There are a plethora of reasons why anyone’s script is rejected by the powers that be. Some reasons are big and some are small, but screenwriters need to know and study all possible factors that could lead to their scripts being passed on.
These examples are based on first hand experience from a studio script reader's perspective. Not only do they happen, they happen A LOT.
1. You sent it to a major agency, studio, or production company as unsolicited material.
Perhaps the most common mistake when novice screenwriters begin to market their script(s) for the first time. Just don’t do it. Never send a PDF of your script to any of the powers that be without them actually requesting it.
2. Your logline was better than the actual script.
A concept is only as good as the delivery of it. If the script isn’t up-to-par and doesn’t deliver the promise of the logline, that’s an easy rejection.
3. You spent the first ten pages introducing the characters without setting up the premise and conflict.
If you watch the first ten to fifteen minutes of a movie and have no clue where things are going or what the movie is about, you naturally tune out pretty quickly. Having a script reader do that in those first ten to fifteen pages is instant poison. They have a pile of other scripts to read and write coverage on.
4. The scene description is overly long.
The reader needs to see the visuals of the script through their own mind’s eye as quickly as possible. That’s the experience readers want. If they’re forced to read elongated scene description that goes into too many details, they’re not seeing that movie unfold in their mind's eye. Instead, it’s more like they’re reading a novel. Film is a visual medium and each eventual frame rolls very quickly onto that big screen. The visuals of a screenplay need to do the same within the mind’s eye of whoever is reading your script.
Blocks of scene description should only cover the broad strokes of what needs to be seen using no more than one to two sentences at a time. Fragments are welcome. Let the reader, and eventual director and crew, fill in the rest.
5. The script is all dialogue, or at least a majority of it.
You need to show, not tell. Again, it’s a visual medium. Less is more. My Dinner with Andre or Before Sunrise are anomalies. There’s nothing more boring than reading a “talking heads” script, no matter how great the dialogue is. Leave those types of scripts to the writing/directing auteurs.
6. You included a synopsis, casting breakdown, conceptual drawings, or anything else beyond the script itself.
It screams amatuer and script readers have no time for that.
7. Your script has scene numbers.
This is a common mistake by newcomers. They’ve obviously read online or published shooting drafts and saw scene numbers included. Scene numbers are only for production purposes. In the development stages, they only lead to confusing and cluttered reads.
8. You overuse exclamation points, CAPS, etc.
Too many screenwriters utilize these things to convey something important, an action, a tone within dialogue, etc.
They all have their place, but use them sparingly, otherwise they lose their overall meaning and expression and lead to a disastrous and frustrating read.
9. You have overly busy formatting with camera angles, inserts, etc.
This screams amateur and leads to a slow paced read because the reader is being asked to visualize a certain camera angle rather than just experiencing the story.
Stick to location heading, scene description, character name, and dialogue whenever you can.
10. Your script is either too short, or too long.
It’s a tell tale sign that if your script only has 80-some pages (or less), there is clearly something missing, be it quality description and format, or even more so, lack of story and character development.
If your script is 125 pages or longer, it’s a tell tale sign that it’s overwritten and the screenwriter doesn’t have a grasp for rewriting and editing the script to the core of what it should be. When possible, stick with 95-115 pages. That’s the sweet spot.
11. Your script has multiple grammar, spelling, and typo errors.
In my Sony days, I read a script from a screenwriter that had a breakout hit starring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and best actors. This was his follow-up script. It was wrought with bad grammar, bad spelling, and multiple typos. It was one of the most excruciating reads I’ve ever had and needless to say, despite the screenwriter’s prior success, it was an easy pass. Proofread. Multiple times. And after you have, proofread it a few more times beyond that.
12. Your script opens up with upwards of ten major characters.
That’s just too much for a reader to comprehend. This forces them to constantly have to stop the read (stop the movie), go back to prior pages (rewind), and review character names and introductions to remember who is who
13. You overuse fancy vocabulary and technical terms.
If you want to put together a pretty sentence, go write a novel. Even then, it’s ill-advised to try to impress anyone with your vocabulary. Scripts are all about putting things into layman’s terms with the most simple of words so that their brain can process them as quickly as possible to see that movie through their own mind’s eye.
