenwriters who yearn for fame (as screenwriters) are living in a dream world.

My writer Pantheon includes Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Jean-Luc Godard, the Coen Brothers, Clifford Odets, Whit Stillman, Mike Leigh, Joseph Manciewicz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Lonergan, David Gordon Green, Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, Steve Conrad, and Richard Curtis.  Of those, how many have truly original (i.e., recognizable in a blind test) voices, apart from their directorial personalities?  In my book, only Sturges (whose dialogue brings tears of appreciation to our eyes—mine and my wife’s), Wilder, Godard, Odets (not for nothing did a character in “Diner” know “Sweet Smell of Success” by heart), Stillman, Manciewicz, Tarantino, Woody Allen (for better or worse; much of his post-Marshall Brickman dialogue, when he’s not writing for himself or a Woody stand-in, is recognizably stilted), and in TV (but not in their movies), David Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, and Larry David.  There’s a stretch in “Magnolia,” when the rain starts to fall, that for my money is the greatest thirty minutes in movie history, but I don’t know how purely distinctive Paul Thomas Anderson’s voice is, and that’s the defining key to auteurship.  Oh, and Ed Wood.

When Jack Palance, in Godard’s “Contempt,” complains that Fritz Lang’s dailies aren’t following the script, Fritz Lang has the final word on this subject.  “That’s because there,” he says, pointing to the script, “it’s words, and up there it’s pictures.”

9.  Scenus interruptus.

Quentin Tarantino got started writing scenes for himself to act in acting class, and in addition to his visual gifts, and his comic sense of violence, he’s a born playwright.  His long scenes—the bar scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” the dinner table scene in “Django Unchained”—are masterpieces of discursive tension, and a far better model for today’s screenwriters than the old-school laconic style perfected by Robert Towne.

“If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”  “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  Pretty-much-yes to the first, not-all-that-often to the second.  Offhand, the only non-dialogue scene I can think of that actually advances a story is in “Stalag 17,” where William Holden realizes, from seeing the swinging light bulb cord, how word of the barrack’s plans are being leaked to the Nazis.  (Peter Graves, the Nazi masquerading as an American, adds sublime ironic counterpoint as he leads a march to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”)  And in far too many screenplays, the scene stops just as it’s getting underway, leaving the viewer to wonder, “Well, what did he say to that?”  (“Downton Abbey” is a typical offender—in an effort to keep a bunch of stories going, it skimps on each one.)

Less used to be more, when people kept things to themselves.  Now, in the Facebook Era, they’re eager to say whatever’s on their minds.  Subtext is in retreat.

10.  “The gloom of the first draft.”

“I hate writing,” said Dorothy Parker.  “I love having written.”  Wes Craven quoted this to me, approvingly, and I could sort of sympathize.  When I was starting out, as a novelist, I used to have a good day followed by a bad day, and sometimes fell into the trap of thinking that if only I could solve some writing problem that was plaguing me, my anxiety, depression, or bad temper would evaporate at least for a while.  Maybe it was all those years of psychoanalysis, but I no longer funnel my neuroses through my writing; now writing is my heroin, and I’m easier to live with.  I used to console myself with the knowledge that Norman Mailer suffered gloom in the early stages of a project–“Il faut souffrir,” Fritz Lang tells Michel Piccoli in “Contempt”—but I’m happy to say I no longer suffer.

And I no longer make the mistake of trying to get things right the first time.  Sometimes I hit on a line that will last through the first readable draft, but usually it’s the idea of the line and not the lyric, and my first drafts have three dots after most of the dialogue.  I don’t really think in terms of “drafts”—it’s more like those scenes in “No Way Out” where a 1980s-era computer is gradually revealing Kevin Costner’s face by going over it again and again and again.

Of course you have to get something useful down.  Harold Pinter used to claim he started with a first line, and then just let things fly.  I tried that when I was writing my first hardcover novel, “Counterparts.”  When I handed in the manuscript, my editor, the late Joyce Engelson, gave me the best note I’ve ever gotten:  “Start over with a fresh stack of paper.”  I started over, and forced myself to write an outline.  That, I recall, was painful.  Writing outlines was too much like school.  (At USC Film School, and especially at UCLA Extension, I noticed my screenwriting students were resistant to the notion of starting with an outline, and the younger the student, the more resistance.)  Now that I’m writing plays, though, I don’t outline…I jump around from scene to scene, and a sort of outline emerges, complete with provisional dialogue.

And I no longer play Socrates with myself:  back in the day, whenever I got stuck, I’d write down questions in a notebook:  “Why is she leaving the house?”  “Why does he confess?” and stare at the questions until something clicked.  Now I don’t bother to get stuck—when inspiration flags, I go on to the next scene or the next beat, the way you were told to leave a tricky SAT question and go back to it later.  If I don’t know how to end a scene, I write END THING (the way I used to write DESCRIPTION TO COME when I was writing prose).  And usually something occurs by the next few times around, without a lot of stress.  Stress is neither helpful nor necessary.  Writing, like acting, should be fun.  And not a substitute for figuring out what’s really bothering you.

