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35 Common Writing Style Mistakes In Spec Scripts

(And How To Fix Them)

 

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Writing Style

When a reader at a contest, agency, or management company opens up a spec script, it’s clear from the very first page whether the writer knows how to write. It’s clear from the dialogue, formatting and writing style: the way the writer’s chosen to put the images they want the reader to see down on the page.

However, there are quite a few mistakes and odd stylistic choices that we see writers make again and again when it comes to these elements. Mistakes that the pros don’t generally make.

Use the following check-list of dialogue, formatting and writing style mistakes and make the necessary edits to immediately improve your screenplay.

1. Vowel Overkill

Writing Style

You can get away with a few, such as Aaarrgghh! or Aaaahhhh! on occasion because they don’t distort the actual original words, as in the above examples. To be on the safe side, a better way to get emotions across in dialogue is to simply write the word normally and leave it up to the actor how they want to deliver it. For example: What?! Stop! Fire!

2. Strange/Awkward Acting Demands

Writing Style

Often it’s clear what the writer intends with phrases like these, but another way needs to be found to get the action or emotion across. Always aim to direct actors as little as possible and let the circumstances of the scene suggest to them how they should play it.

Very often this means simply leaving out any specific instructions on what they should do with their face or body.

3. Car Porn

Writing Style

Unless you’re writing a Fast And Furious-style movie in which high-end car makes could be important, leave these kind of descriptions out.

There’s a difference, however, between car porn and naming a car as an additional way of showing a character’s personality. This description from Sideways is a good example of the latter:

Writing Style

4. Missing Hyphens

Writing Style

If you’re prone to leaving out hyphens, brush up on how they should be applied and make sure you get them in your scene description and dialogue. The above examples should read like this:

Writing Style

5. Tired Cliches

Writing Style

A good way of catching many cliches is to simply ask yourself if you’ve seen or heard that particular phrase before. If the answer’s yes, take another look to check if it’s a cliche.

Do a Cmd+F search on your script for these most common offenders in spec scripts, all of which involve eyes for some reason: “his eyes widen” “her eyes narrow” “he rolls his eyes”. Also do a search for the phrase “like a…” as anything that follows could well be a cliche.

6. Summarizing Actions

Writing Style

This comes across like the writer has forgotten that film is a visual medium. Everything you put down in the description will be visualized by the reader, and so missing out action and summarizing instead always leaves the reader confused. Either use a MONTAGE or add in the missing action or dialogue.

7. Unnecessary Repetition

Writing Style

Repeating either a word or phrase, or a character’s action means you’re taking up valuable real estate on the page, while also giving the reader the impression you’re not aware of it and so aren’t fully in control of your writing.

Writing Style

8. Half-Finished Words 

Writing Style

It’s best not to cut off words like this as it looks odd on the page and often leads to confusion. Write out the whole word and leave it to the actor to decide how to trail it off mid-sentence.

9. Naked Sluglines

Writing Style

A slugline should usually be followed by description of some kind, otherwise it’s “naked” and the scene hasn’t been properly established.

10. Stating The Obvious

Writing Style

Again, this feels like redundant writing because it’s clear in the reader’s mind what’s happening, but the writer is feeling the need to spell everything out anyway.

11. Ellipses Overload

Writing Style

Ellipses can be effective, but use too many and they can slow down the read and feel like overkill.

12. Parenthetical Extravaganza

Writing Style

An overuse of parentheticals means you’re again over-directing the actor, which they hate.

13. Flowery Prose

Writing Style

Overly descriptive flowery writing like this belongs in a novel not a screenplay. Keep things simple.

14. Restrictive Character Description

Writing Style

The problem with descriptions like these is that you’re ruling out many actors who could play the role by only detailing physical features. It’s always better to stick to a character’s actions, overall style, attitude, clothes, make-up, etc. in order to clue us in on their character.

15. Mixed Emotions 

Writing Style

Lines like these are simply confusing, both for the reader and the actor. Pick just one emotion that you want to get across in any given moment.

