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Elliot Grove lays out the 7 biggest mistakes screenwriters make while putting together their scripts, from sticking too close to formula to writing in unrealistically expensive set-pieces.

This article was provided by Raindance, the UK’s leading independent film festival and one of Europe’s top film training providers. Find more articles, videos and indie film-related content on their website, www.raindance.org


If you are a screenwriter reading this you are likely wondering how to get your screenplay sold and turned into a movie.

Join the club.

For some reason many writers work along unaware of the basics needed to turn the script into a movie. Many writers are also afraid of accepting the creative collaborations of cast and crew. These fears are unfounded – although any creative collaboration can lead to disagreement.

The film business is fiercely competitive. There are some simple rules of engagement that screenwriters need to know.

1. It’s a collaborative art form

“A writer needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army” – Orson Welles

Unlike a novel, a script is not a work of art in itself. Many screenwriters labour under this delusion. In fact, a script is the blueprint for making a piece of art.

Consider the following:
“He picks up the glass, rubs his thumb on the rim and swirls the fluid inside. PULL BACK as he he brings it towards his mouth. He is surrounded by 5 bottles of Jack Daniels and 43 Pabst Blue Ribbon. He considers the glass, puts it down, then resolves himself and knocks it back. BANG, he slams it on the table as we SMASH CUT to…”

The problems with this?

1) It’s overwritten.
“Surrounded by empty bottles, he knocks back a shot” is far simpler and conveys the essential information.

2) It has unnecessary detail
– we don’t need to know the brands he is drinking, nor how many he’s got through. It’s hampering the production designer

3) It has camera direction
– which is the director’s job.

Many new screenwriters spend so long thinking about and writing their script that they become convinced that the way they see it in their head is not simply best, it is the only way the film should be made. This is solipsistic, egotistical and cuts out any chance of making the film better through the contributions of talented people who have been doing their job for years. Stop, collaborate and listen.

2. Follow the money

You want to write a script that sells to a producer. The producer wants to make a film that sells to a distributor. The distributor wants to screen a film that sells to the public.

Follow the money – if you’re not putting bums on seats then you’re not getting paid.

3. Know your place

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a new or aspiring screenwriter. Here are some guidelines on what you should be writing: Drama is closed to you. You do not have the skills to write a drama good enough to make money. You will, one day, but not yet.

Genres sell. Genre hybrid’s sell. Producer’s know that they can make money on low-budget horror films and even comedy/horrors. They are far less confident about making money on ‘two people talking at a table’ dramas. A good ‘genre’ film has as much character and conflict as any ‘drama’ – guess where you’re going to work on your ‘drama’ skills. Hollywood’s John Truby makes regular trips to London to teach genre – don’t miss him.

If you’re writing more of a coming of age story, or anything following a single character’s arc consider using the hero’s journey – it’s a flexible and powerful tool, used in films as diverse as The Wrestler and The Lion King. Conveniently, the pre-eminent teacher of it, Christopher Vogler, is teaching at Raindance.

As you progress up the screenwriting ladder you will be able to write more and more personal projects. When you start, however, we recommend writing stuff that will get made and get you paid – and that means working out what producer’s want.

4. Get your script right

I’ve read over 2,500 scripts as a script reader, and only 4 have been made: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 51st State, and two low budget American indies that have yet to see the light of day.

Does this mean that the idea was wrong? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are two problems here:

A poor idea. Some ideas sound great but simply aren’t capable of being developed into stories or scripts. Some ideas don’t have inherent conflict, don’t have rising tension, don’t lend themselves to compelling characters. The result? A script that is great in parts, has good set-pieces, but is ultimately disappointing. Avoid this kind of mistake by rigorously testing your ideas before committing to a full script. Loglines, treatments and pitching to industry experts are great ways of doing this.

Some scripts have good ideas but poor execution, which comes in a number of guises. Spelling and typing errors are the most common and easiest to avoid. More difficult to work around is a script that is technically great (hits all the beats, turning-points and acts, has character arcs and conflict etc) but feels like it was written to a ‘formula’. These writers need to find something they are passionate about and write that without worrying about the rules. Your script needs to inspire everyone from producers and directors to wardrobe and gaffers, not forgetting the audience, of course. If you’re not inspired by what you’re writing, how do you expect anyone else to be?

Check your script is up to standard by using a consultancy.

Oh hey, Raindance has got one of those script consultants.

5. Screenwriters control the budget

Making a film costs money. Different things cost different amounts of money. They are making the film according to your script. All these add up to the fact that you control the budget (kind of).

Writing a scene where 10,000 camels race down the street is probably expensive. Writing the film using many diverse locations (hey, what if this scene happens in the arctic, and then this one at the Taj Mahal) costs money.

There are a couple of take-away points from this:

Know how much things cost and where this puts the budget of your film. Know what sort of budgets fit what stories, and you. Unknown screenwriter hoping to get a kitchen sink drama featuring a boy’s imagined dinosaur and a plane crash made? Unlikely to happen. There’s nothing wrong with writing big-budget, but make sure your story fits it.

Be flexible when it comes to rewrites and notes. Know how your set-pieces fit into your story and how you can change them. When the producer tells you to take that car chase out, can you turn it into an affordable foot chase and keep the story elements intact?

Serious writers learn how their screenplays affect budgets and schedules. I know he’s my boss, but Elliot Grove’s weekend Lo To No Budget Filmmaking masterclass is probable the quickest, cheapest way there is to learn about this.

6. Embrace the new digital world

That said, it’s a brave new world out there, and there’s a lot that is achievable now, with digital technology, that wasn’t before. Speak with producers and VFX artists about what is now affordable through computer wizardry. Battle scenes, creatures, vehicles etc can all be created on a low budget. Just look at Monsters for example

7. Film festivals are the new launch pad

When your script is made into a movie, the most likely tool your producer will use to start the PR machine rolling is to submit your film to film festivals. Attending a film festival is a great way for screenwriters to see how the sharp end works – the back end after the film is finished.

Have a look at the 100 top film festivals around the world. Plan your holidays, travel and attend. It’s fun.

Fade Out

Finally, screenwriters need to be aware of what is happening in the world of social media. The new film industry demands scripts that are Keyword and SEO aware. With these scripts, producers are guaranteed more views or hits on the web. Producers are increasingly seek scripts like this.

Are you allergic to social media?

Have you looked at the Raindance Twitter account to see how we do it?

Why not follow Raindance on Facebook? It’s fun and you can win free stuff.

Hope this helps.

This article was written by Raindance founder Elliot Grove and originally appeared on raindance.org


This article was provided by Raindance, the UK's leading independent film festival and one of Europe's top film training providers. Find more articles, videos and indie film related content on their website, www.raindance.org.

Posted on Jun 1, 2015

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