10 Writing Mistakes to Avoid

We as writers, must all get these tips through our thick heads, until we avoid these errors naturally. Until then, whenever we complete a draft, or think we’ve finished our manifesto, the wise ones will go back and double-check.

1.    TELLING INSTEAD OF SHOWING

“Show don’t tell” is the #1 rule of writing. Go back through your dialogue. Are your characters saying exactly what they’re thinking? Is every intent and every line of every character completely clear? If so, that’s a bad thing. Let some of the character actions be ambiguous. Let some of their lines be open to interpretation. Let them demonstrate more of their thoughts by their actions, posture or expression, instead of their words. Let them demonstrate their character with their dress, make-up, jewelry, hairstyle and yes, again…actions.

Here's an example;

FEMALE: Do you love me?
MAN: No.

Okay, the sparse dialogue is good. It's a little Hemmingway-esque in it's understated use of words, but it's still "telling."

How much more powerful would it be if the MAN gave the same answer, but we "showed" it?

FEMALE: Do you love me?

MAN completely ignores FEMALE, takes a long drag on his cigarette and still without bothering to look at her, blows smoke in her face.

Do you get the idea how much more you can say without words?

2.    BAD DIALOGUE

Bad dialogue is a big no-no and there are several offenses that fall under this heading.

A.    The dialogue doesn’t sound like people really talk
B.    The Dialogue sounds fine, except all the characters speak in the exact same voice
C.    The Dialogue doesn’t fit the character (IE, the scientist talks like a teenage prostitute)
D.    The Dialogue is boring and devoid of color, insight, and great one-liners
E.    The Dialogue is all on the nose (characters express exactly what they’re thinking)

3.    AVOIDING CONFRONTATION

There was a scriptwriter who wrote a script about a teenager who was gay and the father was so resentful of this that he shoots his own son to death at the end of the movie.

Can you imagine the intense confrontations such animosity between father and son must have generated? Imagine some great actors portraying those roles and what they could do with a really scintillating script. Can you see it? Apparently the writer couldn’t.

In his script, the father and son only have fairly copacetic conversations before the script really gets going. “Are you going to the school dance tonight, son?” Etc. As the intensity builds, the two no longer interact. Later, when the father shoots his son to death, it’s not face to face, it’s from a bridge overlooking a cruise boat that’s passing below.

The point is every greater writer goes to a tremendous effort to create situations for their characters that create tension. The characters are at their best when they’re struggling against the roadblocks in their lives, but all of that is for naught, if you somehow manage to leave out the payoff moments.

In an action movie, the payoff moment, is when the hero, who has surmounted almost impossible odds, finally gets to fight against the primary villain, who has been built-up to be almost invincible. Generally, the whole move sets this battle up and if the movie is successful, the audience is waiting for this confrontation with bated breath.

The amazing thing is…some writers…don’t include the payoff moment.

Take the recent example of TRON:LEGACY. A fun movie, but the end completely falls apart, because there’s no payoff. There’s no climactic battle between the main characters and the script simply falls short. It’s like the production team forgot that they needed a climax.

Think of the MATRIX, but cut the final fight/confrontation between Neo and Mr. Smith. Bummer!

The same thing is true in dramas. Make sure that all that tension you’ve been building up culminates in an explosive scene. Even if it’s understated, that confrontation should take place.

4.    POOR STRUCTURE

Most stories follow a simple structure. Hollywood movies especially tend to adhere to this form. If your story or script deviates wildly from this format, it may be wonderful, it’s true, but more than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing and your script needs work.

At the most basic, the story structure is this…

0-25% Introduce Character & A Change of Situation occurs at the 25% mark.

One of the cardinal sins of screenwriting is taking too long to get to the meat of your story, so make sure you don’t dwell too long on the setup.

25%-75% The path of the main character is increasingly obstructed as Stakes Intensify.

Though the middle is less important than having a scintillating beginning and end, many scripts, especially comedies get lost in the middle and tend to drag. You need to try to find a way to carry your momentum toward the climax.

75%-100% There’s a Major Setback around 75% / The Final Push / Climax / Aftermath

You must find a way to hook your audience from the get-go and then hit them over the head with a great ending. More often than not, that will send them home happy.

If you need help with story structure, read some books on writing and attend some screenwriting seminars. Robert McKee and Michael Hauge are two of the premier script writing gurus and both are middling geniuses, who are guaranteed to help you. Also, most script coaches are available for one-on-one help, though that comes with a heftier price tag, it can be very worthwhile. You will find the time and money you spend on such things will be invaluable to your writing pursuits and it will feel like God came down from the heavens to give you all the answers you’ve been craving.

