You may remember this infographic from when it was doing the rounds three or four years back, so I thought I’d revisit it and see if anything has radically changed in how I view it from B2W’s POV as a script reader and script editor.
Since this blog always posits there’s no ‘right’ way to write (just multiple WRONG ways!), I thought I would take a look at the recurring problems section of the graphic. Today I’m putting all 38 of these issues under the microscope and offering up my thoughts. (By the way, whilst the infographic relates to screenplays, it’s worth remembering most of these problematic storytelling elements, plus their solutions, apply to novels as well).
Ready? Let’s go …
Can’t see it? CLICK HERE (or on the pic) to enlarge it
1) The story begins too late in the script (69 scripts)
Frankly, I’m unsurprised this one has turned out to the biggest problem – it’s the craft issue I give the most notes on, as BOTH a script reader in reports and as a script editor! Screenplays just HAVE to hit the ground running and introduce characters and story hand-in-hand. (Psssst! A great tip for writers struggling with this is to plan your story BACKWARDS, from the ending FIRST).
2) The scenes are void of meaningful conflict (67 scripts)
Again, something B2W advises on all the time. Static scenes are probably one of the biggest issues I see, but also scenes that just don’t advance the story. Lots of writers think of structure in the holistic sense, bit often forget about the actual scenes. Check THIS POST out for more.
3) The script has a by-the-numbers execution (53 scripts)
We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘the same, but different’ — producers don’t want stories that are completely out of the left field, but equally they don’t want scripts that are too samey either.
4) The story is too thin (53 scripts)
If a story is ‘too thin’, I’d venture this means there’s NOT ENOUGH CONFLICT. I see this happening when writers are not sure of the genre conventions of their chosen story, or when they don’t want to inflict the maximum possible pain/obstacles on their characters.
5) The villains are cartoonish, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil (53 scripts)
The antagonist thinks s/he is the protagonist! Plus the best antagonists are those who have a plan that MAKES SENSE. Just because we ‘get’ why these people are doing terrible things doesn’t mean we condone their actions (though occasionally we may even PREFER and ROOT FOR the antagonist, why not??).
6) The character logic is muddy (47 scripts)
If characters have no consistency in their actions, then this is a big red flag. (Note however that consistency relates to the story those characters are in, not necessarily ‘real life’, even when dealing with true stories).
7) The female part is underwritten (46 scripts)
The big one! I’m only surprised there wasn’t more of these, tbh. That said, there are now so many writing resources tackling female characterisation, hopefully it’s finally getting through to writers that poorly written female characters will not be tolerated.
8) The narrative falls into a repetitive pattern (45 scripts)
There needs to be a sense of GROWTH or ESCALATION across a narrative (whatever that means), otherwise the story becomes ‘B.O.S.H’ (Bunch of Stuff Happens). If you want your reader to invest in the story, the plot has to take us TOWARDS something.
9) The conflict is inconsequential, flash-in-the pan (44 scripts)
Like number 4 on this list, conflict suffers when writers don’t want to throw EVERYTHING at their characters. It may also be a problem when writers don’t really know what conflict IS – some think it’s all about arguing, rather than action.
10) The Protagonist is a standard issue hero (39 scripts)
Everyone loves a hero … This is one of our enduring archetypes. But the hero becomes stereotypical when so-called ‘heroic’ tales and traits get rehashed. LE YAWN!
11) The script favours style over substance (35 scripts)
Now, I obviously couldn’t say for sure, but I would bet real money lots of these scripts were non linear. There needs to be a STORY REASON for non linearity, not because it ‘looks cool’. I would also wager these writers may have gone for stylistic dialogue a la Sorkin and Whedon, which I see a lot of.
12) The ending is completely anti-climatic (35 scripts)
The ending needs to be some kind of crescendo, showdown, resolution, denouement … Otherwise it’s not dramatically satisfying. Even in the case of the understated ending, there is some kind of sense that things have been resolved (at least for now).
13) The characters are all stereotypes (34 scripts)
Too many writers mistake stereotypes for archetypes. The short version: stereotypes are the ‘simplified’ version; archetypes are the ‘original’ version. Subtle, but crucial difference there. There’s so many resources now to help with this! There’s really no excuse.
14) The script suffers from arbitrary complexity (31 scripts)
If your script is too complicated, readers can’t invest in the story. It’s a good idea to figure out the logline in advance to test out the concept at the heart of the story.
15) The script goes off the rails in the third act (30 scripts)
Too often, writers seem to think, ‘Gotta wrap this up!’ in the third act and write all sorts to get it resolved … But then the ending doesn’t feel natural. Other times, writers try and go for the shock ending but have failed to set up adequately and it seems to come out of the left field.
16) The script’s questions are left unanswered (29 scripts)
Screenwriting is in the business of set up and pay off. Whilst some ambiguity is allowed, we still need enough information to make up our own minds. Don’t leave us hanging.
17) The story is a string of unrelated vignettes (29 scripts)
Episodic structure is fine, if a writer has worked hard at ensuring it makes logical sense. Dramas that take in long periods of time may use episodic structure. But if there is nothing to create a connection between these episodes (like a person’s lifetime/ages in a biopic!), then what’s the point?
