We all have them. That little thing that most people don’t even notice, but annoys the absolute hell out of us.
For some, it’s able-bodied people walking slowly through a crowded place (seriously, move), while others have a big issue with drivers who don’t use their turn signal. Even the sight of dudes wearing flip flops in public can tick you off.
Okay, fine—all three of those are things that I hate.
Point is, it’s very common for us as human beings to do things and have no clue how they are perceived by others. We don’t even think about it a lot of times. And this concept applies just as much to your writing as it does to your everyday life.
Every reader has little things that annoy them. I once worked for an agent who told me if a client were to ever break the fourth wall in their description that they would be ceremoniously dropped the next day. While that reaction is definitely extreme, it doesn’t take much these days for your screenplay or pilot to get moved over into the "pass" pile.
With this in mind, I wanted to share a quick list of potential pitfalls that can be easily avoided without much effort. The best way to protect yourself against a problem is to know about it ahead of time.
So, without further adieu, some tips:
#1 - DO NOT OVERLOAD YOUR FIRST PAGE WITH DENSE ACTION DESCRIPTION
Or the first five pages. Or the first ten. Or even the first fifteen. In fact, the easier the beginning of your screenplay is to get through, the more likely producers and executives are to finish reading it. It might sound insane, but it’s true. You need to write with your reader’s energy level in mind.
Think about it from our perspective for just a second: you’re a low-level executive at a studio or production company. While some of you might feel like this is your “dream job,” I have news for you: a lot of elements of this position absolutely suck. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down ...
In this job, you’re at or near the bottom of the executive totem pole. Meaning you’re stuck taking the bullshit general meetings the senior VPs say yes to for political reasons but don’t actually want to take, typing up the gigantic notes emails for all the projects on your slate, and reading the low-priority submissions that must be read, but none of the other executives have time for. This, on top of all the work you actually want to be doing. Oh, and by the way, it would be nice to go outside and see the sun for 15 minutes at some point, too. If this all sounds exhausting: it is.
People in this position are constantly tired and massively overworked. Literally, I once heard of an MP (stands for "motion picture") manager at Disney who hadn’t slept a full night in over a year and instead banked on taking several two-hour power naps each evening, between which he would wake up, cover a script, and then go back to sleep for a little bit. That’s how exhausted these people are. They do not have time to screw around. And don’t get me started about the lives of baby producers at small production companies, hustling for their livelihoods every single day. Talk about barely having a life …
So. Imagine that you’re this person, all bleary-eyed and groggy, with 10 other scripts in your stack, and you open up a brand new spec. The first page is all dense action description. You turn the page just to check, and the next two don’t seem much better. In fact, there’s just line after line after line of more unnecessary words and superfluous details clogging the page. Does this seem exciting to you? Are you encouraged to dive right in and tackle this piece of night and/or weekend work?
On the surface, it appears convoluted, wordy, and worst of all, slow. Right off the bat, before this person has read the first word, your script appears like it’s going to be a lot of work. Depending upon the mood of your reader, this could be the kiss of death for your submission right then and there. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic.
I once worked with an executive who would assign me scripts and tell me, “Listen Spike, if this doesn’t grab you in the first five pages, just pass. It’s fine.” Yes, you read that right. FIVE FREAKING PAGES. That’s all you get sometimes in this business. If the choice is between staying in on a Friday night to read a script that’s ultra dense and boring, or passing before you get to the inciting incident so you can go out with your friends for some much needed R&R … I’m just saying that a lot of people are going to choose the latter option (I’ve done it myself a few times). And you don’t want to be the person whose material gets passed on for a stupid reason like that. Not if there’s something you can do about it.
Now there’s two schools of thought for how to react to news like this: the first is to complain and moan about how this is unfair and not the way it should work. And technically, you’d be right. It isn’t fair. And it isn’t how it’s supposed to work. But newsflash—nothing in Hollywood is.
Therefore, I subscribe to the second school of thought:
Since you now know that this is how things are, counteract it.
I advise every young writer to write their first 15 pages in as few words as possible. Literally use as little text as necessary to tell the story. Of course, don’t go so sparse that readers won't understand what you need to describe. There's a balance. But the key trick here is that you want to get the reader deep into your material as fast as possible. If 20 minutes go by, and the reader looks up and sees that they’re already on page 40, how is that going to make them feel? Really good, right? The script is flying by … they’ll be done in no time! They’ll be in a good mood while they’re reading it. As opposed to glancing at the clock every two minutes realizing you’ve barely covered a page and a half … one feeling is empowering, and the other is demoralizing.
A tired executive or producer is more likely to push through a thick patch of writing on page 40 than they are on page 5 (assuming your story engine is working correctly). Get people invested in the narrative, and make it as easy as possible for them to read your work—and for the love of God, do it quickly!
