50 Dead Giveaways That You’re an Amateur Writer

Danny Manus of No BullScript Consulting has written a new list, 50 signs of an amateur screenwriter. As he puts it,

There are probably hundreds of signs that the writer of that script I’m screaming at is an amateur. But today, I’d like to give a mere 50. Most of these may seem like common sense, yet you’d be amazed at the sheer number of projects plagued with these issues. Some of them may make you worry about your own work. But hey, at least you’ll know for next time and you’ll be one step closer to making sure your work is at the highest of professional standards.

The following is in NO particular order and covers a broad range of script issues.

  1. Writing CUT TOs, FADE TOs, FADE OUTs, or any other Transition between every scene.
  2. Telling us instead of Showing us.
  3. Description is in past tense instead of present tense and does not use the active form of the verb. For example, John drives – not John is driving. Danny stands – not is standing. No -ING verbs.
  4. Not using pronouns or articles in your sentences. THE room, HIS dog, HER chair. You don’t walk into room – you walk into THE room or A room.
  5. Having wordy description paragraphs longer than 4 lines on a page without a line break.
  6. Not CAPITALIZING your characters names the first time we meet them in your description. Or capitalizing characters names every time they’re seen or mentioned.
  7. Capitalizing every noun and/or verb in your description.
  8. Not having a new scene heading for every new location or writing things in your scene heading other than the location, time of day and relation to the previous scene
  9. Your description tells us exactly what your characters are thinking or are about to discuss in dialogue, or tells us backstory the audience cannot see.
  10. The script is written in Microsoft Word, Notepad or Celtx.
  11. Not knowing the difference between a Montage and a Series of Shots. A Montage condenses numerous scenes, locations and the passage of time while progressing the plot and character arcs. A series of shots is a visual style to show many different actions or specific visuals all from one scene or a short time span.
  12. Having Camera Direction in your description (“we see”, “shot of”, “camera pans” etc)
  13. Writing parentheses before dialogue on every page explaining the emotion or how the line should be said.
  14. You are not using “Intercut With” when going back and forth between two scenes instead of restating the scene heading each time.
  15. Lengthy location descriptions or too much production design – we don’t care what color the couch is.
  16. Using Voice Over to express and tell things you could express though action and dialogue.
  17. All conversations start with “hello” or “how are you” and scenes end with “goodbye, goodnight or talk to you later.” Or if dialogue is full of conversational niceties – thank you, please, your welcome, etc.
  18. The scenes lack dynamics – no conflict or tension.
  19. Story is missing the meat – has planning andreflection scenes instead of execution scenes.
  20. Subplots are not tracked or seen for more than 15 pages.
  21. A kitchen sink script where everything is thrown in to make it seem more commercial and original.
  22. Scenes have no emotional goal.
  23. There is a lack of emotional/reflective reactions and moments for characters.
  24. Introducing more than 3 characters in 1 paragraph – each should preferably have their own paragraph.
  25. Using incorrect margins on the page – having too much or too little white space around the edges. Also, incorrect font, spacing, or type set.
  26. You use dreams and flashbacks interchangeably. A flashback actually happened, a dream is a subconscious thought had while sleeping.
  27. Not giving us your main character’s last names and ages when introducing them.
  28. Using music – specific songs and artists – in your scenes or writing a scene to a specific song. What do Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys, Bon Jovi and Bon Iver all have in common? Their songs will add MILLIONS to your budget.
  29. Your main character feels like they were born on page 1.
  30. There’s nothing on the line – no STAKES – in the first scene.
  31. It isn’t clear where and when your story takes place.
  32. Your only antagonist is an emotion or a personal demon.
  33. The most commercial moments are not exploited and the dialogue, SFX and VFX don’t POP on the page.
  34. There is no time clock of any kind in your story.
  35. Your subplots and B stories are not resolved or connect to your main storyline.
  36. You are lacking in Set Up, Execution, or Payoff.
  37. Your scenes do not evoke any emotion from the reader.
  38. You don’t know how to use dialogue, actions, settings or set ups to create smooth transitions between scenes.
  39. Your scene goes on 1-2 lines too long and doesn’t end on the most powerful or interesting moment or dialogue.
  40. You don’t know the difference between VO, OS, and OC or when to use each one.
  41. The dialogue is slight, Q&A, isn’t genuine to thecharacters or lacks subtext and is all very on the nose.
  42. You think a theme and a message is the same thing.
  43. Your first scene and first 10 pages don’t grab me.
  44. Your protag is passive and/or isn’t present in your climax.
  45. You write a comedic scene just to hit one joke or one visual gag.
  46. You think when you finish your 3rd draft, you’re done and it’s ready to be submitted to agents, producers, actors or contests. It’s not.
  47. Your story is not driven by conflict and doesn’t contain an internal, external, mental, physical and emotional conflict.
  48. You think the only difference between you and an A-list screenwriter is an agent.
  49. The first words out of your mouth when you meet someone is “I’ve written this script…”
  50. You think you can break all of these aforementioned rules and mistakes and people will still want to read your script and you’ll still be able to break in because Tarantino did it.

