12 Choices Amateur Screenwriters Make

amateur pro

Screenwriting is hard, I know; I’m still learning how to do it right. I also know that it’s not just writing that is hard, thinking like a writer – like a professional writer – is also hard, probably harder in fact.

In the last year I’ve posted several requests for short scripts, and as a result have read over 500 amateur screenplays (or at least the first five pages, or at least the first page). In doing so, and also in looking back on my own writing and my experiences in writing classes, I started to notice certain things, certain signs that scripts and the writers writing them are not up to snuff. That they are amateur, with the same voice and experience as every other amateur out there.

Also see: 13 Choices Amateur Filmmakers Make

Note: this post is not about execution. Things like bad grammar and typos, inactive protagonists and low stakes, unnatural dialog, these are all signs of amateur writing but they are on the execution front and there are plenty of blogs that cover these topics already. This post is different. This post is about common choices amateurs make. And while technically it is possible for an novice to write a professional quality script after making these choices, it is not likely and if your writing falls into these categories, it’s very likely that you are an amateur, that you are thinking like an amateur, and that your script is the same as every other amateur script out there.

Okay, here goes:

1. Writing about writers

Write what you know and writers know writing… It seems that every other script is about a writer and they’re all the same, all lazy and unearned and uninteresting. You know who gets to write about writing? Charlie Kaufman, but only after Being John Malcovich was a hit; the Coen brothers, but only after Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing; Billy Wilder, but only after he established himself as one of the greatest writer/directors in Hollywood. Only pros get to write about writing, because no one cares about your non-professional writing experiences. So if you’re not already a pro, don’t write about writers.

2. Writing about filmmakers, painters, poets, etc.

We get it, you’re an artist. Now re-read #1 and stay away from these characters too.

Most egregious? Scripts about student filmmakers who go to a remote location to shoot a film and instead get attacked by zombies/vampires/wackos. Characters who don’t do anything and so they become writers who do one thing: they write about how they don’t do anything. Anything with anyone “finding” themselves. Anything with a muse.

3. Serial killers, assassins, and hitmen

Seriously, these are so 20 years ago. Silence of the Lambs was 1991, Se7en was 1995, and who was the last serial killer we had anyways, Andrew Cunanan? Likewise when was the last time someone was assassinated? When was the last time there was even an attempt? The fact that, despite all the hate, there were no assassination attempts on either George W or Barack Obama is a pretty strong sign that assassinations are old hat.

The real reason we don’t have serial killers or assassinations anymore? Everyone’s too busy shooting up schools/churches/movie theaters/etc. So if you’re really into these kinds of characters, then write about that. Otherwise you’re writing for the 90s, or CSI.

4. Journalists and documentary filmmakers

I have this great idea for a film, but what’s my structure, how do I enter my world? I know! My main character will be a journalist, writing a story about it. Or a documentary filmmaker, making a movie about it. It all comes together now, I’m a genius!

How about you simply set your film inside your world, your characters being the ones who do things in it, not who write about or film it? This is actually much harder to do, which is why so many writers don’t do it.

5. Voiceover

Seriously, stop. Voiceover is like the director and his dolly zoom: it’s cool and was used so awesomely in that one film so I want to use it in mine too! Except you need to learn the fundamentals first, tell a story normally, visually, through character and conflict. Once you can do that, only then do you get to play with the fun filmmaking toys.

6. Flashbacks / Out of chronological order

I get it, Pulp Fiction was awesome and Memento was a huge influence too. But you know what? There’s nothing more difficult than telling a simple, straightforward story – and making it captivating. Telling a story out of order to make it captivating just says that you can’t do captivating, just like the rest of the Nolan/Tarantino wannabes. Speaking of that:

7. Trying to be Tarantino/Woody Allen/Judd Apatow/etc

There’s influence, which is good, and imitation, which is bad. Which one are you? (Hint: it’s easiest to tell from your dialog)

8. Characters who don’t do anything

This basically comes down to goals. Here are some good character goals: to convince a crazy guy/girl to settle down and spend the rest of his or her life with you, to become the greatest jazz drummer in the world, to escape a demonic monster that is constantly following you. Here are some bad goals: to not be depressed, to come to peace with something, to find your place in the world.

9. Being philosophical

Don’t write about philosophy unless you are a philosopher (and then, why are you writing a script?). Don’t write about love unless you’ve really had your heart broken (your high school girlfriend doesn’t count). Don’t write about existentialism. Remember, you’re not Terrence Malick or Sophia Coppola (see #7), so stop copying them.

Genre is a good way to avoid this, although if you’re writing in genre, watch out for:

10. Being conventional

Your film isn’t going to have a $100+ million dollar budget. If you’re lucky it’ll be seven figures, more likely six (or five). But that’s a good thing, because at that level you’re allowed to have your own voice. To do something different, to be ballsy and daring and unique. No one wants to see the low budget version of a Hollywood film, and Hollywood doesn’t spend gobs of money on unknowns. So throw out Save the Cat, forget about the four quadrants, and if you’re in a genre then play with it, if you’re not writing genre then write something we’ve never seen before. Whatever you do, throw caution to the wind and write something great.

11. Meta Writing

“If this were a film then…”, “This is the part of the film where…”, and so on. Almost always used with voiceover (see #5), this “I’m so smart” writing is the worst. Basically, the writer is stating: “I know I’m being cliche/conventional/stereotypical, so I’m gonna hang a lantern on it.” We’ll guess what? You’re still being cliche/conventional/stereotypical, and now you’re also lazy and pretentious.

12. Not writing in Final Draft

This one is painful. True artists are great regardless of their tools. Great films can be made on film, on an Alexa, or even an iPhone. Great paintings can be created with seemingly anything. But when it comes to screenwriting, almost invariably if it’s not written with professional screenwriting software (celtx is not professional), the script will be bad.

Here’s why. Final draft costs $500. Not cheap for starving artists. And what’s every screenwriter’s goal? To sell their script for seven figures and explode onto the Hollywood scene. But what does it say about you that you want someone to invest millions in your script but you aren’t even willing to invest $500 on your entire career? If you aren’t willing to put your money where your mouth is, that says you don’t believe in yourself, and the number one most important aspect of success (at least according to this book) is believing you will succeed. The scripts I’ve read support this.

That’s all for this post. For the choices amateur filmmakers make, click here.

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About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

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