Oh, and other novice structural problems may include things like, characters reappearing accidentaly after their death, character names switching mysteriously and/or characters or problems disappearing from the script without explanation.

5.    NARCISSISM

Some writers think that everything they write is wonderful and that adding, cutting or changing any part of it would be verging on sacrilegious. Failure to do rewrites, recognize mistakes, make cuts and listen to advice are frequent mistakes writers should avoid. Remember, once your first draft is finished, that’s just the beginning. Many of the best writers cut and rewrite the majority of their script in subsequent drafts.

Remember, self-confidence is great, but hubris is the enemy.

6.    OBSTACLES MUST APPEAR INSURMOUNTABLE

In general, people want to see characters struggle and then triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. That’s often what makes characters shine the most.

Most people don’t want to watch the hero walk to the corner store, because he’s run out of milk for his morning cereal. Nope!

You want to throw as many seriously dire obstacles in the face of your hero as possible. You want your audience to be wondering how the heck the hero is going to get out of this and then your real challenge begins, because if your hero escapes or triumphs by luck, or through another character’s ingenuity or intervention it’s a cop-out. We want to see the hero rise to the occasion and use their own resources and ingenuity to seemingly pull-off the impossible.

Luck cannot be the solution to your hero’s problem.

7.    BASIC ENGLISH ERRORS

If your script or manuscript is full of typos, misspellings and punctuation errors, it’s considered the mark of a novice and there’s little chance that anyone will take you seriously no matter how wonderful your story is.

Besides, if you really are weaving a tale for the ages, do you really want your audience to be frequently distracted  from your story by thoughts like, “Oh, here’s another misspelled word!”

8.    YOUR HERO NEEDS TO SACRIFICE

Not everyone will agree, but one of the best movie endings of all time was the Kurt Russell remake of the classic horror film, “The Thing.” At the climax of that movie, the hero has clearly given everything he has and we’re still not sure it’s enough.

Spoiler Warning: In the wonderful action movie, “The Book of Eli,” the hero, played marvelously by Denzel Washington, sacrifices his life to accomplish his mission.

Or take for example, the intolerably long and horrible yawner, “Rob Roy” played by Liam Neeson. The only truly exceptional part of the movie is the unforgettable climactic sword fight between the well-trained and highly-cultured master swordsman and the heroic, but hopelessly outmatched Rob Roy. Rob Roy magnificently shocks everyone when he sacrifices his physical well-being by grabbing the blade of his opponent’s sword with his bare hand, thus allowing him to win the battle.  It’s one of the best fight scenes ever and all because the hero is willing to sacrifice, in this case, in a way that many people had never previously imagined.

And remember, your character’s sacrifice can be physical or emotional and it may be as simple as overcoming their ultimate fear, which is often the greatest sacrifice of all.

9.    DON’T BE PREDICTABLE

If your script follows the map, change it. The best books and scripts frequently keep their audience guessing. This is not to say that great stories can’t be predictable, most are; “After great struggle, the hero defeats the villain and gets the girl.” But often, it’s not what happens that’s important, but how it happens.

Try to add some elements, which are seemingly out of nowhere, but seem to make sense in the context of the script. For example; Samuel L. Jackson’s well-played hitman in “Pulp Fiction,” who oddly enjoyed preaching sermons during his killings, or Paul Giamatti’s astounding hatred of Merlot in the wonderful drama, “Sideways.”

But it’s not enough to throw in surprising characters and unusual traits. Have surprising things happen as well. Like in “Rocky,” when we know the hero always wins, but at the end of the movie, Rocky doesn’t win and instead has to settle for a draw. We, as an audience, know Rocky won as a person, but it was still a little unexpected piece of brilliance that helped make that movie special.

10.    FAILURE TO FOLLOW PROTOCOL

You may have the best script ever, but if you’re not following convention, you may find that no one will read it. Two brads (brass fasteners) are the acceptable norm. Is it stupid? Yes. Is it important to fasten your scripts with exactly two brass brads instead of one or three? Absolutely.

If the instructions on the website of the movie production house where you submitted your script say, “wait two months before inquiring,” then wait two months before inquiring. Sure, if you find following the rules doesn’t work, there are times you may want to try circumventing them, but the rules are often there to demonstrate that you are capable of acting in a professional manner and also to keep you from making an ass of yourself, so try to abide by the laws of the land. If you don’t know them, find out.

