Dan Holden's Blog

Screenwriting, Film-Making and Web TV

Screenplay Fatal Flaws And How to Avoid Them

114358129Every screenwriter wants to produce a winning script, but not everyone can edit their work objectively. That’s why it’s important to have an independent reader look at your screenplay before you send it in to an agent or producer.

One of the first things they will look for is the fatal flaw: that hook that doesn’t pay off or the dialog that sends your audience out the preview door.

Here are a few common flaws that will get your screenplay round-filed, often without comment. Hopefully, my suggestions will help you avoid this fate.

The set-up takes too long. – Your audience must have a sense of what the story is about within the first few minutes. Stop the reader after about six to eight pages and ask them where they think the story is going. If they don’t have a good sense of the direction by that point, your setup is taking too long. Even if it is an intentional misdirection, or there is much mystery to unfold, you still have to set their minds on a path – for example, a killing has to be solved, a wrong must be righted, etc. Make sure your setup is paying off your logline.

The action is disconnected from the plot. Sometimes the story you think you are telling lies too far removed from the action your audience is seeing. For example, you want them to figure out that a ghost is trying to warn a character of his impending doom, but your audience doesn’t get it. Try being less subtle. Remember, the story you’ve been chewing on for years is just now reaching them. They don’t have the back-story that is between your ears.

The premise doesn’t hold up to logical or factual consideration. This is a common flaw, especially in science fiction or hospital or crime drama stories. If your plot calls for a doctor to cause a death, but your audience doesn’t think that was necessary, you’ve lost the logic of the story. Good research and technical assistance from experts can be helpful. Squeezing the characters by limiting their alternatives can also work, but it can’t appear to be contrived. A random time limit is an example of a contrivance.

Your notes frame too much of the story. Do not provide excessive direction in your screenplay. If you have a problem with this, then you might want to stay out of screenwriting or, you should direct your own indie films. Studios rarely allow writers to dictate the production of a film – that’s the job of the directors and producers. One exception: if they have seen first-hand that the writer has film-making talent…not from the script, but from previous film work, or face-to-face interactions. If there has been no such interaction prior to the development of the script, leave it clean so they will buy it. Otherwise, expect it to get tossed.

Unnatural dialog. If you want your character to speak with a southern drawl, you can suggest it with a few words, but don’t write the entire dialog that way. It will be too difficult for the reader and the actor to get through. Similarly, if you are looking to create a chic new conversation style a la Pulp Fiction, you really have to be able to dialog like an artist. If that doesn’t come naturally to you, then you’ll have to acquire the skill. Traveling, listening for conversational gems from witty talkers, or even write free-form poetry will help. In the end, however, you will still need to be cognizant of basic screenwriting conventions such as brevity and clarity. Actors love eloquent dialog, but they’re not buying the script, so don’t overdo it.

Loose ends. If your screenplay has scenes that don’t go anywhere, dialog that is witty but unnecessary, or an ending that doesn’t pay off the logline, your screenplay is in trouble. Especially in the US, audiences like a story that provides full closure. Obviously, if you are creating a cliff-hanger that leads to a second or third film down the road, there’s a necessity to leave something open to the imagination. That’s ok, but it doesn’t have to be so overt that the audience feels cheated by the lack of closure.

Poor formatting or spelling. If your screenplay is not correctly formatted, or it contains a lot of spelling errors, it will get tossed. There are two basic formatting styles in screenwriting. If you don’t know them, plunge in and do some research. There are screenwriting software programs that you can buy or obtain for free online. If this is helpful to you, go ahead and use it. If not, it’s not a difficult thing to format your own work as you go. This also forces you to re-read and edit, which can be very helpful.

I hope this article has been helpful. Please follow me here, on Twitter or Facebook for more tips.

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2 comments on “Screenplay Fatal Flaws And How to Avoid Them

  1. Richard Finney
    May 12, 2014

    There’s some good advice in Dan’s blog for beginning screenwriters out there.
    Often times when you are first starting out, you can’t see your work objectively, and having a reader come in and give you an honest reaction to what you’ve written is so important.

    As you gain more experience, the key is to incorporate everything Dan lists above in the creation of your screenplay so that you will have future readers commenting on less and less of the basic writing problems he cites and more about — were they turning the pages fast to see what happened next, did they care about the chracters, etc.

    Thanks Dan for going to the trouble of writing about these issues!

    Richard Finney

    • Dan Holden
      May 12, 2014

      Thank you Richard!

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2014 by in Best practices, Screenwriting.
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