14. Your script has a soft beginning.
Most say that you have to engage a reader within the first ten pages. Nope. It’s more like the first five. Open with a major conflict. Even if it is just for a moment. Engage the reader as quickly as possibly by injecting conflict almost immediately. That’s what entices a reader to want to read on.
15. Your script doesn’t have enough conflict.
Conflict is everything. It doesn’t matter what genre. You need conflict injected into each and every scene. As much as possible. A character must be fighting for something, yearning for something, or dealing with something in almost every single scene. Any scene that reads like filler needs to go.
With each page, the conflict must increase and increase and increase through to the climax of the script. If you read through your script and don’t get a feel for that, change it now.
16. You don’t know what genre you’re writing in.
While it’s great to have a blend of genres from time to time, it’s all too often a very difficult task to pull off for the powers that be.
A comedy needs to be a comedy. It can have dramatic elements, but the focus should be on the laughs. A horror needs to be a horror. If there’s too much comedy within a horror film, it ceases to be a horror film. An action flick needs to be an action flick. If there’s little to no action, it’s not an action flick.
You need to know what genre you’re writing in because that will come into play when you market the script and when the powers that be are reading and evaluating it.
17. Your script is written by-the-numbers... also known as formulaic storytelling.
Script readers and powers that be can smell out the use of published guru beat sheets and such fairly easily. If a script is too derivative of a certain formula, it ceases to be special. Don’t follow beat sheets and such where you are told to put X story arc on X page, etc. It’s overtly obvious and does a disservice to your writing potential and your story. In short, it's all bulls***. If you're a good storyteller, you'll know when you need more conflict, more emotion, higher stakes, a twist, a victory, a defeat, etc.
18. Your protagonists are assholes.
If a reader or audience doesn’t like your characters, why will they care what happens to them? Thus, why should they read on?
I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where I truly hated the lead characters, whether they were too whiny, too helpless, too self-serving, too cynical, etc.
It’s great to have characters with an edge, but it can be taken too far. Make sure that at the end of the script, there's something for the reader/audience to grasp. And sure, sometimes we like to live vicariously through asshole characters that say the things we wish we had the courage to say ourselves. So there are exceptions. However, a majority of the time, screenwriters aren't writing characters like that. They just fail to offer a likable character. Audiences have to deal with assholes in their regular lives. They surely don't want to spend $15 a ticket, plus money for soda and snacks, to sit down in a theater for two hours and be expected to root for someone they can't stand.
19. Nothing happens in the middle.
This is easily one of the most common annoyances for readers. Maybe there was a great beginning, and the ending was awesome, but nothing really happened in between. That’s a failed draft and nothing more. Your characters have to go through a journey. There is no journey without a middle.
20. The ending sucks.
If you engage readers and then don’t deliver something special at the end, they’ll turn on you no matter how good the other pages were.
21. The pacing is horrible.
Each scene has to matter and has to build to the next, next, and next. You need to write like a film editor edits. Create a visual flow. Break up long scenes by intercutting them with others.
22. Your script is riddled with cliches and stereotypes.
The wise-cracking cop that defies authority. The horrible boss that is utterly full of themselves. The old soul kid that talks like an adult. The reluctant warrior.
We’ve seen them all. What makes your character stand apart from these cliches and stereotypes?
23. Your “surprise” ending or twist either wasn’t a surprise because it was overly obvious or was a total unfulfilling surprise because it lacked any set up.
If you want your script to end with a bang and make an impression while doing so, it has to be a carefully crafted moment. If your set-up is overly obvious, the ending won’t resonate with the reader in the end because they likely called it early on. If your set-up was almost non-existent, then it will look like nothing more than a cheap gimmick ala “It was all a dream.” As a reader, if I ever came across a twist ending that surprised me, the first thing I did was go back and look for the clues. If they weren’t there, then I knew it was a gimmick or cheat. When The Sixth Sense came out years ago, it became a top grossing film because audiences went back looking for clues. Thankfully, M. Night Shyamalan offered up a brilliant set up.
The easiest way to accomplish a great twist or surprise ending is to pepper the script with open-ended moments that make the reader’s mind go back and forth, this way and that, throughout the script. Always keep them guessing.
Making these mistakes is part of the learning process. All screenwriters have made them at one time or another. Utilize these as a checklist of sorts before you send your scripts out.