75 Things You SHOULDN'T Do When Writing a Script
As a screenwriter trying to break through in the film and television industry, you're constantly bombarded by what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. Here, we're going to focus on a general list of things that you should avoid doing when writing a script. We'll cover:
- Simple format guidelines and expectations
- Story elements
- Character elements
- And so much more
The list is meant to be a simplistic approach to keeping common red flags and mistakes out of your scripts. It's based on the guidelines and expectations of the industry, as well as mistakes pro screenwriters like myself have made — and learned from — along the way.
75 Things You SHOULDN'T Do When Writing a Script
1. Don't put WGA Numbers on your cover page (or anywhere in your script). They're only used for litigation.
2. Don't put US Copyright Numbers on your cover page (or anywhere in your script). They're only used for litigation.
3. Don't put mailing addresses on your title page (email addresses are sufficient these days).
4. Don't put loglines on your title page.
5. Don't include a synopsis within your script.
6. Don't include character breakdowns in your script (like you see with plays).
7. Don't include scene numbers in your spec scripts — they're for production or collaborative purposes only.
8. Don't include draft color pages — they're only for production draft purposes.
9. Don't include CUT TO transition in your screenplays — they're unnecessary and implied with each scene heading.
10. Don't include camera directions (Medium Shot, Camera Dollies, etc.) — that's not your job.
11. Avoid referencing specific song names — that's not your job, the reader may not know them, and the studio may not be able to get the rights to them anyways.
12. Try to avoid using CONTINUOUS in your scene heading because most people misuse the term anyway.
13. Try to avoid using lots of fancy transitions (Iris In, Iris Out, Flash Cut To, Jump Cut To, Match Cut To, Match Dissolve To, Smash Cut To).
14. Don't write paragraphs of scene descriptions. Instead, focus on blocks of one to three sentences (tops). Fragments are welcome.
15. Don't use poetic scene description — that's for novels.
16. Avoid using too many parentheticals (firmly, softly, eloquently). They get old fast for readers.
17. Avoid using fancy vocabulary. It slows the read. Keep it simple.
18. Avoid overly specific technical terminology in scene description. Write tactical machine gun instead of Beretta Mx4 Storm. Write Special Forces Helicopter instead of Boeing A/MH-6M Little Bird.
19. Don't write Credits Roll at the end of the script — wasted space.
20. Don't direct the actor by telling them where they should have a beat between dialogue.
21. Don't overuse the ellipse in your dialogue.
22. Don't use symbols to portray swear words ($@#$), just write the swear words in. Hollywood swears. They won't be offended.
23. Don't overuse underlined words in your dialogue. Use them sparingly.
24. Don't overuse CAPS in your dialogue. Use them sparingly.
25. Don't overuse CAPS in your scene description. Use them sparingly.
26. Don't overuse exclamation points in your dialogue. One necessary one in a sentence is sufficient.
27. Don't have your characters state the obvious in their dialogue.
28. Don't rely on expositional dialogue.
29. Avoid overly on-the-nose dialogue.
30. Don't rely on gimmicks in your screenplay. There have to be interesting stories and compelling characters to back it up.
31. Don't write a talking head story for your spec scripts. Hollywood doesn't want them unless you're a talented director that has directed a strong talking head piece. They don't want them as spec scripts.
32. Don't have overly busy formatting. Focus on just using Location Heading, Scene Description, Character Names, and Dialogue.
33. Don't go into overly long detail about a character's wardrobe. That's not your job.
34. Don't go into every major detail about each scene's production design. That's not your job.
35. Don't use the scene description to mention a character's inner thoughts.
36. Don't just write your version of a popular film. Give it something new. A new twist or direction taken.
37. Avoid cliches and stereotypes.
38. Don't include scenes that don't take the story forward.
39. Don't include funny scenes and jokes that aren't partial to the story and character arcs.
40. Don't take the first ten pages to introduce the characters.
41. Don't take the first act to introduce the characters.
42. Don't have flawless characters that are overly do-gooders or "boy scouts" or "girl scouts."
43. Avoid having overly specific political viewpoints within your script. They'll be off-putting and aren't market-friendly.
44. Don't make your antagonists overly evil. It's boring. Give them some justifiable viewpoints — even if they're skewed.
45. Don't follow screenwriting guru beat sheats to a page number tee. Those types of scripts are overly predictable.
46. Don't just tell us. Show us.
47. Avoid slow-burn starts in spec scripts.
48. Don't write a spec script that is over 120 pages. Focus on the sweet spot of 90-115. It doesn't matter if an Oscar-winning script you read was 130, 140, 150, or 180 pages long.
49. Don't introduce too many characters in the opening pages. Readers will lose track of them.
50. Don't have too many spelling errors in your script. Even the pros have a few. But if your script is riddled with them, it won't go over well with industry insiders.
51. Don't have too many grammatical errors in your script. See #50 above for more explanation.
52. Don't have too many Homonym/Homophone errors in your script (There, Their, They’re, etc.). Again, see #50 for more explanation.
53. Don't go into major detail about a character's backstory. We only need what's pivotal to the story window you're presenting.
54. Don't stray beyond Night and Day in your scene headings too much. It's a visualization and production thing.
55. Don't include illustrations in your script pages.
56. Don't stray from the general format margins in your script. Get some software.
57. Don't put personal messages, foreword, or afterwords in your screenplays.
58. Don't end your screenplays on a cliffhanger.
59. Don't include pitches at the end for sequels and franchises.
60. Don't write a screenplay that is based on intellectual property you don't own.
61. Don't write sequels to franchise movies. They won't be read.
62. Don't send hard copies of your scripts to managers, agents, producers, directors, or talent. They won't be read.
63. Don't attach your script to query emails. They won't be read.
64. Don't send your script anywhere unless it has been requested via a query or referral.
65. Don't write a script that can't be defined as one specific genre or subgenre — or a hybrid of two genres. Hollywood can't market a comedic tragedy horror drama set in space.
66. Don't market your script to major agents. By policy, they won't read your queries.
67. Don't market your script to a blanket list of popular producers (Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc.). They won't read your queries.
68. Don't market your script to a company that doesn't make movies in the genre your script is in. It's a waste of time. Do your research.
69. Avoid writing overly long query emails when you market your script.
70. Don't rely on writing groups and paid script coverage to fix the script for you. Feedback is good. But you're going to need to learn how to do this yourself.
71. Don't put all of your eggs in that one basket that is a single script. Market it. Submit it to major competitions. And then move on.
72. Don't settle for having a couple of screenplays. You need to build your stack to the point where you have 3-5 amazing scripts.
73. Don't take six months and beyond to write a script. After those first couple of scripts, learn how to write like a pro under professional deadlines. Focus on being able to finish a script within 2-3 months.
74. Don't get discouraged by rejection. Rejection never ends — even when you're a pro.
75. Don't turn into a cynical screenwriter that blames everything and everyone else for your lack of success.
BONUS TIP: Avoid being overly paranoid with marketing your screenplays. If you do your research (IMDbPro) and only market to legit entities, you'll be fine. No one wants to steal your work. It's cheaper for them to just option or buy it, as opposed to dealing with litigation.
Read ScreenCraft's What to Expect (And Not Expect) as a Pro Screenwriter for Features!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies