Five More Mistakes that Make You Look Like an Amateur

My last blog took a look at five mistakes that make writers look like amateurs. Today, I’m giving you five more, as if you hadn’t guessed.

Trying to Write a Shooting Script

                                     DISSOLVE TO:

EXT. BEACH – MORNING

EXTREME WIDE SHOT – Erica stands on the beach staring at something on the sand

MEDIUM WIDE SHOT – Erica stands over the dead body of her lover.

DOLLY IN – on Erica. Her face quivering.

EXTREME CLOSE UP – Erica’s eye. She is crying.

Ooops-Mistake-288x300
Okay, big problem about writing camera shots and transitions (like “Dissolve to…”) – that’s a directors job! If a writer tries to tell a director how do to his job, how do you think the director is going to feel? Yes! Pretty irritated.

Now, you have seen these in practically every screenplay you have ever read; right? This is because most of the screenplays you can get your hands on are shooting scripts; or transcriptions written by people who think they know how to transcribe a screenplay.

Avoid calling camera shots and angles at all costs. You will look like an amateur and, chances are, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about anyway. Do you know the difference between a tracking shot and a dolly shot?

You can cheat this by describing exactly what we see. The above example (clumsy as it is) can be written so that the director knows exactly what you have in mind without telling him his job.

EXT.  BEACH – MORNING

The rolling surf breaks on the sand. A small figure in the distance stands looking at something on the sand. It is Erica standing over the body of her lover.

Erica’s face quivers as she tries, but fails, to hold back the tear that now rolls down her cheek.

See. The director knows what you were seeing as you wrote it. She may reinterpret it but at least you didn’t try to dictate.

The rule here is, as always, write only what an audience will see.

Characters Tell Each Other Stuff They Already Know

“How long have we known each other?“ “Oh! Let me see, about ten years.” Fetch me a bucket, please. If they are best friends, they know exactly how long they have known each other. Even more so if they are married.  Do not tell the audience stuff the characters already know using dialogue. Find another way.

Even worse is “How long have we been married?” Yet I see this time and time again.

There is always at least one moment in an episode of CSI where one of the forensic team will explain the science to another investigator – who’s been doing the job for years. So, you say, they do so why can’t I. Well, there are two reasons. One – you haven’t been commissioned to write an episode of CSI and two – that is their style and they have even parodied themselves for it in some episodes.

For those who have heard the expression before but may not know what it means, this is “on the nose” dialogue. Lines of script intended solely to inform the audience; exposition. Another big DON’T.

There is a wonderful radio script, written by Timothy West, called “This Gun in My Right Hand is Loaded,” which is a parody on this amateur style of writing. If you can find a copy, it is well worth a read.

Panic About Having Your Script Stolen

Have you seen this on a script

© David R Smythe (Liverpool UK) March 2013

WG Registration 987654 (or WGA/WGAe/WGAw)

All Rights Reserved.

Protected under copyright legislation

Etc.

Yes, I have seen details like this on the title page. It immediately screams “amateur paranoiac” (not even a professional paranoiac).  If you put © David R Smythe 2013 on every page then you should admit yourself to the nearest mental hospital straight away as such a level of paranoia is probably dangerous.

I have also had people email me and say something like “I have this fantastic idea for a script but I’m not sure I should discuss it with anyone in case someone steals it.” Yes, another paranoiac.

I wanted to audition for a part in a friend’s film a few months ago and, as a professional actor, I asked if they could send me the complete script; I wanted to know if it was worthy of me being involved (that’s not as arrogant as you may think). It took a while because the writer said that another writer had advised them not to show it to anyone until it had been registered. Because the UK Writers Guild doesn’t have a script registration service, they sent it to the Writers Guild of America. Two paranoiacs.  Neither of them realised that registration with WGA does not give them any greater protection in the UK.

So, let me put you straight on a few things.

Firstly, there is nothing new under the sun.

Depending on who you listen to (or read), there are anywhere from two basic genres (Aristotle – Comedy and Tragedy) to thirty-six dramatic situations (Georges Polti). So, your idea is definitely not original. West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet; Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest; Star Wars is based on Homer.