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11 Responses to “Ten Mistakes Every Screenwriter Makes”

  • Really enjoying your stuff, Tom!

  • audiopost

    Regarding #7

    Too often the opposite is true Tom. Tom, I can’t tell you how many shows/movies I see where unrealistic dialog is the problem. As in, how often people state a person’s name, right Tom? The truth is Tom, if you go sit next to any two people talking, you’ll notice that no matter how familiar they are with one another, they rarely say the other person’s name. Right Tom? Tom, have you ever had someone say your name more than once in a short conversation with you. Ever notice, Tom, how uncomfortable that can make someone? Screenwriters need to be more aware of this Tom. Tom I appreciate the article. Have a good day Tom.

    Really this happens far too often and anyone who does that needs to be put in a room with a box that repeats their name for 12 hours until they swear on their life never to do it again. Script it in a scene ONCE and if it hits the edit room floor, that’s fine.

    • Totally true, when characters are talking to each other, and I should have mentioned it. (“That’s my name, don’t use it up”–an old SCTV line.) I was thinking of scenes in which characters are referring to characters not in the scene.

      Using a person’s name, repeating it in a conversation, is an old power trick…like LBJ’s massaging people’s elbows while he talked to them.

      • audiopost

        Oh goodness yes! When someone is out of the room (scene), the use of their name and bashing of minor flaws should be expected. :)

    • Alex Harris

      ahaha that was really funny^^
      One thing that I notice is that people often say “Look” unrealistically in TV/movies JUST because it sounds like something that would be said in a TV show/movie.
      “Look… I’m sorry about what happened. I was confused.”
      “Look… I get that you’re sorry, but I can’t get over it.”
      “I understand.”
      “Look… We can start over if you just give me time.”

      I HATE IT. But maybe its just because i’m paying attention to the dialogue. It seems quite easy for anyone who’s never had to write screen to completely believe whatever is laid in front of their eyes.

      • In actorspeak, words like “look” and “hey” and “OK” at the beginning of lines are called “handles.” Good directors discourage actors from inserting them into the dialogue. Screenwriters tend to insert them between sentences that don’t quite go together, or when the dialogue takes a sudden turn–what actors call a “gear change.” Often, these insertions are meant to make the dialogue more readable…to take the hex off the abrupt swerve in logic. And then they survive (often unnecessarily) when the actors go before the camera.

    • Kara

      Ha! It’s so true — the ONLY thing I remember about the movie TIN CUP is the name “Roy” because Rene Russo’s character said it in pretty much every line of dialogue. It was so distracting! Although, it would probably make an awesome drinking game if you took a shot with every “Roy”…

  • Glenn Camhi

    Some good stuff here. If I may offer another opinion on #9:

    While I love great dialogue, quote it endlessly, and strive to write it, many films are too dang talky. Which is usually lazy writing/filmmaking. It’s a visual medium… story is typically most compelling when shown at *least* as much as told.

    Surely STALAG 17 isn’t the only movie you thought of offhand with a non-dialogue scene that “actually advances a story.” Let’s set aside the obvious of all the great ol’ silent films with minimal intertitles. And the film that won the Oscar last year.

    Just off the top of my head… how about BAMBI? So much story is conveyed without a peep. Or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST? How much of that great film is nothing but ambient sound? And what riveting storytelling it is! Or another Leone classic, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY? How about most of Stanley Kubrick’s classics?

    WALL-E’s astounding opening third — which many found the most compelling — is pretty much devoid of dialogue (apart from snippets of “Hello Dolly” on a tv). CAST AWAY goes for some stretches without words, all forwarding the tale. Countless action films churn through a great deal of story without a word. INCEPTION is one of many recent actioners that jumps to mind. ALIEN. SPIRITED AWAY.

    The timeless THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE in FANTASIA is told entirely without dialogue.

    (As an aside, on stage, choreographer/director Matthew Bourne tells amazing, gripping, complex and richly charactered stories entirely without words.)

    And of course there’s the 4.5 minutes of spectacular storytelling that brings pretty much everyone in the audience to tears near the beginning of UP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2bk_9T482g

    I agree that Tarantino’s knack for crackling dialogue in long, chatty scenes is impressive. He is a master. He’s also a rare exception. Too many screenwriters write too much chatter. Find a way to show it.

