Saturday, January 26, 2008

Characterisitics of a Bad Screenplay

The following is an article written by my story editor. Yes, this blog is so popular that I now have guest contributors. He is not as entertaining of a writer as I am, but he is still interesting.


(There are certain writing characteristics that will almost certainly get your screenplay an automatic toss into the trash bin. You may disagree with this article, but these are my opinions. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules).

Trick Endings That Do Not Work

Twist endings rarely work.

I know The Sixth Sense had a twist ending that worked to perfection. It’s a great movie, but The Sixth Sense is the exception to the rule. For every Sixth Sense, there are 100 twist endings that fail horribly (The Village). A script can still work if it contains a bad character or a bad scene. If the script contains a bad twist ending, the entire movie falls apart. It’s annoying when a writer puts in a twist ending just so that the screenplay will contain a twist ending. A twist ending should be necessary to the story.

If you have a twist ending in your script, ask yourself the following question.

Question: Why does my movie have a trick ending?

Possible Answer:

“I want the viewer to know how smart I am.”

“I love the Sixth Sense and I want to copy it.”

“I have a twist ending because it is necessary to effectively tell my story.”

If you answered ‘A’ or’ B,’ then you should rethink your twist ending. However if you answered ‘C,’ then it might work.

I recently read a script about a southern debutante that murders all her friends. In the last ten pages, it is revealed that the murderer has imagined everything. She is really an editor at a book publishing firm and only imagined that she was a southern debutante. The twist ending was not set up and made no sense. When a twist ending does not work it is insulting to the reader. It’s like the author wants to say, “Hey stupid, I tricked you.”

Not Properly Introducing Characters

Use proper formatting when introducing characters. At the very least, tell us their name (in capitals) and their age range. If their name is androgynous name, then tell us the sex of the character.

I recommend that you give us a visual that sheds insight into the character. What does the character look like? Are they fashionable, sloppily dressed, or clean cut. It is much easier to remember the character if we have a visual in our head.


“JANE sits down.”

This is the worst kind of intro. It tells me nothing about the character. I can assume that Jane is a girl, but that’s about it.

“JANE is a plain girl.”

This gives me info about the character but there is not a specific visual. “Plain” is an abstraction and cannot be filmed. We need a specific image.

“JANE wears blue jeans and no make up. She is pretty, but not pretty enough to get asked out by the football players.”

The visual gives us the opportunity to picture the character. We can then carry that visual throughout the movie. It is subtle, yet very important.

Introducing Many Characters On The Same Page



JANE sits at her desk. Across the room is RONNIE, a large football player. Ronnie throws a football to JANICE, a blonde that sits in the front of the class.

MRS. HENNIE trots in wearing a cordury skirt. She takes a pen from LEN. The bell rings.

This is a crude example but you get the idea. Even if the reader has the greatest memory on earth, he/she will never be able to remember all of the characters. This may seem obvious, but this happens in many scripts.

Putting Your Personal Politics in a Script

(except if your script is a political film)

You hate the Bush administration. Great. Write an essay. Do not try to sneak political sentiments into your love story. If your script is a teenage sex comedy, then it should not have lines like “this stupid war is about oil.” If you are making a political film, then go for it. Political films are great. Write one. However, I can’t tell you how many times I read contrived political speeches in scripts that have nothing to do with politics.

This rule does have exceptions. If you character has strong political beliefs then it would make sense for them to mouth political statements. Implanting politics in a script is like bringing up politics with a group of friends. Some people will cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Political films rarely work. It is very hard to push political ideas in a film and keep the film entertaining. Aaron Sorkin person is the only writer that does it well. It’s hard to make a political film without making people feel like they are being preached to.

The Script is Longer than it Should Be

All readers do the same thing when they first get a script. They turn to the last page to see how many pages the script is. I know this is unfair but it’s the reality.

Typically, a script should be 90-120. This rule has many exceptions (American Gangster and Pulp Fiction were 150 pages).

Some scripts need to be over 120 pages in order to effectively tell the story. However, the vast majority of scripts over 120 pages do not need to be 120 pages. They are often bloated with unnecessary scenes and need a trim. A script that is too long can kill the pacing and cause the reader to fall asleep.

Also, it is industry standard for a script to be 90-120 pages. If you are a new writer trying to get work and your script is 150 pages, then an agent or producer may think you don’t know what you are doing.

Lengthy Description

I read one screenplay recently that filled up an entire page with description. An entire page! For a moment I thought someone accidentally slipped me a novel transcript.

Description should be necessary and precise. Only describe things that are filmable.

Description should flow as quickly as the dialogue does. Describe only as much as you need to tell the story and set the mood.

