So, Booboo, this week’s title has two references. One’s pop culture, of course, but the other one hearkens way, way back to an article I read in Writer’s Digest when I was in my first year of college. This was when we were between sessions of the Continental Congress.

This is going to be a bit vague at first, so please forgive me.

The man contributing the article was a writer on a sitcom, and his boss had tossed one of his scripts back at him with the words “You have to earn the right to use the bear suit.” When the baffled writer asked for an explanation, he was told this story. I believe it was a Honeymooners episode in the original telling, but I’m not sure so I’m going to substitute in characters from another sitcom as I tell it to you. Trust me, it won’t make a difference…

So, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot decide they’re going to go camping up in the mountains. But Dot’s been a bit uppity lately so Yakko and Wakko come up with an idea. They get a grizzly bear suit and stash it in the car. When they get up there, Yakko will sneak away and put the costume on, then “attack” the campsite. Wakko will play along, Dot will get a good scare and get her comeuppance. Loads of fun.

Well, they get up to the campsite and Yakko heads into the woods with the costume, but he gets lost and can’t find his way back. Meanwhile, a real grizzly ends up wandering into camp and rummaging around. Dot is petrified and Wakko decides to have some fun with “Yakko” by making it seem like the bear is–

Look, do I really need to explain this any further? You’ve all seen this story at least a hundred times, yes? It was such a well-received gag everybody copied it. And continued to copy it. And they’re still doing it today.

The bear suit is a tired gag. It’s a cliché. It’s something we’ve all seen again and again and again and again, in books, comics, television shows, and movies. The two identical characters that confuse people. The funny new catchphrase or non-sequitor reference. The insane villain. The character who gets amnesia or loses their superpowers. All of these are things people have seen so many times they’ve gone past yawning and just roll their eyes.

Oftentimes, the bear suit is the path of least resistance. It’s the easiest way to deal with a need or problem in the writer’s story and the quickest way to create an obstacle. And a lot of people tend to jump at the first solution they can find, rather than look for the best solution.

And that’s really the problem. Since so many people jump at the bear suit, it’s common. It’s dull. Editors and producers have seen it a hundred times this month alone. If they’re going through your work and they find that dusty old thing laying around, your manuscript instantly goes into the big pile on the left.

Let’s try a little exercise. Here are three pretty standard plot devices.

–Two high schoolers get left alone in their palatial home when their parents go away for a week.

–Six teenagers head off into the woods to restore the old summer camp by the lake.

–A man completely focused on his career has to spend a long weekend with a flighty blonde who loves animals.

You probably got an immediate idea off each one. If your first thoughts were throw a wild party, get picked off by a serial killer, and fall in love, don’t feel too bad. What matters is where you go from there. Toss out that first thought and come up with another one. Then toss that one and come up with a third. Toss it again and scribble down a fourth.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those complicated points of writing where it’s hard to give a guideline. Often, when you’re writing, you want to go with your gut. You want your words to be honest and not have a lot of analysis and formulae and overthinking behind them.

At the same time, however, you want to be careful about going with your first thoughts, because odds are they’re a lot of other people’s first thoughts, too. This is also why serious writers have to read a lot, and why serious screenwriters need to see a lot of movies. If you don’t know what’s out there, you might already have the bear suit on and not even know it. Heck, yours may be completely moth-eaten and you think it’s going to scare someone in the woods.

Now, here’s the catch. As I mentioned above, you can earn the right to use the bear suit. If you’ve already got a solid track record, if everything around it is gold (or at least well-polished silver), every now and then you can get away with using the old gag. Christopher Priest used one of the most tired ideas in literature for the ending of The Prestige, but did it so well it still blew people away. Stephen King took the tired idea of the Indian burial ground and then took it past the first or second idea to very creepy and popular third idea.

Again though– that’s the exception, not the rule. If you want to do this writing thing for real, your first decision can’t be to reach for the bear suit.

Next week, I’m finally going to do a Michael Jackson memorial pop culture reference. I would’ve done one sooner but, well… I didn’t care that much.

Oh, and if you’ve got a few dollars to spare, I have been gently jabbed by mine editor to shamelessly remind you all Cthulhu Unbound 2 is now for sale. Check out the Amazon link over there on the side, pick it up, and feel free to mock my contribution to it.

And even if you buy it, shipping means you’ll still have time to go write this week.

So get to it.

February 27, 2009 / 2 Comments

Duck Season! Wabbit Season! Contest Season!!!

