Ten Traps That Screenwriters Need to Avoid

by Ken Miyamoto on February 3, 2016

Screenwriters tend to trap themselves or fall into the traps of others. There's no shame in it. It's part of the learning curve and all screenwriters — even those at the top of the totem pole — have done it or continue to do it throughout their careers and screenwriting journeys in some way, shape, or form.

Sometimes screenwriters don't know that they're in a trap. Sometimes they can't see them coming. Sometimes such traps could have been avoided, if only someone had warned them from ahead of the trail, "Watch out! It's a trap!"

Consider the below ten screams of warning to all screenwriters. And be sure to spread the word so others behind us on this sometimes treacherous path can be forewarned — perhaps avoiding days, weeks, months, and years of confinement.

1. Don't Wait “By the Phone” for Results

We've all been there. We've submitted our scripts to major contests and we've waited, counting the days until the results are released. We've checked the websites over and over to no avail, wondering, hoping, and maybe even praying that we make that first cut. And then the second. And so on.

Stop waiting. Once you click submit and you've entered that contest, leave it to the fates to decide. It's out of your control now so why torture yourself? And furthermore, the true trap here is putting all of your eggs in that one basket. Whether it's hope, emotions, or with you stopping all of your marketing and submissions waiting for results from one single contest.

This also applies to marketing your scripts to the powers that be in Hollywood — development executives, producers, agents, management, and talent. Once you give them a solid query email (and even after you've met with them in person), don't put all of your hopes and dreams on them. It's torture. It's the worst of traps as far as getting your hopes up and having high expectations, only to find those hopes and expectations shattered. And it's out of your control anyway. If they respond to the logline, if it's what they're looking for, if they're engaged and intrigued... then, and only then, will they connect with you. It's okay to follow up, but don't sit and wait by the phone for them. Submit, submit, submit and let the fates decide.

2. Don't Follow Any Single Guru, Formula, or Teaching

Bruce Lee offered a brilliant quote:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

To follow a single guru, formula, or teaching, whether it be to Save the Cat! or focus on Story, can only hurt you. It can only narrow your horizon as a screenwriter. You need to seek out your own style. Instead of subscribing to just one, it’s much better to feed your brain with many different teachings, viewpoints, and perspectives. Take what works best for you from each, if any, and discard the rest. Yes, adapt what is useful to you, reject what is useless to you, and add what is specifically your own.

Too many screenwriters become entrapped in a single point of view. Rest assured that there is no single formula or path to success. There never has been and there never will be.

3. Don't Leave Your Head in the Clouds 

It's wonderful to have a dream and to set lofty goals for yourself, but you have to remain grounded if you're going to survive the grind of the screenwriting dream.

Your first script is not going to star you and you're not going to hoist the Oscar up for your first rodeo. Your first script is not going to sell. Most don't. You will hone your craft, fail, and fail again until you write that one marque script that finds itself at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The clouds can be a heartbreaking trap and one of the worst a screenwriter can experience. It blinds you. And the fall is near fatal for most.

Hope for the best, but don't expect it.

4. Don't Write Long Scripts

It's so much easier to write less and then need more then it is to have too much and need less. There's no worse trap in the rewriting stage than realizing that you've ended up with 130 pages or more, hopefully knowing that you should be around 100-115.

By the end of a script, it's like a house of cards. If you pull one single card out, everything could fall. And especially as writers, we hate to have to kill our darlings. It's necessary, sure, but it's better to not have to make that choice in the first place.

So you must lean on preparation and structure. You must embrace the Less Is More Mantra to a tee. One simple trick to shoot for to avoid the trap of overwriting is the 30/30/30 rule. Go into a new script with the idea that your basic three act structure (beginning, middle, and end) will offer you 30 pages for each, equalling a total of 90 pages. This will force you to be ever-aware of where you're at in your script's story. If you're at page 29 and you're still introducing your characters and their world, there's a problem. If you're at page 60 and you're not starting to get to your final act, the warning bell should be rung.

Now, this isn't a formula by any means. We all know that there's more to it than that. However, this 30/30/30 rule will keep your mind set on some goals for your story and characters. No, you won't hit just 90 pages most of the time. But with this rule in mind, when you go over that goal, hit 100 or so pages and type THE END, you're exactly where you need to be.

Long scripts going over the 120 page mark are sometimes a trap that is very difficult to climb out of.

5. Don't Be Such a Cynic Against Hollywood and the Studio System

It's a defense mechanism. When one is rejected by another, the immediate psychological response is to lash out and deny them. Go to any screenwriting forum, Reddit, or comment section. They are filled with cynical stances on Hollywood, the studio system, etc. You'll read about how Hollywood only makes sequels and superhero movies, how it's all about the money, how studios don't care about good stories anymore, etc.

It does you no good as a screenwriter to take those stances. Sure, it may feel good to lash out after rejection, but at what cost? The cynicism will start to eat away at you like a cancer. The anger. The resentment. It's a horrible trap to throw yourself into.