I do not care what color the leaves are or how the wind feels against the heroine’s skin. I love well written description in a book, but not in a screenplay. A movie is two hours. It should only take two hours to read the screenplay.

Characters are One-Dimensional Cliches

It is amazing at how many “big” films break this rule.

Minor characters do not need to have full character arcs (although it is nice if they do), but they should not be clich├ęs. Every person on earth is different. Each character in a script should have unique character traits. It makes them feel real.

Dialogue with an Accent

It is fine to have a character that speaks with an accent or slang.

When you first introduced the character, let the reader know that they “speak with a strong southern accent.” However, do not write the dialogue with the accent.

Here is an example. Let’s pretend we are writing a story about an uneducated, runaway slave in the pre-civil war South. We want the Runaway Slave to greet another person he meets. In reality, the dialogue would sound like this.

“Hows ya doin’ toda suh?”

However, you should never write the dialogue like that. Instead, introduce the character and tell us that the “runaway slave speaks with a strong southern accent.” Then write the line without the accent.

“How are you doing today sir?”

The actor and dialect teacher will create the accent. It is very difficult to read a script where dialogue is written with an accent. It breaks the flow of the script. The reader will imagine the southern dialect.

Mark Twain is an exception to this rule. However, he wrote novels, not screen plays.

Ultra Specific Writing

I recently read a horrible script about the Iraq War. Here is an example of the writing (it’s not verbatim from the script, but close).


An RPG rocket is fired from a marine with blonde hair. The rocket fires precisely as U2’s “beautiful day” crescendos. The bomb explodes at the exact moment that Bono sings “beautiful.”

LOW ANGLE SHOT- The rockets hits a group of Iraqis, causing one arm, two legs, and a dog to fly in the air above a tan shop containing novelty gifts.

LONG SHOT - Of the red explosion against the blueish-grey sky.

OH my god, are you serious? I think the example speaks for itself. The writing is too specific.

Unless you are an established Writer/Director, then keep the “shots” and “angles” to a minimum. In fact, you probably shouldn’t have any. Let the director direct the movie. He’ll choose some really good angles and shots, I promise.

Incorrect Format

The script about the Iraqi war was 300 pages and not formatted correctly. I read about ten pages of it. Every screen play should be formatted properly. If you want to become a serious write then by the Screenwriter’s Bible and make sure you adhere to all the proper formatting.

Made Up Tech Jargon

“Oh My God, hurry up and turn the rigidity device to full pulse before the expots retreat.”

It’s ok to have made up tech jargon in a science fiction story that takes on Mars in the year 4060. However, if your script is based in modern day reality, the technology better be realistic.

Die Hard 4 is a good example of this. I was taken out of the movie by the fake technology. Do I believe a computer hacker can open up a freeway tunnel in ten seconds using a lap top? No. Do I believe a hacking protocol known as “fire sale” is common knowledge among hackers. No. Do I believe a computer nerd can access 3D renderings of ultra secret government information from his grandma’s basement? No. (even if it is Kevin Smith).

It’s as if the writer thinks they can make up some technological jargon and the audience will think it’s some ultra new technology. It’s insulting to the audience to expect them to believe the made up technology.

Anyone see Hackers (1995)? I’m still waiting for the wrist watch that can turn stoplights on and off. Or the Virtual Reality video game that they play in the underground club.

Gimmicky Writing

I read a screenplay where all the screen direction rhymed. I swear to god. It rhymed, like a bad rap song. That is not only pointless, but annoying. Screen direction does not appear in the final movies therefore does not need to rhyme.

Don’t reference things that no one knows about. Example, “He was standing like a rock star god (NIN Coechella 2005 concert)”.

Lastly, don’t infuse your script with anything ridiculous

(i know this is vague)

This is dialogue from a screenplay that was sold.

Example 1:

WOMAN: Do we have the damn interview or don’t we?

MAN: We’re cunt hair close.

Example 2:

MAN: That proposal was approved by a cock solid 68% of American population.

What? I’m not even going to comment on this. Once again, these are my opinions. Take them or leave them.


  1. I agree with all except the last. People often say ridiculous things, and life is often ridiculous. Its fine to have random dialogue or quirky action occasionally. It makes a script quirky. Though, it depends on how and when you apply it. Donnie Darko was filled with quite a few silly moments. Like when Donnie and Gretchen kiss and there is a random fat guy staring, in a jogging suit, eating a sandwhich. it was great.

  2. I found this helpful. As a beginner it's nice to have a reference to look at. I will be looking into the Bible that was mentioned.

  3. I'm a begginer too and this is really helpful! Thanks

  4. Thank you, this was insightful in its concise precision.

  5. lot's of don'ts what about do's?

  6. Although, information should be learned during the crisis, it should be essential to beating the foe. climax buildup