This week’s really for the budding screenwriters who stop by here on a regular basis (all three of you). Writers of prose… next week I promise to have something for you, but feel free to read along. At the core of it, good writing is good writing, and while I’m discussing these things in terms of screenplays there may be a general tip or two to glean here. After all, we’re all just trying to connect with an audience beyond our mom, our significant other, or that weird guy with the beret down at the coffee shop.

Yeah, him. You know who I mean.

So, anyway, you smell that? That sharp tang in the air, like hot mint? That’s contest season, that is. And it’s in full swing. Time to clean off the desk, sharpen our quills, and win an award or three. Perhaps even some cash.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve watched the contest scene from both sides. I’ve placed in a bunch of competitions– and when I say placed I don’t mean I got the honorary quarter-finalist position everyone who entered got. I’ve also read for several contests and spent long weekends going through script after script, often seeing the same basic mistakes (and a few phenomenally original ones) again and again. So I know the kind of things that make a reader cringe and shake their head. In one or two cases, only the timely intervention of booze kept me from gouging my own eyes out..

A few months back I mentioned some of the basic mistakes which quickly add up to sink a script. In a few cases, they can sink it in one shot. If you’re getting ready to send a script out to Austin, AAA, or that great brass ring known as the Nicholl, you should probably check through those first and possibly save yourself thirty or forty bucks.

Once you’ve taken care of the basic stuff, here are a few more hints of things to watch for and avoid.

The Director’s Draft

Every now and then a script shows up littered with stage direction, camera angles, parentheticals, editing notes, and so on. I saw one fellow on a message board who was furious his feedback had told him to eliminate such things, and it had been counted against his screenplay. As he saw it, he was planning to shoot this film himself with his friends, so not only were these notes in his script acceptable– they were necessary!

Alas, they really aren’t, and as a screenwriter you have no business putting them there unless they are absolutely relevant to telling the story. There’s nothing wrong with writing a screenplay to direct yourself, but that’s a different type of script than what you send to a competition. It’s kind of like the difference between a spec draft and an actual shooting script.

When your script goes into a contest, it’s just a script. It isn’t the screenplay you’re going to make with your friends and it certainly isn’t the screenplay you’re going to direct. It’s just a screenplay, one standing up all on its own against all the others in the contest. And if yours is filled with a lot of camera angles and parentheticals that shouldn’t be there, well… that’s probably why it’s going into the large pile on the left.


I talked about this in a post a few weeks back, too, so you can look at that for more specifics. For now, just remember it’s always better to get one polished script submitted to a contest than half a dozen rough ones. No one’s going to win anything with the first draft of a script. Or even the second draft. Focus your efforts and don’t get distracted by every new idea that flutters across your mind’s eye.

Yes, Paul Haggis writes almost flawless first draft scripts. Crash was a first draft. So was Flags of Our Fathers. Paul Haggis has also been writing screenplays professionally for almost thirty years. He was a writer on Diff’rent Strokes, believe it or not. So when your writing resume is that long and you‘ve got so many Oscars you’re using them to prop up crooked tables in the kitchen, feel free to send a first draft off to a contest just for kicks.

Until then, go do another draft.

Therapy Scripts

There’s an interesting sub-group of screenplays that seem to have sprung out of some psychology movement or group coping session. Maybe a class exercise of some kind. Usually they involve someone telling off their mother. Or their father. Or their abusive boyfriend. Or their cheating husband. Many of these scripts involve female protagonists, but only enough so it’s worth mentioning. The overall feeling of them is you’re reading a story somebody wrote to help them work through some issues. The object wasn’t to tell a story, but to cleanse and purge or something like that.

The big problem with these scripts is there’s rarely anything to them beyond this big moment of therapeutic release. Everything leads up to that, and not much happens after it. That moment is all the character development and conflict in the script. So, in the end, it’s just a story about someone throwing out their abusive spouse or learning to trust again or yelling at their shrewish mom. And nobody wants to read that. Not even Oprah. Definitely not a contest reader.

Reality is not a Story Point

Closely related to the therapy script is the reality script. More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader this tale is, in fact, based on true accounts of me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer survival (or not), orphans, Rwandan genocides, military struggles, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is a true story is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to what the reader is about to take in.

