4 Ways to Better Your Chances of Screenwriting Success

by Manny Fonseca on February 19, 2018

Having a great idea is one thing, but a great idea doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t properly execute it. You have to be able to prove that you’re a writer who knows what they’re doing on a technical level as well as a storytelling level. It’s not just focusing on character development, structure and pacing. Don’t get me wrong, those play a major part, but the writing part of screenwriting is often overlooked or glossed over.

Let’s step back and look at your script like a final exam. At the moment the teacher passes out the exams, everyone has started with 100%. At that moment, everyone is literally on the same page. It’s only as individuals start answering questions does their score begin to change. Now apply that to your script. If you find yourself in the position where you were lucky enough to pitch to an executive or a manager or an agent, and they agree to read your script: you’re at 100%.

In fact, and I can say this from my own experience as an executive, we WANT you to ace the test. We NEED you to ace the test. We’re not looking for you to fail because it’s literally our job to find great, A+ material. If we don’t, we could get fired! So if you pitched us a great idea, then you’re as good as every other pitch where we’ve asked to read the script.

Now comes the hard part. Can you properly execute the idea that you’ve pitched us?

I refer it to as “the hard part” because you can’t imagine the number of scripts I’ve been pitched over the years where the idea was amazing, but then I got the script and that A+ quickly fell to an F. It’s incredibly disappointing.

So how do you keep your score high? Let’s just take a look at the writing of a script, not focusing on story, but the execution of your story. Here are some general things that cause you to lose points:


The scene heading is the first set of words you’ve written on the page, which means if your scene heading is wrong, then you’re not getting off to a great start. By wrong, I mean just solely in the wrong format. Here are some examples of incorrect formatting:

INT. - DAY - BEDROOM - 1980 or INT. - - 1980 - - DAY… BEDROOM.

There’s only one way it should be formatted and that’s:


In terms of a scene heading being sloppy, is by having generic places that don’t really set the scene. Like “Bedroom” from the example above or, the most clichéd place used by writers: “Anytown, USA".

Can you show men, on a map, where Anytown, USA is? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Don’t use it. It’s sloppy.

2. REDUNDANT DESCRIPTION (minus 5 points for wasting my time)

Let’s say you start your script with:


You better not follow that with, “The daylight shines through the window of Mark’s bedroom…” That’s bad writing because... you know what, if I have to explain that one to you, you need more help than I can provide.

3. YOUR ACTION IS POORLY WRITTEN (minus 5 points, more if combined with the first two scenarios)

There are two types of poorly written action. The first is action that is overwritten. Let’s go back to Mark for our example:


Mark’s ALARM blares loudly causing a sleeping Mark to open his eyes. He sits up in bed and stretches out and lets out a yawn. He looks over at the clock, sees what time it is, SIGHS and slaps the top of his alarm to silence it. He lets out another yawn as he looks for his slippers. He finds his slippers in their usual spot and slides his feet into them. He slowly gets to his feet and scratches his ass. Still sleepy, he shuffles over to his dresser and opens the top drawer to reveal a row of neatly folded T-Shirts. He slips off his pajama top, grabs a fresh tee and throws it over his head. He closes his T-Shirt drawer and opens his…

Yeah, I’m out. I can’t read any more about Mark because Mark hurts my brain. This is how that scene SHOULD be written to better your chances of trash can avoidance:


An ALARM BLARES causing a sleeping MARK to get out of bed. He shuffles over to his dresser and changes from his pajamas to his daily uniform: jeans and a tee.

Boom. Done. Fast. Easy, and you didn’t waste the reader’s time. Unfortunately, I’ve read more overwritten action than I have good action.

The second action killer is clunky, unexciting action. I like to call this the “see Spot run” type of action or the “and then” action. It looks a little like this:


MARK’S alarm wakes him up. He gets up. He stands. Then he walks to his dresser. He opens a drawer full of tees. He picks one. He changes into it.

Wanna guess how often that kind of action happens? A lot. A lot, a lot. What’s even worse is apply that type of writing to a John Wick inspired action sequence. Makes you want to pull your hair out. Don’t do it.

4. POINTLESS DIALOGUE (minus 5 points, if this is combined with every example before this, then automatic fail)

Have you ever noticed, in a movie, that no one ever says goodbye before they hang up the phone? Or hello for that matter? Ever notice that when a character enters a room to join a group of other characters, they never exchange pleasantries? Have you wondered why?

It’s because it’s pointless dialogue.

Imagine the last conversation you’ve had on the phone with your mother, or your best friend, or your significant other. How’d it go? Imagine reading a transcript of that? Now let’s apply it to script format. Back to Mark!


A cell phone RINGS on the nightstand next to a sleeping Mark. He rolls over and sees “MOM” on the screen. He SIGHS and picks it up.




Hi Mark.


Hi Mom, how are you?


I’m good. Are you good?


I’m great. What’s up?


I talked to your sister and we think you need rehab.

Now look, I’ll be honest with you, I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly. Yes, I have read scripts that are this bad, but it’s a rarity. Usually, it’s only about half as bad as that example.

So how should that scene go to get you the maximum amount of points? It should go a little like this:


A cell phone RINGS on the nightstand next to a sleeping Mark. He rolls over and sees “MOM” on the screen. He SIGHS and picks it up.


Hey mom, what’s up?


Your sister and I agree. We think you need to go to rehab.

Quick. To the point. Get’s to the meat of the scene without bogging it down with a bunch of pointless dialogue. AND, as a bonus, it also shows the kind of person Mark’s mom is. She’s blunt, doesn’t care about saying hello to Mark or, frankly, his feelings either.

Now obviously, it’s not just these few things that hurt your script, but you have to recognize that they DO hurt your script. And if we’re looking at your script in a scientific, test taking way, then you can’t afford to lose points over dumb things. You have, if you’re lucky, 30 pages to hook your reader and prove you’re a good writer both technically and in your storytelling ability.

Bad writing can be overlooked if you nail the pacing and structure of your first act. SOMEtimes. I mean it has to be an amazing idea, but again, it’s rare that you can get away with making these little mistakes. These mistakes show a lack of knowledge of what you’re doing and if you don’t know the job you want to be hired for, can you really expect to get hired?

(Spoiler alert: the answer is no.)

The good news is that these technical issues that hurt your script can be learned. You CAN become a better writer. All you have to do is roll up your sleeves and do the work. Read scripts that you know are good.

Every year the scripts that are up for best screenplay can be found easily. Download them. Read them. Learn from them. BUT, and this is important, remember that while those scripts are expertly written, they’re also written by established writers who can bend the rules. Just cause they can, doesn’t mean you can.

In other words, you don’t get to be Quentin Tarantino right out of the gate on a technical level, but you sure as hell can learn on a storytelling level!

Manny Fonseca is an optioned screenwriter and author. With a master’s degree in screenwriting, he’s mainly worked in development during his time in Hollywood. He’s now a full-time writer. He’s currently working on his second book, which will be on the subjects of screenwriting and navigating Hollywood. His first book, Burst!, is the story of becoming a caregiver after his screenwriting partner suffered a ruptured aneurysm in her brain and nearly died.

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