Ideas do not sell scripts; only scripts sell scripts. You may have the greatest idea ever dreamed up by any writer in the history of story telling but if you can’t produce a well-crafted script you’ve got no chance.

Another word about ideas – if you only have one idea, then you are not a writer.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of scripts are submitted to production companies, agents, theatres, etc. That amounts to millions and millions of scripts since Shakespeare’s time. What are the chances that some are similar to others?  The literary manager of a major theatre in Merseyside told me once that more scripts get rejected because they are similar to something that has been produced or is in development than because they are badly written. So no amount of © symbols on your script is going to prevent someone from writing something similar.

In all those years and with those millions of scripts, there are but a handful of recorded cases where a script has been stolen.

As a professional writer, I have two major issues about me stealing scripts (apart from the morality of it). Firstly, no-one would write as I do so, by the time I’d finished rewriting, the script would be totally unrecognisable. Secondly, I wouldn’t last long in the business if I were caught plagiarsing.

In the UK, an artistic work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it committed to any form of storage media – paper, canvas, electronic data, etc. There is no need for registration or mailing it to yourself. You can do these things if it makes you feel comfortable but, really, it isn’t necessary. Nor is placing copyright information on your script. It really does make you look like an amateur.

In the US – go ahead and register it, you will only waste $25 or so. But DON’T put copyright information anywhere on your script.

Disclaimer: David R Smythe is a fictional character and is not intended to depict any person, living or deceased. Apologies if you are unfortunate enough to have been born David R Smythe.

Mind Reading Characters

“John looks across at Melisa, remembering times gone by”

“Longing for his touch, Linda picks up the phone, wonders what his response will be and phones James.”

“They light their cigarettes, each wondering if this will be their last.”

The above examples are nice descriptions but how do we, as audience, know all this. This is all very well in novels, but not in a script. We need to know what we can see. There is no way of telling what is in a character’s mind so don’t tell us.

I call this mind-reading. It’s a bit like telling your husband that he’s embarrassing himself. You can’t possibly know that he feels embarrassed.

Instead of: “Diane looks at the photograph and feels sad,” write “Diane’s eyes linger on the photograph, a tear rolling down one cheek”

There are exceptions, as with all writing rules, when nothing else can explain how the actor needs to portray the moment. These are few and far between so best avoid them.

 Telling rather than Showing

This one is a sort of extension to mind reading, which, in itself, is a way of telling the reader rather than showing the reader.

Don’t give us

EXT. CASTLE – EARLY MORNING

Dave and Jimmy stand in the middle of the castle. It has been left in ruins for more than five centuries. It is a freezing cold morning

Why? Because the reader will have an instant picture in her mind of a castle. This maybe a fairytale castle or it may be Colditz. The image is then shattered by the description that it is the ruins of a castle. Also, if we don’t need to know that it was destroyed five-hundred years ago, don’t tell us. If we do need to know, then reveal it in dialogue.

EXT. CASTLE RUINS – EARLY MORNING

Dave and Jimmy stand in the middle, shivering.

Another expression that tells us the writer is an amateur is “We see.”

Eg: We see a car approaching from the distance. We hear the exhaust long before we can see the car.

Again, this is telling us that we see, or we hear something. Don’t tell us; put the images in our minds and the sound in our ears.

“Noisy exhaust in the distance. Paul turns to see a car approaching from afar.” This rewrite also puts the senses in the correct order – sound first followed by visuals.

So, there you have it. Another five writing mistakes you need to avoid if you want to look like a professional. If, dear readers, you can think of any more, then “A Further Five Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur” is waiting to be written.

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Five More Mistakes that Make You Look Like an Amateur

  1. Great stuff, John. Wished I’d read the bit about use of camera shots before I submitted my screenplay to the BBC Writersroom. Having said that – I used them sparingly – when I was trying to get across certain feelings, but in retrospect, I could lose a lot of those. Have you sent anything in?

  2. I have indeed. Fingers crossed.

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