Thing is, no one cares if the story is true or not. Nobody. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, this tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with aliens to save the world from prehistoric lizard men that’ve just reappeared with the no-longer-lost continent of Atlantis. Whether or not one is a true story is irrelevant. If one’s difficult to read and the other one isn’t, if one has flat characters and the other one doesn’t, if one’s boring and the other one isn’t– these are what decide if a script is any good or not. In the end, you are telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

If you want a few more thoughts on this, I talked about this aspect of writing in general way back here.


Believe it or not, I’m a straight man with a long-time girlfriend who loves Broadway and even a number of musical films that have been made over the past decade or so (although she has made comments about some of the things in my iTunes library). Moulin Rouge was fantastic. Dreamgirls was fun. Across the Universe… not so much so.

The point being, though, musical screenplays are almost impossible to pull off as specs and they always make contest readers groan. Lyrics on the page are great, but you can’t assume the reader is going to be someone with a flawless sense of rhythm and pacing. Without the actual music setting the mood and the tone, lyrics are just poetry. Often very awkward and clumsy poetry. Which means they are awkward and clumsy lines of dialogue. And awkward, clumsy dialogue is the kind of thing that gets a script tossed into that left-hand pile.

It’s probably worth noting I’ve seen a few comedy scripts which tried to do parodies of other songs. However, unless you can absolutely guarantee your reader knows the song, this faces all the same issues as the original songs up above. Since most readers are also writers, that means they’re lonely, pathetic shut-ins… definitely not the type of folks you should gamble on knowing the latest Katy Perry, Audioslave, or Rhianna songs.

Fact Check Everything

Well, okay. Not everything. Any screenplay is going to have a degree of stretching the truth and perhaps even ignoring it once or twice.

However, in this wonderful information age we live in, you shouldn’t have any trouble discovering how tall the World Trade Center was ( Tower One stood at 1,368 feet (417 meters)/ 110 stories), if Karnak temple is north or south of the Sphinx (south, by several hundred miles), or when World War Two ended. And it’s important to know these things, because if you say the World Trade Center was twenty-three stories tall and WWII ended in 1951, people are going to call you on it. I know I did. A blatant error is going to stand out, and it’s going to be yet another thing that tells a reader this is not a professional, polished script.

I can admit I’m fairly well-read, and a little quirk in my brain lets me remember a lot more stuff than most people would believe possible. There are a lot of people out there with fields of expertise, though, and they’re going to spot stuff.

Consider this—who’s going to know how many rounds a standard M-16 magazine holds? Or how much it weighs? All sounds a bit obscure, right? Well, now consider in the United States alone there are over 2.28 million enlisted men and women in the armed forces (counting reserves). Let’s double that number to include retirees and folks who’ve been discharged for one reason or another. Now add in all the NRA folks and military enthusiasts who just like this sort of stuff. Suddenly there are a lot of people who are going to be shaking their heads at your “weapons expert” character.

If you can Google a fact, it should be correct. Unless you’ve got a truly spectacular reason why it should be wrong.

The Language Barrier

It’s been said England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. Feel free to add in Australia and make that relationship a three-way. While we may all speak “English,” anyone who’s traveled (or watched BBC America) knows there are words and phrases that change from country to country.

At the end of the day, though, Hollywood is in America, which means a screenplay going there for a competition should be using American spelling, phrasings, and formatting. It may not be “proper” in your eyes, but it will to your reader. If not, your reader’s going to get distracted by words that look (to his or her eyes) like typos at first glance, and then really distracted when he or she hits an actual mistake.

This is one of the easiest things to fix, though. Through the wonders of the internet, most of us have a friend or three who live in other countries. Get in touch with one of yours and ask them to look through your screenplay. Just go over it and spot some of the odd little differences in spelling, wording, and phrasings that work differently here than they do there. If you don’t have any friends, well… I think the nice lady at A Buck A Page charges pretty reasonable rates.

Remember, two weeks after deadline is not when you want to find out “Tim was nibbling on one of Sophie’s pasties” means something very different in the U.S. than it does in the U.K.

So, polish up, revise, and rewrite. The Page contest isn’t going to win itself, after all.

Next week… I have no idea what we’ll talk about next week, past focusing it on the prose folks. I’ll just start writing next Thursday and we’ll all see what happens.

December 30, 2008 / 6 Comments

The Year in Review

So, we’ve all been at this for… what, a couple months now? Well over a year since I made that very first post, by my count. Of course, I took some time off so I can hardly point the finger if you did, too.

Anyway, let’s not nitpick. There’s not much time before the New Year and we’ve got important stuff to discuss.