Here's some tough love. Shut up, stop complaining, and put all of that energy into something positive and useful — a good f***ing script that no one will be able to deny. And if you can't do that, there are many other careers to choose from.

6. Don't Market Your First Scripts

Your first script will always be your worst. Guaranteed. You haven't had the time to make the necessary mistakes and learn from them. You haven't had the time to hone your craft. You haven't had the time to learn about the ins and outs of the film and television industry.

But here's where the true trap is. Let's say you defy all odds and that first script stands out to the powers that be after you've marketed it. When you get into that meeting, after some small talk and maybe even some kudos thrown in your direction regarding the script that got you there, the powers that be will pause and ask you, "So, what else do you have?"

It's like a trap door has been pulled from beneath your feet because you realize that your first script, which defied all odds, was nothing more than a calling card to get you into a meeting. They saw some potential in the writing and now they want to see what you really have to offer — they want to see what else you have for them. And when you say you don't have anything, it's done. 9.99 times out of 10, it's done. And even then, if you manage to defy even more odds against you — and if this happens, go buy a lottery ticket that day — and they actually hire you to write an assignment, you're screwed because now you're a little fish in a very big pond full of bigger fish and intimidating sharks. You haven't honed your skills and when the pressure is on, you'll falter.

You need to stack your deck with at least three solid scripts. Sometimes it takes a couple scripts before you start writing those solid three. Then when they ask that fateful question, you'll have something to talk with them about. You'll have something to show them. And you'll prove that you're not a one hit wonder.

7. Don't Forget to Have a Marketing Plan

You need to do your research and know who, what, where, and when you need to market your script. The old adage of going to the WGA site and finding the magic list of agencies and management companies to approach is long dead. That was a relic from the 80s and 90s. This is the 21st Century and times have changed drastically.

Blanket marketing to big names is a trap that so many screenwriters fall for. There are so many great development executives, producers, and managers out there these days. And you likely won't recognize half of their names. You have to do the research to find them. But most important, you have to look up movies that are like your stories, find out who is making them, and approach them. You have to find out who is writing them and approach their representation.

Be prepared. Have that excellent logline ready. Exhaust all possible contacts you have within the industry, no matter how many times removed. Know what kind of companies are making your kind of movies and know which agents and managers are representing them.

If you go into the marketing of your scripts blindly, you'll be trapped in an endless void of rejection. Do it right and better your odds.

8. Don't Have an Ego

Be confident in your work, but don't have an ego. No one likes working with an asshole. In Hollywood lore, you have to earn the right to be an asshole, but even then, the ones without ego are the ones that work more because film is a collaborative effort.

You're not the next Quentin Tarantino, so get over it. You're not the next Diablo Cody, so get over it. You're not the best screenwriter in all of La La Land, so get over it. You're just like thousands upon thousands of others before you and around you today, trying to break through. So don't go into writing forums or screenwriting groups with your nose held high. That contest win, that option, and maybe even that first deal doesn't give you the right to possibly think you're above everyone else. There's always many, many above you, so again, get over it. Ego will get you nowhere.

You'll be stuck in a trap with no friends and no collaborators, existing only as an entitled success in your own mind.

9. Don't Pay for Representation

As much as one would think that in this day and age, most screenwriters would know this — they don't. There are many, many people out there looking to take advantage of the desperation of screenwriters. And many of them may actually have some credits to stand by as well. But if anyone asks you for any money upfront in order for them to take your script out to the powers that be, know that it's a trap. Don't be ensnared by it.

Agents and managers make money off commission when you make money. Plain and simple. And they don't take 50% or anything outrageous like that. They don't even charge a fee upfront for "office expenses" — no joke, true story. They take 10-15%.

10. Don't Depend on Feedback from Others

Believe it or not, this is perhaps the most common trap among screenwriters today.

Sure, feedback is essential for a screenwriter's growth. It's necessary. And often, it's very rewarding to receive feedback from professionals in the film and television industry that work as consultants. ScreenCraft has a widely heralded service of its own.

However, there is a trap hidden beneath this otherwise positive rite of passage for screenwriters. It gets to the point where screenwriters depend on the feedback. They rely on their writing groups. They rely on paid services. They rely on their mentors. And that is a deadly trap for a screenwriter indeed.

Screenwriters must learn to depend and rely on themselves after a certain point. This is perhaps the greatest of all steps a screenwriter can make — looking at their own work as objectively as possible and trusting in themselves. Because the fact of the matter is, if all goes well and success comes knocking on your door with that key assignment or rewrite, you won't be able to show your peers, your paid consultants, or your mentors the work at hand. It's all on you to deliver and if the powers that be can see that you can't do that on your own, they'll find somebody that can.

Feedback is good to a certain point. After a few scripts, you need to start trusting yourself and not constantly go to others to figure the script out for you.

These are just a few of the traps that screenwriters find themselves in, and the advice given is advice learned the hard — but necessary — way.

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