If you fail to follow protocol it’s unlikely that your manuscript or script will be read, let alone produced and seen.

Comments sent

12 comment(s).
Anibal Alvarado Brizuela - 12/13/2013 2:52:10 PM
In my opinion the most important thing that you have to keep in mind it´s that you don`t have to be predictable. We you are writing something... nobody should have the possibility to figure it out with only some words.
This is both street smart and intleilgent.
Logical Spiritualism - 5/14/2012 8:05:27 AM
Thanks for the feedback, Gavin.

"Gavin" is actually one of my favorite names. I did a comic strip with a character and gave him that name once.

"narcissism" has already been corrected, I think. I'm not sure where "middling" is, though I gave a quick look for it.
E Gavin - 5/11/2012 4:09:10 PM
Nice article, but you've made some or your own stated errors:
1. Misspelled the word "narcissism".
2. Misused the word "middling". "Middling" means mediocre, surely you didn't mean this.
3. For consistency, it should be be: The Dialogue...cap D.
4. You have extra spaces between words in places.

Yes, this is knit-picky, but isn't that the nature of the advice you are giving? I find no matter how hard I work at it, I still make mistakes that can be detected by others.
Logical Spiritualism - 5/10/2012 3:57:41 PM
Thanks for your comments, Mike and Roger.

Yes, obviously there are many more mistakes that writers can make, which were not on this list. This article is simply meant to be a general overview, as many thousands of books have already been written on this subject.

If you enjoyed this article, keep your eyes open for more in the near future. Though this list was all about "what not to do," there will be a longer list of positive tips coming shortly.
Roger Slagle - 5/10/2012 9:02:54 AM
Also.... Very important part of any screenpaly and something Readers, Producers, Directors, and fellow screenwriters are always looking ofr in a good script. Where's the drama... the conflict and how does it move the characters thru the three acts with specific action needs to be played out for example. In the end of act two when the body falls thru the skylight... or in the end of act one with the big bump and importantly the hook to tie everything up in act three. As a Producer and director i have come to know that the script is never perfect... I hate it when I am in a Post edit and have to ask myself "did I really write that line." Or when I say that actor did it again I didn't write that "expositional crap or did I..." lol Hang in there everyone and NEVER GIVE UP... persistance is the key along with the knowledge of writing with your charcters true emotions. When you see your work for the first time on the big acreen and get happy when people are crying next to you ...know that your efforts have finally paid off. www.secretweilsonhill.com roger
Roger Slagle - 5/10/2012 8:51:32 AM
this is a good start but definatly not the finish in terms of outlining the do's and don'ts of screenwriting. I have noticed some good points here and some very important points completely left out. I will try to outline what is not here for your review. 1. three Act Structure and how your lead and supporting charaters move within the over all arc. 2. The need to avoid... expositional action and dialogue and siriendipity within the causality. I think you need to get a copy of the screenwriters Bilbe and either do a re-write of this or simply expand it to twenty maybe thrity points of interest. check out my new film at www.secretwilsonhill.com
Mike - 5/10/2012 6:31:55 AM
Great advice! It's good to be reminded of some of these essential elements. Especially now that I am re-writing a screenplay.
Logical Spiritualism - 5/9/2012 1:45:36 PM
Thanks for your comments.

Yes, Marcus, you get better and better as the knowledge becomes more and more ingrained.

Yes, Billy, you can't generally give equal screentime or priority on all your characters. You usually have to pick and choose. And if you want to talk about intimate relationships with your characters, you should check out #24 of "25 Ways to Create Three-Dimensional Characters." You can basically date your characters.

Excellent tip, Jon! Thanks for sharing.
Jon Beattiey - 5/9/2012 4:44:55 AM
This makes sense - though my tip is to first read the dialogue out loud to a third party. It's wonderful how this sorts out the errors - after all, writing is merely an expression of thoughts not spoken. And punctuation was, way back, only an indication for the literate 'readers'when telling stories (mainly biblical at the time) to the majority who were illiterate. Hence dialogue develops from this concept.
Billy Marshall Stoneking - 5/9/2012 12:45:48 AM
Fine, but to accomplish these and maintain freshness, surprise, originality and credibility one must enter into viable and intimate relationships with ALL the characters necessary for finding the story, understanding that some of these characters are not actually internal to the screenplay itself.
Marcus - 5/8/2012 10:56:21 PM
Thanks. It bears repeating again and again and... until it's automatic.

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