The Script Reader’s Top 5 Screenplay “Do Nots”

The following is a very basic list of items that do not impress me as a script reader and, more often than not, will get your script a resounding pass. If your script contains any of these points, consider rewriting before sending out.

So, here we go, a list of my top 5 screenplay peeves when reading:

DO NOT tell me a story I’ve heard, seen or read before. This is where doing your homework comes in. If you are going to take a previously produced concept, rewrite it in a fresh, unique and current way. Be creative. Wow me.

DO NOT switch genres. Don’t begin your movie as a drama and then suddenly switch it up so that it becomes a thriller. The only thing this will accomplish is to annoy your reader.

DO NOT write long blocks of action lines. Yes, there are writers who write like this. And they get paid a lot to do it, and because they’re well known, people read their block text. Most readers have too much to read and read down the page (dialogue), unless your prose is very sparse and also stellar. The more text on the page, the less compelled I am to read it.

DO NOT waste your character introductions with an ambiguous name, no age, no gender, and clothing as a description of character. I don’t care if your character is wearing khakis. Be smart. Make use of your page count.

DO NOT write ANY scene that neither exposes character nor moves your story forward. That’s why we outline. Beat out your project before you start writing.

For a complete list of my Screenplay Competition “Do Nots,” click here.

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19 Responses to The Script Reader’s Top 5 Screenplay “Do Nots”

  1. Jamie February 28, 2010 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks Monica, these tips are very helpful – made me go back and look very closely at what I was writing. I always have difficulty though in beating out the project before hand – I know some writers who produce pages of notes, I just can’t seem to do that. Once I start to think about writing, I need to write rather than think about structure. In consequence I write far more than I ever need! Any tips?

    Jamie

  2. Monica March 1, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    Jamie,

    There are many different ways to approach structure. My experience has taught me that writing is a little like the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky argument – people either write primarily from character or from story/plot/concept.

    The writers who write from character basically motivate the story from the character choices and that propels the journey. They have to work harder to find the plot that compels the journey.

    Writers who write primarily from plot have to work harder to find the characters who best compliment that journey and make it emotionally resonant.

    It sounds like you might fall more on the character side, in which case I would be sure that you really have a lot of depth and emotional transformation within your characters.

    Make sure you start writing with the 6 Beats. If you don’t have at least the six major beats, you can’t be sure you have enough story to propel a feature length journey.

    Writing is rewriting. I would go through your script and just make sure that each scene is exposing ONE story beat and also one character beat. If you are writing a straight character drama, you might be able to get away with a number of scenes that expose one character beat, but you will still need to advance the story. It’s a puzzle. You want to be sure that the story is compelling the reader to turn the page, that the emotional and dramatic stakes are escalating throughout the read, and that you connect all your dots in a logical way the reader can follow.

    In addition, check out these techniques:

    Breaking Story: The Six Major Beats

    Breaking Story: The 8 Sequences

    Plotting From Character

    The Screenplay Outline: Carding Out Your Story

    Watch films within your genre (use the genre database) and beat out the scenes. You will learn a TON about structure if you sit down and beat out 3-7 titles that closely resemble your own – because you will see how they work with the 6 major story beats, what those turning points are, and where they fall.

    Screenplay Genre and Structure: Why the Beat Sheet?

    A friend asked me to write more about carding out a story – to use examples and actually give better insight to this. So, I will try to do that soon.

    Good luck, and let me know if this helps and if you need more specific help with something!

  3. The Exscapist May 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    “DO NOT switch genres. Don’t begin your movie as a drama and then suddenly switch it up so that it becomes a thriller. The only thing this will accomplish is to annoy your reader.”

    I am guessing you hated Psycho and A Beautiful Mind.

  4. The Exscapist May 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Along with all these other films that shift Genre.

    Sunshine, Adapation, Wild Things, From Dusk till Dawn, The Lost Boys, Death Becomes Her, Million Dollar Baby, I could go on and on.

    It’s called a Genre Shift. And if you can do, and still tell a great story, then that is all that matters. Putting screenplays into a box like this does nothing but hampers creativity and original thought.

    So please, lets be more open to possibility here.

  5. Monica May 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm #

    Hi, Exscapist, thanks for your comment. I actually think I need to be clearer about what I mean by a Genre Shift, as you call it, because most (if not all) of the films you mention I don’t think actually do switch genre – but I’ll have to think about it more carefully and study some of these films again to speak about this in more detail.

    “Psycho,” for example, switches protagonists – but from the outset it is most certainly a thriller. Part of the thrill is that the protagonist is murdered by the new protag – the Psycho. I love this film.