P.S. If the setup of your narrative dictates that you absolutely have to use a bunch of action description, easy—break it up. Make it more dynamic. No more than a few lines at a time. Ideally one or two. Inject as much white space onto the page as you can to protect against the reader feeling potentially overwhelmed.
#2 - DO NOT INTRODUCE TOO MANY CHARACTERS ALL AT ONCE
File this tip under the category of “seems really obvious, and yet somehow many, many people still don’t know it.” And this tidbit applies x10 to those of you writing pilots (because you have half the pages to work with).
Imagine for a brief moment you’ve just walked into a house party, and you only know one person there. You two meet up, and they walk you through a chaotic scene where loud music is pumping, people are dancing, and everyone is yelling to be heard. Over the course of the next hour, your friend introduces you to well over a dozen people, but because there are so many new faces to shake hands with, you only have time to talk to each of them for about 5 minutes or so each before needing to move on. At the end of the night, while driving home, your friend turns to you and says:
“So what did you think of Andrew?”
“Uhh … which one was Andrew?”
“My friend, from the party. Don’t you remember?”
The answer is no.
And the above scene is akin to how a reader feels while reading a script where the writer has included far too many names for anyone to possibly remember (especially when it all happens in the span of one to three pages).
This happens to me all the time. A scribe has come up with this legitimately awesome idea for an ensemble TV show or film, and tries to introduce EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM. AT THE SAME TIME. It’s overwhelming, chaotic, and nauseating to read. It all but guarantees that I’ll have to go back multiple times in the script and reread scenes to get a reminder of who someone is and why they are important. When you have to read as many scripts as I do, the time spent doing this really feels—and is—a complete waste.
Counter that with this thought, however. Imagine the same friend invites you to a dinner party, one where the attendees are much smaller. There’s only four or five new people to meet. You stay for the same amount of time (just an hour), but now you get to talk to each person for ten to fifteen minutes each. At the end of the night, how much more do you think you’ll remember about these new friends?
In the two above examples, I now want you to change “minutes” to pages. Especially for all those of you writing pilots. Would you rather read a pilot that had four characters who each got around 15 pages of development, or one with a dozen characters who were all on screen for five (or less) pages. Which do you think a reader is going to enjoy more?
In 99.999999999% of scenarios, the former.
Newer writers often haven’t learned how or what to hold back in a script. It’s not necessary for you to name every single character in a screenplay. Or to introduce an entire season’s worth of cast members in your pilot episode. There's time enough for that later. You can't overwhelm your audience with too much information up front, because if you do, you run the risk of confusing and losing your reader. Even "Game of Thrones" didn’t introduce every person in their universe right away, and neither should you.
#3 - DO NOT SEND SOMEONE A NEWER DRAFT BEFORE THEY’VE READ THE FIRST
Of all the pet peeves I’ve outlined in this article, this one is the most egregious for me. When development people get a submission, they aren’t reading it for fun or pleasure. We read for our jobs. This is our life. And for the most part, we’re more than happy to take a look at interesting concepts, especially from legitimate sources like an agent or manager.
But let’s say that you don’t have representation yet. You meet a manager or assistant at some party, and you strike up a conversation. An organic opening comes for you to pitch the script you’re working on, and by Jove, the producer says you can send them your work. This is the moment every baby writer dreams of!
Immediately following the party, you rush home and email off that beloved PDF. And while you wait, you start to make little tweaks …
And then the tweaks become full scenes. And then the full scenes become a reworked second act. And before you know it, the screenplay you sent off is substantially different than what it once was.
“No big deal,” you think to yourself, “XYZ person probably hasn’t read this yet. I’ll just send them a new draft and catch them before they do.”
Heed my words everyone:
What might seem like an innocuous email to you carries a much deeper meaning to development people. Because when we get sent a script, the insinuation is “this is something that is ready for professional consideration. This is something that is worth my time as a businessperson.”
I remind you all again: development executives and producers read for a living. If I wanted to read for fun, I’d pick up Saga by Brian K. Vaughn for the 12th time. When material is sent to us, we want something that is polished, pristine, and (more or less) finished.
When you email a new draft to a producer days or weeks after sending the first one, you are inherently sending the message that your work isn’t any of the things I just outlined. It’s a work-in-progress. It’s not done yet. Therefore, the script that you were submitting for professional consideration isn’t actually ready for professional consideration. And if you boil that down, it means you were wasting the person’s time.
Please don’t think that every executive is a grumpy old man with a stick up their butts about this sort of thing, because many of us are very nice human beings. But going back to my first tip in this article, we’re very nice human beings who are constantly tired and massively overworked. We need people who make our lives easier, not harder. And putting doubt into the back of an executive’s mind that your work is going to be up to par before they’ve even glanced at your first page is not a great way to start a new professional relationship.