What have you written so far?

I don’t want you to talk about what you’ve planned. Not interested in any great ideas you’ve had. Don’t care who you had lunch with, what clever software you bought, or what fascinating research you’ve done.

The question is, what have you written?

Easy question, right? How many words have you set down on paper? How many new Word documents or Final Draft files have been created on your computer since you first looked at this half-witted, rambling set of rants I call a blog?

At the end of the day, this is the first marker you have to pass if you want to be a writer. You have to write.

If you’re still getting around to it, playing with a few things, or trying to find the right time when you’re in the right mood—you’re not a writer. You’re one of those folks in the coffee shop who wears a beret, puts on a fake accent, and loves to tell anyone who’ll listen about how everything put out by Hollywood and the big publishers is complete crap and, oh, the fantastic work you would share with the world except there’s no one else as brilliant you to understand it.

Okay, you’re probably not that bad…

Stop and ask yourself, though. If you keep looking here and you haven’t written anything… why not? What’s been holding you back? What are you waiting for? Because believe me, it never gets any easier. If you can’t find the resolve to even get started, do you really think you’re going to be able to keep at it long enough to finish a novel? Or a screenplay? Heck, even just a short story?

Again, what it all comes down to is the writing. If you want to call yourself a writer, you have to write. That’s it. Not just talk about it. Not buy books or software to help you do it. It doesn’t even count if you read ranty blogs about writing.

The joy of this little failing, though, is it’s easy to fix. Just go sit down at your desk and write. That’s all it takes.

In the past year or so since I started taking this collection of rants somewhat seriously, I’ve paid the rent by writing a few dozen articles for Creative Screenwriting (including one about comic book movies I was pretty happy with). I got to interview a bunch of heavyweight filmmakers like David Goyer, Kevin Smith, and Zack Snyder. I also did a bunch of film and DVD reviews (and let me save you the trouble—Scorpion King 2 is just not worth it. Don’t sink to that level. You deserve better, seriously).

I’ve also written four short stories, two of which are being published next year in two separate anthologies. At the moment I’m working on two more which are both past the halfway mark.

I placed in three different screenwriting contests with my script Reality Check. It’s sort of a sci-fi, metafiction, comedy film. With giant monsters and spaceships. And enough genre references to make a geek’s head explode.

And there was the novel, Ex-Heroes, which was written in its entirety this year. It started out as a mild rant to a friend and then mixed with a few superheroes I’d made up back in high school. I got the contract from the publisher today, and if all goes well it’ll be on book shelves, Amazon, and Oprah’s reading list sometime next year.

Oh. And I managed to post here two or three times a month pretty faithfully. Well, until the eggnog showed up and productivity dropped to a crawl.

Now, granted, I’m in that lucky small percentage of folks who does this full time, but really there’s no real excuse for not writing. Stephen King wrote Carrie while he was teaching high school. David Goyer wrote his first screenplay while he was fetching coffee and making copies as an office PA. Clive Cussler started his long-running Dirk Pitt series (Raise the Titanic ring a bell?) while he was doing ad copy.

We must write.

Make that your New Year’s resolution. A page a day. Just one page. A mere two hundred and fifty words if you double-space. If you can write one page a day, you’ll have a short story by the end of January, a screenplay by the time May rolls around, or a solid novel this time next year. All that, out of just one measly page a day.

Happy New Year to all nine of you reading this.

Now go write that page.

November 11, 2008 / 2 Comments

Maybe We Can Fix It In Post…

So, last week I gave a rant that was mostly designed for the novelists and short story writers who regularly look here (all three of them). This week I thought I’d put something out for all the would-be screenwriters who’ve become loyal followers of this blog (both of you).

The rest of you… I have no idea why you keep coming here.

Over the past few months I read scripts for three different screenwriting contests. Two of them are fairly well known. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I probably read well over 200 screenplays in that time period, and I was just helping out part-time.

Seeing this many scripts is, in some ways, a wonderful learning experience. Not only did I get to see the same mistakes made again and again and again (thus reinforcing the fact that I will never commit the same mistake) but I also got to see the entire review process through the eyes of a reader and share my thoughts with other people on this side of the line.

That being said, two important things to remember as I go into this list…

First, readers are human. They generally have to read about a dozen scripts every day (The Stand by Stephen King has fewer pages than a single day’s worth of feature scripts), and they’re usually only making fair to average pay doing it. They get frustrated, they get bored, and they will make snap judgments even when they’re trying to be as fair and impartial as possible. Every time you make it easier for them to render that judgment—one way or the other—you’re doing them a favor.

