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How NOT to Write a Screenplay: Top 5 Reasons Your Script Isn't Selling

Avoid These 5 Mistakes Made by the Majority of Aspiring Writers and Put Your Script In the Top 10%

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October 24, 2010 6 comments
how not to write a screenplay

How Not to Write a Screenplay: Top 5 Reasons Your Script Won’t Sell

Are you killing your chances of selling a script without realizing it? Avoid these Top 5 pitfalls and learn how NOT to write a screenplay.

In short,  a reader knows whether someone can write on page one. Usually within the first few lines. Or even the title page. As far as the story goes, however, you really, really need to be captivating the reader by the end of Act 1.

Below are our top ten indicators a script is heading for a “Pass” grade rather than a “Recommend”.

Thanks to Denny Martin Flinn and his book How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make  for the inspiration for this post. (This is an affiliate link meaning if you purchase we get a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

1. How Not to Write a Screenplay: Craft a Meandering Plot 

Practically all screenwriting advice recommends introducing the protagonist and their world in the first act.

But, in many spec scripts, the protagonist doesn’t actually do anything of significance during Act 1. They’re not active but re-active—responding (sometimes) to events rather than causing them.

Often this continues well past page twenty-five, by which time any production company or studio reader will probably have long since put the script down.

Check out our book Master Screenplay Sequences to learn how to tighten up your script’s structure by adding sequences underneath the big three acts.

2. How Not to Write a Screenplay: Make the Characters Bland Nobodys

What often sells a screenplay is the quality of its characters. However, many aspiring screenwriters fall into the trap of creating two-dimensional approximations of characters, rather than ones that feel like living, breathing people.

We often don’t know anything much about them and they feel like the same characters we’ve seen a hundred times before in similar movies. There’s nothing memorable about them because they’re usually not active and nothing particularly bad ever happens to them.

Find out here why your script characters feel flat and how to fix it.

3. How Not to Write a Screenplay: Fill It With Chatty Scenes 

A problem related to the above is the inclusion of unnecessary scenes in which all the characters seem to do is sit around and shoot the breeze.

Characters meet, chat and part with little or no development to the story. Nothing changes within the scene which causes the next scene, meaning it’s essentially been a waste of two (or more) pages.

This post on how to write great script dialogue will help if this is a problem in your writing.

how not to write a screenplay

4. How Not to Write a Screenplay: Overwrite the Description

Most aspiring screenwriters make the mistake of thinking they need to describe as much as possible in order to make the reader see what’s in their head.

Then the reader opens their script and straight away sees big chunks of scene description that’s five or six lines long… Upon taking the plunge and reading the first page, they discover a writing style that’s bland, confusing, contains embedded information and drifts in and out the present tense.

Scene description is super important as it indicates to the reader straight away whether you can write or not. Improve your screenplay scene description in ten minutes with this method.

5. How Not to Write a Screenplay: Make Up the Formatting As You Go Along

Yes, the characters and story are the most important aspects of a screenplay. But the truth is, it’s extremely rare that a sloppily formatted spec turns out to be a masterpiece.

A script that gets the most basic formatting “rules” wrong is usually lacking in other areas as well, and readers can be very quick to put two and two together and assume sloppy formatting equals sloppy story.

Nothing turns a reader off quicker than incorrectly formatted sluglines and a myriad of grammar mistakes, spelling errors and typos.

Follow the guidelines presented in our book, Master Screenplay Format, however, and learn how to present your script in a professional manner that will make the reader feel they’re in the hands of a professional.

How Not to Write a Screenplay: Conclusion

So, there you have it: the five most common problems you should avoid if you want to write a screenplay that has a chance of getting sold. Keep these five screenwriting tips in mind and you’ll automatically place yourself in the top rather than the bottom half of aspiring screenwriters.

PS: We highly recommend you read the book of screenplay tips called How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make (affiliate link) by Denny Martin Flinn. It’s full of some great screenwriting advice so you should check it out if you haven’t already. Anyway, we just wanted to thank him for giving us the idea for this post.

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Do you have any major screenwriting tips on how not to write a screenplay you think we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments below.

how not to write a screenplay

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6 Comments
  1. Katrina Roscoe says:

    I’m ashamed to say I was doing 4 out of these 5 :/

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      At least now you know and can do something about it! 🙂

  2. Angelo says:

    Thanks, it is very informative.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Angelo.

  3. Bo says:

    Wow! After all I got a screenwriting blog from where I be able to actually obtain valuable data regarding my study and knowledge.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, Bo!

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