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25 Mistakes That Send Your Screenplay To The Trash

Don’t Get Sent To Trash

If you don’t want your spec screenplay moved to trash, you need to read this post.

A lot has changed since I became a script reader back in the early 00s … the biggest being PDFs are now the ‘main’ format of spec scripts. Back when I began, they were on PAPER! I would have to stay in all day and wait for the courier to stagger up my driveway with a sackfull of them. Nowadays, I just get sent a link to a Dropbox folder. Aaah progress!

I’ll be teaching Breaking Into Script Reading again soon, in conjunction with LondonSWF. I love teaching this course, which is not only for wannabe script readers but those screenwriters who want to see an ‘insider’s view’ of how their scripts may be judged from the other side of the table.

To celebrate, I’ve composed a mammoth list of the issues a script reader may chuck a spec screenplay to one side … Or rather, in this new world of PDFs and virtual work, MOVE IT TO TRASH!

I’ve also linked to lots of other stuff about what to do about these problems, too. Ready?? Let’s go …

1) Your script looks like CRAP

First, the obvious stuff you can do something about really easily. Script readers always look at screenplays first to see if they’re in industry standard format. If they’re not, or filled full of niggly format pet peeves, then BOOM! It’s sent to trash, baby.

Want to see a full rundown of the format issues B2W sees most regularly, plus what to do about them? Then CLICK HERE.

You can also download a 1 page screenplay format reference guide (PDF) from the B2W Resources page, HERE.

2) Your first page SUCKS

We’ve all heard that writers get ten pages to impress, but in reality? It’s actually ONE page. Yeah, you read that right. There’s more competition, year on year, so now script readers have taken to checking out the first page BEFORE reading on for ten pages. Harsh but true.

So, take another look at your first page – it better LOOK great in terms of format, for starters (as per #1 on this list). But have you started in the ‘right’ place in your story? Does it ‘hook’ the reader, or pique their interest? More on this, next.

3) You don’t have an OPENING IMAGE

It’s very simple: screenwriting is visual, so you need to start as you mean to go on. This means you need an opening IMAGE that feeds into the tone and genre of your story.

We DON’T want ‘establishing shots’ or characters simply walking into frame and starting to talk. Bleurgh. We also don’t cheesy stuff right off the bat either. Here’s 5 Openers That Make Readers Groan, plus How To Write The Most Clichéd Opener, Ever.

4) You’re not writing VISUALLY

Very often writers approach scene description as what I call ‘set dressing’ or ‘false movement’. In other words they will describe every little thing in the frame, such as characters’ clothes, homes or even how they literally move (raised eyebrows, hands on hips, walking over to windows, etc).

But this is boring. Scene description should not be sp prescriptive; it needs to reveal character and push the story forward (or both!). BE VISUAL or get moved to trash.

5) Your story does not HIT THE GROUND RUNNING

Stories need to start IMMEDIATELY; audiences simply won’t wait. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use ‘slow burn’ techniques, however. In fact, there are lots of movies right now – even thrillers – which are utilising the latter, but STILL hitting the ground running.

6) Your story begins TOO LATE

Not to be confused with number 5 on this list (though there may be some crossover). When this happens, it’s often because the writer makes the mistake of extended character introductions; too much world-building (especially in sci fi or fantasy); sometimes both. But character and story need to be introduced hand-in-hand.

7) Your characters or plot are DERIVATIVE

It’s as simple as this: audiences are more demanding than ever. We do not want the ‘same-old, same-old’ when it comes to characterisation; plus we don’t want the same plots, rehashed over and over again. If you want to do something genre-busting or pre-sold, that’s great BUT you need to find that *thing* that has not been done before.

8) Your plot or characters are too ‘OUT THERE’

The opposite to #7 is also true. We want to be able to recognise characters and plots and they’re relatable and relevant.

9) Your script is DIALOGUE-LEAD

Dialogue is often the enemy of the spec screenwriter, because it’s the EASIEST part of the script to write. The is because we fall in love with our characters, so let them speak as often as we like. But characters have to EARN THE RIGHT to speak, because like #4 on this list, dialogue must reveal character AND push the story forward.

10) Your first ten pages SUCK

If your first 10 pages is full of clichés, takes ‘ages’ to get going, or looks like crap, is dialogue-lead (or anything else on this list!), then sorry but it sucks. More on this in 10 Tips For The Perfect Ten Pages, plus you can download a script reader’s checklist for the first ten pages HERE.


 11) Your characters are TOO SAMEY

Very often I’ll read a spec screenplay in which there are ‘too many’ characters, or I’m unable to tell which is which. This is usually because I can’t work out WHY they’re there, or WHAT they’re doing in the story, or both. This very often relates to secondaries and peripherals in particular.

12) Your antagonist is a COMIC BOOK VILLAIN

We all love a great villain, but they need to have UNDERSTANDABLE motivations (even if we don’t condone their terrible behaviour). Too many antagonists have plans that simply don’t make sense, or are two dimensional ‘evil’.

13) Your female characters are DATED

Female characters, especially leads, have made up some major ground in the last five years. But because there are fewer female leads than male, they are under greater scrutiny and thus date very quickly. You need to stay up-to-date and ensure you’re not recycling old tropes and things the audience are bored with, or even find offensive.

Luckily this is easier than ever, thanks to the internet! Here’s a free B2W ebook, The Ultimate Blueprint On How NOT To Write Female Characters (it’s a big file, so wait up to a minute for it to download).