You might get an email response back saying something along the lines of “Thanks! No big deal!” But the risk inherent in this process is one that is much better avoided altogether.
#4 - DO NOT SCRIPT OUT EVERY SINGLE BEAT OF AN ACTION SCENE
This one connects back to tip #1 (write succinctly and limit your action description, especially early) but it’s still a trap that many writers fall into.
It is 100% unnecessary for you to write out every punch or kick that your character throws in a fight scene. You don’t need to tell me about every bullet they dodge, or exactly how each individual laser that shoots from their eyes explodes. Literally, nobody needs this. Whatever you are planning is going to change once it makes it to production. That’s the job of the director and stunt coordinator. Whenever I see a large chunk of text describing a fight scene or shootout, I immediately glaze over it. 99% of the time it is not relevant at all to the story.
That’s obviously not to say you can’t write anything about your climaxes. But make sure that things move along at a solid pace, instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae. Does your character get shot, or have his hand chopped off? Important. Include that. Does he have a seven-minute fight scene with a bunch of baddies before getting there? Unimportant. Write that part as briskly as possible. It’s not necessary to understand the plot engine.
This is one of the rare occasions where your pages do not need to represent the amount of time that is passing onscreen. Producers know that action doesn’t translate as easily from the page to film, so don’t force yourself to write out ten full pages of action description describing your final showdown if three or four will do. Remember: manage the reader’s energy levels. Don’t force them to expend energy reading words they do not have to. They will thank you for it later, I assure you.
#5 - DO NOT MAKE ALL YOUR CHARACTER NAMES SOUND SIMILAR
Please, for the love of 35mm film, avoid this.
Let me tell you a story:
JOSH wakes up one morning and walks out of his apartment to find his roommate, JAKE sitting on the sofa. Jake tells Josh that they are going to go and pick up their friend, JACK, from his place and then drive out into the country for a fun little trip! So Jake and Josh get into Jake’s car and drive to pick up Jack and find that his girlfriend, JANE, is coming along too. Awesome, the more the merrier! So Jack, Jake, Josh, and Jane all start driving before they hit a problem … their tire blows out on I-95 and Jake doesn’t have AAA! Josh does, but he doesn’t own the car so that won’t work. It’s okay, Jack knows how to fix a tire, so he enlists Jane’s help to remove the lug nuts and …
Are you all freaking confused yet?? Cause while writing this absurd little tale, I have messed up these names well over a dozen times in a single paragraph.
Even the best of writers will often forget how much longer they have spent in their universe than a reader has. You’ve been thinking about this story, these characters, all their intricacies, how each of them are different, etc. You clearly know the difference between Jack and Jake, and between Jake and Josh, but let me tell you something: I don’t! I’ve known these characters for a few minutes, and I don’t have the helpful assistance of a physical actor in front of my eyeballs to make it easy on me.
The point here is this: never, ever, ever have two characters with similar sounding names (unless there’s a specific reason for it, like the characters are twins or something, or it's thematically or narratively significant). Try to make sure that each character’s name sounds entirely different from everyone else. If you want to really score brownie points with your reader, give every primary character in your story a different letter to start their name. You can also vary up the syllables to be extra helpful. So you might have Joe, Becca, Abigail, and Henrietta. Four characters, four different starting letters, four different syllable amounts. This makes it monumentally easier for me, as a reader, to keep all your characters straight in my head.
I’ll also throw out one other piece of advice, but this one is more controversial. I’ve heard it said before to never describe your characters as actual actors, because this is the job of a casting director (and it can come off as though you are assuming you will get all these A-list stars). I have (personally) never found this to be the case. In fact, it’s the opposite for me: I find it extremely helpful if the writer gives me a type. Like if you introduce a character as:JOSH, a skinny white dude who’s awkward as hell (think Jesse Eisenberg), and MARTIN, a hulking black ex-athlete with a scar on his face (think Idris Elba) ...
Now, all of a sudden, I’m thinking as a reader “OK, Jesse Eisenberg and Idris Elba are in a scene together. That’s literally impossible for me to mess up! I am really grateful the writer gave me a visual benchmark to think about as this makes my life a whole hell of a lot easier.
Again, this last bit has been countered to me before, but I’ve always found it more helpful than not. Use it at your own risk, but who knows, it might just be the thing that puts your script over the top with a producer.
Anyway, I’m gonna shut up now, because this “quick little list” I was supposed to write turned into a massive behemoth of an article.
I really should have taken my first piece of advice and written it in as few words as possible.
Godspeed and happy writing.
Editor's Note: Want more? We've got Part 2.
*Feature Image: "The Passion of Creation" by Leonid Pasternak / Wikimedia Commons