    I haven’t seen “A Beautiful Mind” in years (and, no, this isn’t a favorite of mine), but I also don’t recall any switch in genre. Although technically probably a biopic/drama, I would say the thrust of the story has more to do with the mystery of what is happening to him and around him. This was sort of akin to “Shutter Island,” in that there is an unreliable narrator/protagonist who is defining an unreliable world.

    I don’t think any of the other films you mention have an abrupt shift in genre. They are all firmly consistent with their genre from beginning to end.

    Every genre has structural markers and elements of audience expectation that are important to that genre. I am a stickler for genre conventions not because I’m trying to discourage original thought or creative possibility but because I think, as an audience while watching movies, we tap into a superconscious place where we emotionally expect certain things at certain times and we don’t want to have to think about it too hard. I actually watch the audience now when I go to films, because you can tell if an important marker is missed in the basic storytelling – people get confused or distracted and start to lose interest. They shift in their seats, get out their cell phones, start talking, or simply walk out.

    Basic genre conventions: for example, with romantic comedy, the thrust of the story is the meet-breakup, meet-breakup – what forces are keeping the lovers from being together. If you write a “romantic comedy” where the male and female love interests don’t meet until the midpoint, that doesn’t meet the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. I’m not saying not to write that movie – I’m just saying it’s probably not a romantic comedy. Figure out what story you’re trying to tell and then write that story the best you can.

    Similarly, with broad comedy, it is generally structured that the male protagonist is trying to accomplish a life goal (A story), then he meets the female love interest (or even could be a male ‘love’ relationship/bromance), and the emotional win at the end of the story to pay off the arc is getting the girl/bromance.

    I actually don’t think there are too many produced films with dramatic shifts in genre – because most scripts that would get produced would have that fixed before production. That would be very confusing for an audience.

    There isn’t enough page count in a screenplay to write 15 pages establishing a romantic comedy, then to spend 30 pages writing a horror, and then another 40 writing a sci-fi. Every scene should be carefully setting up what’s coming next – in plotting, tone, genre, character, etc. – and in well-written stories this is always the case, and usually the case from page one.

  6. Brian May 25, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Hi Monica. Thank you for posting these tips, I look forward to reading more of what you have to say. As someone who is indeed interested in writing, it is good for me to learn these things early.

    I am interested in your views on screenplays based on novels, and how you feel it is best to approach adaptation. I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Golden Compass”, but I found that script to rely a little to heavily on exposition, and not pay enough attention to “show, don’t tell”. Any advice would be appreciated 🙂

  7. Monica May 25, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    Hi, Brian, thanks for your post. I’ll be sure to write more thoughts about adaptations. As a reader, I’m usually looking at original material, although the question of adapting seems to always rear its head.

  8. pat August 26, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    Dusk Till Dawn definitely changes genres, but it ultimately fails so I don’t think it should count.

    …and it was so enjoyable for a while…

    On another note, I’ve noticed a lot of people nitpick at your articles, and you always manage to keep on top. Kudos. Reading some of the things people throw your way when they don’t agree has been driving me up the fucking wall, and before I get to your response I generally want to go off. But it’s all helped in the end, and my screenplays are finally taking substance.
    Cheers!

  9. Monica August 28, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    Thanks! I am just trying to be helpful and support the writing process. A lot of this info I wouldn’t have known before film school and working in the industry, so there you go. Keep writing and GOOD LUCK!

  10. Max September 4, 2010 at 1:15 am #

    Petty arguments about which films shifted genre are and how is wrong. Its truthfully indefinable — based on your idea of what certain genres are or what a ‘shift’ would actually consist of.
    1.The real question is not simply of a ‘ limit of creativity ‘ but a complete and utter abolishment of it. You suggest that romantic comedies:
    – Basic genre conventions: for example, with romantic comedy, the thrust of the story is the meet-breakup, meet-breakup – what forces are keeping the lovers from being together –
    Or that what you call broad comedies are : “male protagonist is trying to accomplish a life goal (A story), then he meets the female love interest” — isn’t that the same thing as the romantic comedy? This formula, and formulaic-ness is exactly what is bothersome, and in my opinion is killing the business. How can romantic comedies be limited to one story line? How can comedy in general only be limited to positive ending love stories? Can we agree that ideology is principally uncreative, that this is what is keeping the audiences bored?
    2. In your rather officious and brow-beating (although I do like your honest, albeit catty nature, all of my L.A. people, including me have become equall so)…. DO-NOTS list, how can you restrict your reading to ‘ Not write long blocks of action” Is action not the substance of a film? Are not as you call them, writers who get ” paid a lot ” writing superior material i.e. with those hateful long action lines? Is this requirement based on the jadedness of all screenreaders reading shit all day or laziness, or both? Just being honest.
    3. You are exactly the kind of kick ass and take no prisoners insider gal I would love to read my scripts, but can you handle the long block lines, or will you fall asleep? I think you’d be quite surprised.