18) The plot unravels through convenience/contrivance (28 scripts)
This may come under number 15, or perhaps a clue or similar will be found that means the script can end. Even if it’s seeded earlier, if it feels contrived, it will still be dissatisfying.
19) The script is totally confused (28 scripts)
I call these WTF scripts. Sometimes you can read 120 pages and get to the end and say, ‘I have no clue what this is about’. Might seem unlikely, but 100% true story!
20) The script is stoic to a fault (27 scripts)
AKA Boring AF. Next!
21) The Protagonist is not as strong as need be (24 scripts)
If a protagonist doesn’t WANT or NEED something, then it will be difficult for them to drive the action. Every writer knows this, yet sometimes the mission or point of the story is just is not clear.
22) The premise is a transparent excuse for action (22 scripts)
Characters running about, fighting and exploding things is cool – but there needs to be a STORY attached. Audiences are bored of plain spectacle … Besides, this is a spec script. It’s not a movie yet!
23) The character backstories are irrelevant/useless (21 scripts)
This happens when writers believe ‘good characterisation’ is about what the characters were doing BEFORE the story even starts. But we learn far more about characters from how they deal with events IN the story. I mean, we never saw iconic characters like Ripley or John McClane having flashbacks, did we? There’s a reason for that.
24) The supernatural element is too undefined (21 scripts)
If you’re using the supernatural, or fantasy/ sci fi elements in your script, we need to know what the ‘rules’ are of that story world … what is possible? Otherwise it will seem contrived, complicated or both.
25) The plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls (19 scripts)
This is that B.O.S.H problem again – remember, we need a sense of growth, escalation, PUSHING THE STORY FORWARD (whatever that means).
26) The ending is a case of deus ex machina (19 scripts)
Very often audience members THINK they’re seeing a DEM in produced stuff, but it’s not really. However, in the case of spec scripts, they happen all the time: something will be ‘flown in’ to solve all the characters’ problems FOR them. However, if you seed the solution earlier, the ending will work. Set Up/Pay Off again. Simples.
27) The characters are indistinguishable from each other (19 scripts)
Characters may all sound the same; or they may be differentiated, but we just don’t know what their role function is, or what their character motivation is. Or perhaps both. Whatever the case, we need to know WHAT role a character is performing in the story to understand WHO s/he is.
28) The story is one big shrug (17 scripts)
Whilst this may seem subjective (and can be), ‘WHY this story?’ is still a biiiiiiiig thing. If you don’t know WHY you’ve written this story, or WHO it is for, or WHAT we’re supposed to be getting out of it, then there’s NO POINT.
29) The dialogue is cheesy, pulpy, action movie cliches (16 scripts)
Action movies may have cheesy dialogue most often, but there are certain bits of dialogue that should NEVER be said, regardless of the story being told.
30) The script is a potboiler (15 scripts)
In other words, this story is a derivative money-grab that makes the writer seem like a hack. NO THANKS! There will be plenty of time for that later, this is a SPEC SCRIPT, your passion should shine through on the page.
31) The drama/conflict is told, but not shown (14 scripts)
‘Show it, don’t tell it’ may have become a bit of a cliche in its own right, but it’s still worth thinking about how dialogue may undermine the potential conflict in your script. We don’t want acres and acres of TALK. We want to see ACTION pushing this story forward.
32) The great setting is not utilised (13 scripts)
If you’re going to set your story in a potentially visual and dramatic place like a space station, Alaska, underwater, a Brazilian shanty town, inside the human body, a casino, a wild African plain (or wherever), then you’d better BRING IT INTO THE STORY! Otherwise, why bother?
33) The emotional element is exaggerated (13 scripts)
The 1990s are over; Dawson’s Creek and the whole mumblecore thing is done. Super-exaggerated emotions, even in drama, is not cool. Understated is the name of the game right now. This may change, but for the moment you have to stay up-to-date.
34) The dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose (13 scripts)
35) The emotional element is neglected (11 scripts)
Just like number 33 on this list, the opposite can also be true. Fancy!
36) The script is a writer ego trip (10 scripts)
Writers with an agenda are boring, especially when they’re trying to convey how clever they are. (Yes, that didn’t stop certain writer-directors, true, but that will be why most of them had to make their own stuff themselves!).
37) The script makes a reference, but not a joke (7 scripts)
This one is harder to pin down, but I wouldn’t mind putting a wager down this references the so-called ‘Signal From Fred’.
38) The message overshadows the story (5 scripts)
I call these ‘soapbox scripts’ – in other words, the writer is so intent on their message, the story suffers as they deliver it wth all the subtlety of a brick to the face. That’s not entertaining, especially when it’s ‘just’ on the page as a screenplay.
I found this a really interesting exercise. Obviously I can’t know any of the exact reasons the scripts got rejected as I never read them myself (or even know what they are!). That said, there is plenty here I recognise as an experienced script reader, illustrating that scripts get rejected for the same-old reasons, now more than ever.
So, intriguingly, though this infographic is a few years old now, it still has MUCH to tell writers on WHY their scripts get rejected. Make sure you download it and/or bookmark it today!