13 Comments to “50 Dead Giveaways That You’re an Amateur Writer”

  1. Danny Manus makes a lot of valid points here, and I applaud him for the effort. But truth be told, pro scripts tend to be all over the place, and most are in violation of any number of these 50 points, Don’t believe me? Check out the Oscar nominated scripts here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31749_162-57359896-10391698/download-scripts-of-award-contenders/

    • I agree, Jim. The more great scripts I read, the more I see pro writers doing whatever the hell they feel like (within reason). But I will say that for new writers starting out, you have to know the rules before you can start to bend them, and you have to be an absolute expert in the rules before you even think about breaking them.

  2. “10.The script is written in Microsoft Word, Notepad or Celtx.” I don’t understand this one. What’s wrong with writing in Word or Celtx? Thank you.

    • If you can get the formatting and the font correct, then nothing. But formatting a script properly in Word is EXTREMELY difficult and time consuming. It’s much easier to use screenwriting software like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. These can be purchased for under $100 and are well worth the investment.

      • Celtx is a Screenwriting program, and a pretty good one. The only reason “Pros” is because Celtx is free and they paid $500 for Final Draft.

  3. Hello Angela,
    I agree. It’s a big mistake for aspiring screenwriters to use the foibles of the pros as an excuse not to learn their craft.

    I have an article in the works about what’s behind “the rules”… why the admonition against “ing words”… when is it okay to “tell” rather than “show”, etc. I was inspired to writing it when I noticed that scripts by newbies who follow the rules without really understanding them read like Ikea furniture assembly instructions. I’ll find the time to finish it one of these days. Best, Jim

  4. A number of these are required by certain corporations. For example, writing for the BBC you are instructed to use CUT TO: for taped shows. I enjoyed the article and many, many good points – but it’s also a good idea to be aware of the specific requirements of whoever you may be writing for at the time, however odd you yourself or others may see them.

    • Good point. The guideline that I’ve always followed is that you should only use CUT TO between scenes that mark a major transition in your story. In other words, if you’re cutting from a scene with your main couple arguing in their apartment to a scene in which they argue some more in the car, that doesn’t merit a CUT TO. But if you’re switching from the argument to a funeral, that probably does. I find that CUT TOs are rarely necessary, but sometimes helpful for pacing your reader’s eye between big moments.

      Just never start a script with CUT TO.


  5. Whew! I’m about 80% not amateurish according do this thing (vindication is nice). And I am an absolute proponent for knowing the knowing “the rules” before learning to break them. Like a lawyer, only when the law has been mastered can the workarounds be exploited.

  6. Celtx is an acceptable program that will help you to produce a well formatted script. It isn’t fancy but it gets the job done.

  7. Celtx is cool albeit free. What i don’t get is what he means by the main character feeling like they were born on page one. What exactly does that mean?

  8. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

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