Second, reading scripts is not about mining for gold, it’s a weeding-out process. For most readers, the job is not to find the best of the best, but to clean away the worst, the barely-adequate, and the mediocre for the higher-paid people above them.

As an additional side note, I’ve determined a simple truth I call the 50% rule. It holds for screenplay contests, and I bet it also counts for anthologies, job applications, and blind dates.

If you take any body of submissions, about half of them will have no business whatsoever being there in that group. These are the submissions where the reader knows by page two there’s no point in turning another page. Maybe it’s because they submitted a western to a sci-fi contest, or vice-versa. Perhaps there’s a 120 page cap and it’s a 200 page screenplay. It could even be handwritten in crayon. One way or another, when you look at the odds for a contest, remember that half those people aren’t even going to be your competition. Or, awful as it may sound, you won’t even be theirs.

Here’s ten of the most common reasons why.


Yeah, can you believe I’m harping on this again? When I first wrote the “Contest Beat” column for Creative Screenwriting (recently resurrected as “Eyes on the Prize”) I interviewed dozens of contest directors and asked each of them what were some tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the answer that every one of them gave was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo is not going to sink your chances. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If I’m going through your script and there’s a typo on every page, though… Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.

Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you are an advanced writer. You’re ahead of the average Joe or Jane, someone who can do more with words and letters than just sign their name, send a text message, or scribble a shopping list. The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing– are spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. If you aren’t a master of the basics (you, not your word processor’s spellchecker), how can you hope to do anything advanced?

Apostrophe S

You could argue this goes under typos, but to be honest it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S will stand out on the page like a flare. There is no worse mistake you can make. Seriously. None. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.

Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get some grammar books like Eats Shoots & Leaves or even just the MLA Handbook and actually read them. Promise yourself, as of this moment, no more guessing or taking wild stabs in the dark. A real writer has to know how apostrophe S works.

Excess Title Info

You would be stunned how many scripts were submitted to these contests with things like MY TITLE—crap draft right on the first page. One didn’t even use the crap, but a more vernacular form. No, I’m serious. Sometimes they’re in the file name with electronic submissions, which is also a bad time to see MY TITLE—(other contest’s name) Submission. Even just plain old MY TITLE—1st draft. Only your first draft? And you thought it was ready for a contest? Well, okay… I guess that’s better than the script that was copyrighted back in 2001 and probably hasn’t been changed since…

Don’t give a reader any reason to prejudge your script. Strip off any and all draft numbers or extraneous comments to yourself before you send it out. I’ve got over a dozen screenplays to read today, and honestly, if you’re going to hand yours off and tell me it’s crap right up front… well, you’re saving me some time, thanks.

The script is about a writer

Seriously, you would not believe the percentage of scripts that are about novelists or wanna-be screenwriters. Out of 150 scripts I read for one contest, nineteen of them had writers as a main character. That’s almost one out of every seven–over 14% of them! They were all awful and not one of them advanced.

Not to sound harsh, but no one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. Trust me, I do it for a living, I know. They also don’t care about the day-to-day struggles of a thinly-fictionalized version of yourself. And they also don’t care about the sheer joy of the creative process, the way impossibly beautiful women and handsome men are drawn to creative types, or the wild, quirky, and outgoing nature every writer has.

And for God’s sake, it’s the worst ending in the world when the writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay, everything is now wonderful and perfect in the world, and they win the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever…

The story never addresses things

It’s okay to have mystery in your story. It’s okay not to reveal everything. Heck, it’s even okay to have wild, absurd coincidences. Many movies and shows have had success by not fully explaining who that cigarette-smoking man is, why that girl down in the well is so evil, or what the heck is going on on that damned tropical island. We all like this sort of stuff, and when it’s done well it what makes your story the one people talk about and remember for ages.

However, these things still need to be acknowledged. A story can’t just get away with “it’s a secret” and expect that readers (and an audience) will just accept it. A reader can see the difference between a real mystery and a bunch of awkwardly-withheld information. It’s also apparent when a writer is keeping a secret and when they’re just trying to be mysterious because… well, people like mysterious stuff.