  11. Monica September 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    Hey, Max. Of course everyone has a right to their opinion, but to dismiss genre entirely as a core approach to writing misses the boat. It isn’t basic genre conventions that is killing creativity. It’s just hard to come up with something fresh that works within the rules and also blows people’s socks off. I think if you actually were to study various genres, you might gain a lot from it. But, if you think that’s a waste of your time, don’t.

    Genres are not “indefinable,” as you claim, and as a reader I know it immediately when something shifts without warning. As regards broad comedy vs. romantic – the point of the romantic comedy is the force that keeps the lovers apart, which is overcome and then they’re able to be together. The point of the broad comedy is the A story (goal) of the protagonist, which is won, and the love interest is the ‘prize.’ These are not the same thing. They are very different story models, structurally.

    Ideology, as you call it, isn’t ‘principally uncreative.’ A parallel to what you’re arguing is that because we have a fixed alphabet and fixed rules of grammar, this system is principally uncreative and thus our thought and creative processes would be killed because of it. Exactly the opposite – I think it is freeing to learn the rules, because then one can work within them. To just assume that there are no rules at all – well, then, we would have no communication. You might not like having to use a comma, but it exists for a reason. Don’t hate the comma!

    On the action lines debate. It isn’t because I am lazy and jaded that I am not a fan of long blocks of text. It’s just not the contemporary standard for screenwriting. Hey, if you love long passages of prose, write a novel! Nobody is forcing anyone to write for the screen. As I mentioned, there are some writers who can pull it off – but if you are writing like this, you’d better be very confident that your prose is amazing and also that you’re not overwriting. Screenwriting is about hitting the beat. Most scripts these days come in between 101-107 pages. I often read material that takes 4 pages to write a beat that can be written in 2/8ths of a page. That is just wasted space. Unless you are crafting a kick-ass action sequence, in general you don’t need to write 3 pages of block prose.

    Another way to think of it is this – if someone is taking home 25 scripts and has the weekend to get through them, are they really going to labor over every single prose word you’ve decided to force onto your pages? If you’re amazing, maybe. But, if you just look like a writer who doesn’t know better, probably not. That is time out of their day that they could be spending on a writer who just looks/reads ‘professional’ from page 1.

    Every rule can be broken as well as you’re doing it intelligently and it works for your story. But I see writers every single day who think they can be that one who can break the rules. Worse when they don’t know what the rules are to begin with. Learn the rules, make them your friends. Then, if and when you decide to break them, you’ll be ahead of the game.

  12. pat September 7, 2010 at 1:32 am #

    See what I mean…

  13. Monica September 9, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Exactly. Everyone wants to be a genius and thinks that they can write one draft of a mediocre story and their first script should sell for a million dollars. Does this happen often? No.

  14. Shannon G December 22, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    Hi Monica,
    You said about character introductions, something I’m considerably poor at, so how do I introduce my characters without it being too plain and boring? Also when I’m finished with my script, what do you think is the best way I could send it off so that it would really get used?

  15. Monica January 24, 2011 at 1:40 am #

    What do you mean by “get used”? Like, get people to read it?

  16. Shannon G February 5, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Yeah like that…

  17. clee March 26, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Thank you Monica… I really like reading your posts. Very enlightening. Plus.. somehow, it an odd way, (not weird), just odd, you write like the female lead character in You, Me and Dupree… Not a bad thing!

  18. Gary May 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    as for the moving the story along rule what if im not writing a straight up story with a plotline what if its more of the story of someones life like goodfellas.

  19. David July 10, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    I’ve noticed that when writers get angry at pieces like this they tend to espouse exceptions to the rule. Every time! Out comes the laundry list.

    Too bad it’s statistically impossible for everyone to be the exception. If you’re a new writer looking for entry, it’s far better to write material producers actually want to read.

    Nothing wrong with spending years and years trying to get that trend busting screenplay produced — but how big are the chances that your 1st or even 5th screenplay is that script?

    Here is a reader giving you guidelines — and instead of accepting those guidelines and being pumped about the inside info — you decide non of it pertains.

    I spent about a year reading for a mid-sized prodco. Trust me — I wish wish wish the submitting writers would have followed a list like this. Heck, I wish I would have paid attention to this advice when I started writing.

    Are all the rules fair? No. Do the rules give you unlimited creative freedom? No. They require that you bleed. A lot. To push your work and be even more creative in order to stand out.

    If you want unlimited creative control, do what I do. Write a poem. Write a screenplay about anything you want however you want. And then when you’re done — go back to writing screenplays that actually have a shot at getting bought. :-).