16. Impossible/Unrealistic Acting Demands

Writing Style

Just like with mixed emotions, these actions are pretty much impossible for an actor to pull off. Make sure you always put yourself in their shoes when telling them what to do and think “How would I play this?” This should help prevent coming up with impossible feats for them to perform.

Writing Style

17. Missing Full Stops 

Writing Style

Long sentences like these, without the odd full stop or two, make for a pretty awkward read. Break them up and give the reader a chance to breathe.

18. Unnecessary Sounds

Writing Style

Sounds only really need to be included if they’re necessary to our understanding of what’s going on in the scene. All of the above examples offer no new information or anything to the scene so they can be cut.

19. Back To Front Sentences 

Writing Style

A better way to phrase these would be:

Writing Style

20. Micro-Managing Actors’ Actions
Writing Style

Both of these examples could be cut back to:

Writing Style

21. Characters Overusing Other Characters’ Names

Writing Style

This feels unnatural because no-one uses other people’s names that often while actually talking to them.

22. Formal Language

Writing Style

A lack of contractions (We’re, Didn’t, They’ll, I’m, Don’t etc.) usually feels unnatural and stilted. Unless, of course, it’s on purpose because, say, your script is set in the 1800s and you want your characters to speak in a formal, old-fashioned manner.

23. Basic Grammatical Errors 

Writing Style

Some of the most common mistakes come with the following variations, so make sure you really nail their uses:

  • its/it’s
  • off/of
  • lie/lay
  • waits/awaits
  • blond/blonde
  • your/you’re
  • whose/who’s
  • to/two/too
  • their/there/they’re

24. Basic Spelling Errors 

Writing Style

Spelling errors of basic words like lose, breathe, peek, etc. don’t give a good impression either. No matter how good the script, a reader will automatically begin to question your overall writing ability.

25. Similar Character Names

When the protagonist’s called Tim, and then we meet his best friend, Tom, and then they both fall for a girl called Toni, you’re unnecessarily confusing the reader.

Likewise, if you have three women in a script named Lucy, Tracy and Wendy. If more than one character name either starts or ends with the same letter, take another look and see if it needs changing. Similar sounding names often result in the reader constantly having to flip back through the script to check who’s who.

26. Unnecessary Exclamation Marks

Writing Style

Exclamation marks look particularly incongruous in dramas, thrillers and horrors and are best avoided in these genres. You can maybe get away with a few in a comedy or action movie, but use with caution.

27. Omitting Characters Names 

Often characters remain as MOM, APPRENTICE, DETECTIVE, etc. throughout the whole script when really they should be given names. The general rule is, if a character has more than a couple of lines of dialogue they should be named.

Again, think about your script from the point-of-view of the actor. They will want to bring as much as possible to their role, but if they’re just a RECEPTIONIST you’re not giving them much to work with. Give every single role in the script a meaning and a reason for being there and the actors will thank you for it.

28. Missing Out “A” And “The”

Writing Style

This style can work to a certain extent, usually in action movies like Tony Gilroy’s script for The Bourne Identity, but it can also be over-done.

29. Excessive MONTAGES And FLASHBACKS

While both devices can be extremely useful tools in a screenwriter’s arsenal, many specs overuse them. Be sure that whenever you’re adding in a MONTAGE or FLASHBACK they’re progressing the story in some way and not just being used to pass time in the protagonist’s life or aimlessly reminisce.

Also, be sure the formatting is clear. There is no “right” way, but it’s important that they’re well presented on the page.

Writing Style

30. General Excess Description

Writing Style

All of this could be written in a much more sparse way that doesn’t spell out every single beat and the actor’s movements. Something like:

Writing Style

This is saying the same thing but in three lines instead of seven. We know Kate is scared in this situation, for example, so we don’t need to be told that she holds a hand to her mouth or tries to collect herself.

31. Incorrectly Formatted Numbers

Writing Style

These should be:

Writing Style

All numbers under ten in dialogue should be spelt out as well as numbers at the beginning of a sentence, whether in dialogue or description. Dates and times should generally be written numerically.