14) Your script’s tone seem CONFUSED

Again, you need to start as you mean to go on … and remain consistent. So your Comedy needs to be whimsical or even funny from p1; your Horror needs to be ominous from page 1; your Thriller needs to be a page turner from p1; your worthy drama, stoic or compelling — and so on. It’s not rocket science!

15) Your story is full of CHEESY TROPES AND CLICHES

Another easy one. Don’t fill your story – first ten pages and beyond – with cheesy tropes and cliches audiences have become bored with! Again, it’s SO easy not to fall into this trap, thanks to social media and blogs. Here’s 15 Cheesy Writing Fails To Avoid In The First Ten Pages, plus 7 More Epic Fails To Avoid In Your Writing.

 16) Your scenes are STATIC

Taking in #4 and #9 on this list, a static scene feels lifeless and pedestrian. This is because the script is not visual and probably dialogue-led. Avoid at all costs.

17) Your structure is LUMPY

A good story – no matter the genre – has a sense of forward-looking momentum (even non-linear ones!). This means events in  your story need to have *some* sense of ESCALATION, so we can invest in the characters’ journeys. We do not want ‘a bunch of stuff happening’ otherwise guess what?? Yup – moved to trash.

18) Your Writer’s Voice is too OTT, or too ‘Vanilla’

It’s GREAT to see a writer who owns the page … but be careful about going overboard, especially regarding asides and ‘notes to reader’ (we’re script readers! We know how to read!). Similarly, we have enough vanilla, boring screenplays. If we can’t remember what happened, minutes after reading? You guessed it: trash trash trash trash trash trash!. Here’s 7 Ways To Showcase Your Writer’s Voice In Your Screenplay.

19) Your message is as SUBTLE AS A BRICK

Writers often have messages, statements, morals or warnings to share with the world. This is great and can be really powerful storytelling … IF they don’t get up on their soapboxes too much. Avoid banging your drum too hard and you’re MUCH more likely to get people on board via your story!

20) Your dialogue TAKES OVER

As mentioned in points #9 and #16 on this list, dialogue may ‘take over’ your story. An easy way to diagnose this is by looking for what I call ‘dialogue chains’ in your script. Do characters have conversations that last for 2+ pages? You probably have too much dialogue. Similarly, do your characters speak for more than 2+ lines every time they open their mouths? Then again, you probably have too much dialogue. Be ruthless!

 21) Your characters have NO DISCERNIBLE ROLE FUNCTION

If the reader does not know WHO a character is, WHAT they want and WHY they are in the story, then that character has no discernible role function. This most often relates to secondary characters, but sometimes can even include the protagonist and antagonist, so watch out for this.

22) You have confused STEREOTYPE for ARCHETYPE

It’s surprising how many writers mix these two up. Stereotypes related to the idea of ‘simplification’, whereas Archetypes are the ‘original’ version of something. Whilst stereotypes may *sometimes* have their place in stories (ie. in some types of comedy), it’s ARCHETYPES you need to pay particular attention to. If you can’t name the archetypes easily? Then you need to work on this, STAT.

23) You character/s’ back story has TAKEN OVER

This most often happens with the protagonist, but *can* happen with ANY character. Sometimes the writer will add an extraneous prologue, or maybe they will pepper the story with flashbacks to ‘explain’ why a character is the way they are. This obviously can work, but needs uber-careful plotting, from the offset. Simply shoving back story in to ‘break open’ the character is an expositional cheat.

24) Your scenes don’t have ENOUGH CONFLICT

Every scene needs to PUSH THE STORY FORWARD; they do this by adding to the drama via conflict (since drama IS conflict!). However, many writers believe ‘conflict’ = arguing. This is not the case. Conflict can literally be anything relating to the STORY. This means the conflict will frequently relate to life/death decisions, fighting, accidents, or other stuff in the PHYSICAL realm. But conflict also covers the NON-PHYSICAL too such as revelations, agonising, fears, misunderstandings and so on. Check out these three VERY different examples of conflict and how they work in pushing the story forward.

25) Your ending is wrapped up too quickly, or a DEUS EX MACHINA

Endings that wrap up too quickly are everywhere in the spec pile. This is usually because the writer has planted their Set Up too late, so its Pay Off feels ‘too soon‘.

Sometimes it will be because the structure or plotting is lumpy, as in #17 on this list. Other times, the writer has forgotten to Set Up at all, so the way out of the situation is the dreaded Deus Ex Machina.

Either way, if the ending doesn’t work (for whatever reason), then it’s usually a structural issue you have. These writers would be wise to START by looking at their ending and plotting backwards, so see where where their Set Up *should* go.

So there you have it …

Follow these top 25 tips, you won’t get moved to trash. Good luck!

Want EVEN MORE Script Reading Secrets?

Breaking Into Script Reading Is Back! 

How do IMy sell-out course, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is back! If you’re interested in becoming a script reader, or finding out more how script readers may assess YOUR own writing – or both! – then this is the course for you. Tickets are on sale now. GET THEM HERE, or click the pic on the left. See you there!

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2 thoughts on “25 Mistakes That Send Your Screenplay To The Trash”

  1. Can I add one more? Grammatical and spelling mistakes destroy even the best scripts. I’ll never forget feedback I got on a script that said “I enjoyed reading this, but you had an extra ‘the’ in the first scene description.” It was a rookie mistake and I felt about two inches tall.

    1. Sure, typos should be avoided wherever possible, especially the first page — though to be fair, penalising someone for an extra ‘the’ or an obvious autocorrect is mega harsh, imho. But then people CAN be harsh! 🙁

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