Mistakes Aspiring Screenwriters Make
(& How to AVOID Them)
by Lenore Wright
All screenwriters, whether aspiring or experienced, benefit from the achievements of produced screenwriters. We benefit not only from their excellence; but also from their mistakes. Here are common mistakes screenwriters make and suggestions on how YOU can avoid them.
# 1 Mistake => Thievery!
Instead of writing an original script, some screenwriters piece together great scenes from popular movies (with small innovations to disguise the theft). Perhaps this explains the origin of the word 'hack'; they hack up the creations of others and stitch the various pieces together and claim it as their own.
Sometimes writers cover up their shameless pilferage by calling their script an homage or a valentine. HA! It is merely a misguided attempt to write a 'commercial' movie without actually doing any original work. The script ends up to be a poor substitute for digging deep and coming up with an effective, compelling story on their own.
How do you avoid this mistake? Find your own voice, discover your own story. A simple answer, but not an easy one to achieve. Do the work, put it on paper.
Of course writers who aspire to sell screenplays must take steps to be aware of the film market. They need to know what films have been made, what films are shooting, what scripts have been bought and which topics are hot with the stars, directors and producers who have studio deals. But the way to stand out from the crowd is to write a movie all your own. Write the movie ONLY YOU can write.
# 2 Mistake => The Guru Glitch
Many screenwriters today slavishly follow the structural guidelines in one of the scriptwriting books or lecture courses created by popular script gurus. This is not a potshot at any of the script gurus - the best of them are brilliant teachers with useful, provocative ideas. Many of them offer a very helpful system for focusing a
writer's thinking on solving common storytelling problems.
However, I think aspiring writers can benefit from writing several scripts on their own BEFORE they take on one of these strenuous scriptwriting systems.
Tips to avoid the guru glitch:
~ Let the first draft be YOURS alone.
~ Experiment on your own, see where YOUR story leads YOU.
~ On the rewrite or polish, check in with your favorite guru and see
if their guidelines stimulate you somehow to improve your script.
# 3 Mistake => Not knowing when your script is finished.
I was working on a movie with an English crew and they loved to tell stories. One of them had worked on location in India with David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). Lawrence" was playing at a local movie theatre while they were shooting this other movie (decades after Lawrence's original release). At night after shooting, Lean would stop in to watch Lawrence, and inevitably he would go up to the projection booth and pound on the door, demanding to get in so he could make one little cut here or there. He did this so often, they had to put a padlock on the projection booth door. Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest pictures ever made; and yet Lean wanted to give his masterpiece one more little tweak.
I admire that creative ethic; but there is a point when every script needs to be experienced by others. That's the only way a writer really knows if the script is ready to go to market. The safest way to accomplish this without exposing a script prematurely is for the writer to arrange a script reading.
Make it a fun learning experience. Gather a group of friends and read the script through. Or contact a local acting class or community theatre group to arrange a reading of your script. Don't use this as a backer's audition, this reading is for you -- the writer -- to help you take your work to the next level.
Many successful Hollywood writers hear their work read aloud by actors before they send it to market. This process will boost your own confidence in your work. And it may motivate you to do that last creative tweak - the one that makes all the difference.
# 4 Mistake => Confusing action with story
So many screenwriting articles and books emphasize that writers must learn to think visually. This phrase -- thinking visually -- conveys the wrong impression. It is more important for writers to learn how to turn words into actions. That is the job of the screenwriter, along with allowing the characters to communicate through all the dimensions of storytelling, not just dialogue, but gesture, action, quirks, facial expressions, emotions. Convey your story using all the forms of communication, not just conventional action.
To help you discover the important difference between action and story try this exercise:
~ Download a movie script from the Web that features an involving, well-told story. Many Web sites offer free script downloads for educational purposes. Here are a few of them: www.scriptcrawler.net; www.iscriptdb.com; www.simplyscripts.com.
~ Then go to a video store or library and rent or borrow a video of this movie.
~ Watch the opening sequence, then stop the tape and read the opening sequence in the script.
~ Watch the next sequence and then read that sequence in the script.
~ Work your way through the movie and script in this manner. You will come to understand two important concepts: how magic is made on the page and how the page is transformed into magic on the screen.
# 5 Mistake => Reading too many articles like this one.
Let's face it, some writers would rather READ about writing, than actually WRITE. Unfortunately, most screenwriters I know learned to write great screenplays by writing screenplay after screenplay.
Of course I realize most unproduced writers need input or helpful guidance. So I will cautiously recommend four well-known books that might help you transform your story into a screenplay. They are not difficult to read, however they are challenging to absorb. There is so much to learn. Don't expect to polish them off in one rainy weekend.
Don't get discouraged, just keep reading, chapter by chapter; and keep writing, scene by scene.
~ The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by Dave Trottier.
TIP: Read this book first. Dave is a great teacher as well as a screenwriter, so he has a gift for making ideas understandable.
~ Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field.
~ Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hauge. Michael explores the essential elements of a successful screenplay in a practical and helpful way.
~ Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. This concerns rewriting. Read this book after you've completed a draft of your script.
The motion picture offers a rich history of achievement for writers. We can learn from their triumphs and from their mistakes for they faced the same creative challenges we face with our scripts.
© Copyright 2002, Lenore Wright
Wright has 15 years experience writing and selling
screenplays in Los Angeles and New York.
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