You can get away with a lot of bizarre stuff if your characters at least acknowledge the mystery or absurdity of it. On the show LOST we found out that someone on the plane was travelling with a pregnancy test. Yet before the audience even had a chance to mock this little bit of deus ex machina, one of the characters did. “Who travels with a pregnancy test?” laughed Kate, trying to calm her friend Sun. And with that, this ridiculous coincidence was addressed and allowed. A few years back in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, writer Peter David had sidekick Rick Jones saved from an exploding Skrull warship because he always wore a mini-parachute under his clothes in case he had to escape from an exploding Skrull warship. When Bruce Banner pointed out how absurd that was, Rick looked up at the sprawling cloud in the sky and said “ What do you mean? I needed it, didn’t I?”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with mystery and coincidence. Just make sure it really is a mystery, not just an attempt to look like one.

Crowd scenes

I read one script that introduced twelve characters in the first ten pages, plus a handful of minor ones. The record was seventeen in the first five pages. As I recently explained to a friend of mine, this is like pouring out a truckload of gravel and asking someone to take note of what color stones they see.

Pace the introduction of characters. If you tell me ten people walk into a room, you don’t need to give me all their names, genders, physical descriptions, and character quirks all at once. We can get to know them as the situation arises.

Confusing names

This may sound a little foolish and obvious, but if your story has characters named Paul, Paula, Paulina, and Paola (and one short I read did) it’s going to be very, very difficult for a reader to keep track of who’s who. Confusing as all hell, to be honest. I mention it because I saw a double-handful of scripts that all suffered from this problem and it was one of the factors that kept most of them from making it to the next level of the competition. If you look at many published novels, you’ll see it’s actually rare to get multiple characters whose names start with the same letter—it just makes for an easy mnemonic. You’re more likely to see Andrew, Bob, Cedric, and Dave than to see Andrew, Angus, Bob, and Bill. The Matrix had Neo, Morpheus, Smith, Trinity, and Cypher. Casablanca has Rick, Elsa, Victor, Louis, and Sam. Raiders of the Lost Ark had Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah, and Toht. Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson.

On a somewhat similar note, if you have a wedding planner named Leslie who’s male, make sure it’s plain and obvious he’s a man. Likewise, if your grease-covered auto mechanic Charlie is a woman, it needs to be clear up front she’s a woman, with no ambiguity at all. Nothing frustrates readers more than to get ten pages in and realize they’ve mentally assigned the wrong gender to a character, because it means they have to go back over everything they just read. So be careful with names like Pat, Chris, Sam, and so on.

Nothing ever happens

Most professional script readers will give you to page ten and then stop reading if they’re not gripped by your words. If your writing in and of itself is phenomenal, they might go along with you until page twenty or so. However by page twenty if there isn’t a definite, solid story happening, your script ends up in the large pile on the left. One script page is roughly one minute of screen time (a little less, actually), so try to find a movie where at least the basic story hasn’t been set out for the audience by twenty minutes in.

If your story (your real story) hasn’t begun by page twenty, look back over your script and see what is happening in those pages. Is it vitally important to the character? Is it advancing the story? If not, you may want to trim it out, or perhaps move it to a later scene.

Pointless changes

A common storytelling device is to take a known story (either fictional or historical) and change an element to put a new spin on it. Disney used to do this quite often with their animated versions of stories like Robin Hood. Another way to look at this is the “What if…” method of storytelling. What if aliens did build the Egyptian pyramids? What if a time traveler killed Kennedy? What if someone won the lottery?

The catch here, of course, is that such a change implies other elements of your story would change. If your team of agents find evidence Kennedy was killed by a time traveler and then continue to deal with the OPEC crisis… what was the point? Why bother to have your main character win the lottery if winning it doesn’t change a single thing in their life?

If you’re going to have a major tweak like this in your story, there should be a reason for it. If you’ve decided to tell the history of the Maya with cgi geckoes acting out all the parts… it should be apparent why.

Short brads

Yeah, this is stupid and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with how your script is received… and yet…

Few things are more frustrating than having a script constantly fall apart while you’re trying to read it. You turn the page, the brads bend, and suddenly you’re holding a pile of fanning papers. And the last thing you want is for a reader to be going through your screenplay and feel constantly frustrated.

If you’re alredy investing forty or fifty bucks to enter a contest, go the extra few feet and get the right size brass brads. You want the big, beefy ones that are over an inch and a half long– enough to go through 120 sheets of paper and have plenty left over to bend back.

There they are. Ten things that crop up again and again, most of which will guarantee you a place in that large, left-hand pile.

So go look at your writing, and make sure that doesn’t happen to you.