    • Can’t argue with any of that. And I do love THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. i should have restricted the universe to sound films where the story is basically carried by dialogue. (Animation is a world unto itself.) A lot of this has to do with my perhaps idiosyncratic prejudice against silence in movies and particularly plays. Silence in movies is very often just shoe leather (a term I first heard from Nicholas Ray). For me, a play doesn’t begin until the first line of dialogue is spoken. An actor enters, tidies up a room, pours himself a drink…to me, it all seems very artificial, nothing is really happening yet, even if information about the character and the setting and whatnot is being conveyed. Action scenes in movies, no matter how effective (and I find them less and less effective; don’t cut to the chase, cut to the end of the chase)…they’re not really taking place. But actors talking to each other…reacting to each other…that’s actually happening, even if the dialogue makes you wince. And sure, I’ve written a number of thrilller scenes where nobody’s saying anything, and the narrative is unfolding…so yes, the statement was way too general.

  • Glenn Camhi

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Tom, and very interesting. I love differences of opinion and all art is subjective, so perhaps we’ll respectfully disagree, just a little. While plays are very different beasts from movies in many ways, I still think this applies to the stage, if a bit less…

    As much as I love great dialogue, I find the most compelling storytelling on film is often free from dialogue. That’s when truly great performances (along with staging, framing, cinematography, and so on) carry all the weight. It still requires great writing. I just think, as William Goldman oft notes, that the bulk of narrative writing is not dialogue.

    Since you’d mentioned DOWNTON ABBEY… how much less powerful would it have been if this week (in the USA, anyway), Maggie Smith had talked about her conflicting emotions, instead of simply showing us her awful pain of loss, her struggle to maintain propriety and composure, and the weariness of her age, all expressed vividly through nothing but a walk — seen from behind no less, mostly in silhouette? Brilliant! And far more effective than words in my opinion. (Even though I can’t get enough of her perfect delivery of most of Julian Fellowe’s wittiest lines.) Or… how dull (and lazy) would the final shot of, say, DANGEROUS LIAISONS have been, had Christopher Hampton handed Glenn Close dialogue to explain the explosion of emotions racing through her, rather than letting us see that one long, silent shot of her face as she scrapes off her makeup? We know every thought going through her head and the range of emotional destruction just from watching her. Ditto for the last couple minutes of THE GRADUATE*: we see their entire relationship and their gradual realization together in their faces, and in the genius way it’s shot and cut. Words would’ve killed it. Or how about in CABARET, when we see Michael York and Liza Minnelli sitting in her room some distance apart, each silently doing their own thing, but at the same time suddenly glancing up and smiling to each other? That sweet, touching moment told us everything we ever needed to know about how their friendship has developed and how close and comfortable they are with each other. That’s terrific writing, and dialogue couldn’t have done it better. Or how about, in a film known for its wonderful and endlessly quotable dialogue — THE PHILADELPHIA STORY — that great, hilarious scene when Katharine Hepburn throws Cary Grant out? Or on the other end of the spectrum, the intense whipping scene in GLORY? So much is evoked and revealed in that nearly wordless scene, and the silent interaction among the characters is SO emotionally powerful. It’s impossible to watch that scene without getting teary eyed, and without understanding the deep connection that develops between these men, which turns the story. Or again, major chunks of the Sergio Leone films I mentioned, which are some of the most riveting scenes and storytelling on film. These random examples just popped to mind, but surely we could both come up with an endless list.

    We agree fully about meaningless “business.” But I think there’s a world of difference between tidying up a room or pouring a drink, as you describe, and wordless actions, interactions, facial expressions and body language which truly reveal character and tell story. The former is indeed lazy writing (and/or directing). It’s not storytelling. But think of that terrific opening to HARPER, right? Goldman was asked to add a scene introducing Lew Harper during the title sequence. He could’ve written dialogue to reveal character, or given Paul Newman meaningless, artificial business. But instead he wrote one of the most memorable film openings, giving Newman (among other bits) the classic character-revealing business of trying to make coffee, realizing he’s out of beans, and deciding to retrieve his old beans from the garbage. Through his actions and expressions, we learn about and gain empathy for him before he ever utters a word.

    Personally, I don’t think animation is necessarily a world to itself. It can be, sure, but many of the great animated films are no different in story structure or character development than live action films. From among my earlier examples, consider WALL-E or UP.

    Anyway, I understand your pov. I just wish more screenwriters (and directors) had the confidence to reveal story and character without dialogue. I find it’s more challenging to pull off well, but often much more exciting and rewarding to see. Film is, of course, above all a visual medium. An over-reliance on chatter often reminds me of these lines in, of all films, CLUE:

    Professor Plum: Are you afraid of silence, Mrs. Peacock?
    Mrs. Peacock: Yes-What? No! Why?
    Professor Plum: Well, it just seems to me that you are. You seem to suffer from what we call “Pressure of Speech.”

    Clearly, I’m guilty of this right here. :)

    *THE GRADUATE ending: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSDMwoOYzNw&feature=youtu.be&t=1m37s