32. Unnecessarily Sexualized Description 

Writing Style

Unless a woman’s sexuality is essential to her character it’s best to edit these kind of descriptions out as they just look gratuitous and slightly creepy.

33. Confusing Off-Screen (O.S.) With Voice Over (V.O.) And Vice Versa

Writing Style

When a character is speaking (O.S.) they’re off-screen, i.e. in the same scene but maybe another room. If they’re talking (V.O.) they’re not in the scene but in a different location altogether and talking in voice over, i.e. talking on the other end of phone lines, on TVs, or narrating.

So in the above examples, Ted’s dialogue should be (V.O.) and Sandra’s (O.S.).

34. Copyright Paranoia

Yes, it’s a good idea to copyright your script at the WGA West or US Copyright Office, but it’s not such a good move to give the impression you’re paranoid about someone stealing your script.

This is achieved by including WGA registration numbers, copyright symbols, all rights reserved notes, and watermarked pages. Just add the title of your script and your (minimal) contact information. Anything more just looks amateurish.

35. Alternating Between Single And Double Spacing

Writing Style

There’s no correct way to use spacings after periods in a screenplay. Some writers prefer single, others prefer double. What doesn’t look so great is continually switching between the two.

Run a Cmd+F search on “. ” (full stop, single space). Then hit Replace with “.  ” (full stop, double space), or vice versa. That will make sure you haven’t forgotten any spacings and they’re all identical.

***

So that’s our top 35 dialogue, formatting and writing style, mistakes. There are, of course, many more to look out for but our general advice is to keep your writing style tight, clean and simple and aim to put the most evocative images in the reader’s mind as possible.

The very best way to learn how to do this is to read as many professional screenplays as possible. Download a bunch, set aside some time every week and see how your style improves over the months as you absorb all influences from the best screenwriters out there.

If you’d like your screenplay reviewed, check out our script coverage services.

8 Comments

  1. Hank Isaac says:

    Great advice. Thanks.

    I think I would only question the V.O. and O.S. criteria. I was always taught that “O.S.” dialogue is heard by both the character(s) and the audience, whereas “V.O.” dialogue is heard only by the audience. Even in a phone conversation, two characters are really in the same scene — one could potentially be in the next room, even, but out of the camera’s view (if the camera were to be panned in a full circle). Fundamentally “not visible on the screen” at the moment the dialogue is delivered. Cutting back and forth in a phone conversation would use “O.S.” where the writer suggests a reaction shot rather than showing the speaker. Heck, a phone conversation could be all O.S. with only reaction shots. Admittedly a directorial/editing choice, but often can spin both characters and their stories in a specific direction on the page.

    I’ve always felt examples of “V.O.” might be narration, vocalized character’s thoughts, the voice of God, etc. Seems to be some disagreement on this particular format option.

    Again, thanks for all the tips.

    /h

  2. Lish says:

    Thanks for detailing these. Any work can use a tweak at times . Ah, on that note, it seems you wrote V.O. and O.S. appropriately but then mixed up labeling in the example. Should be, Phone call: V.O., Sugar: O.S. 😉

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks. The examples are of the wrong way of doing it, though. I’ve added the clarification: “So in the above examples, Ted’s dialogue should be (V.O.) and Sandra’s (O.S.).” Cheers!

  3. April says:

    What is the best way to state the location within a location in a slug line? INT. HALLWAY, BROOKLYN TECH HS – AFTERNOON, or INT. BROOKLYN TECH HS, HALLWAY – AFTERNOON

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Some pro writers have differing views on this but the overall consensus is to go from general to specific. For example,INT. BROOKLYN TECH HS – HALLWAY – AFTERNOON

      And most writers suggest sticking to dashes in sluglines rather than mixing in commas.

  4. Zach says:

    I’m doing so many of these it’s embarrassing!

  5. Jarvis says:

    I read scripts for a living and this post is spot on. Why do characters “eyes widen” all the time and “eyes pop”?

  6. James says:

    Awesome! I was making SO many of these mistakes.

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