“We don’t make mistakes – we just have happy accidents.” – Bob Ross
There is a huge amount of truth in the wise words of Mr. Ross. Out of all the mistakes we make comes the chance of something spontaneous and surprising happening — which only makes our work better.
However, here are a few of the recurring happy accidents that beginner screenwriters make (and a few that some more established ones still do) that you can hopefully avoid in your own approach to the craft.
You’ve never watched a film/TV show LIKE A SCREENWRITER
You have to watch a LOT of films and TV shows.
Not only that, but you have to watch them like a screenwriter does.
Where are the act turning points? Did you notice that great line of dialogue? How are they raising the stakes of that B plot with this sequence?
Analyzing the bits that are working in a narrative will help you bring these into your own writing, but what is equally as interesting is looking out for areas where they’re not quite working and thinking how you might find opportunities in these happy little accidents you spot.
Try keeping a viewing diary with these observations so that you can refer back to the best of the worst and the worst of the best.
You’ve never read a book about screenwriting
There are hundreds of books out there that are specifically designed to help you with the craft of writing.
Some are chocked full of knowledge that pours out of each chapter. In others, you will find breadcrumbs that point you in a new interesting direction that will be well worth exploring.
Some of the “must-reads” are pillars in the industry: The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Into the Woods by John Yorke, and Story by Robert McKee
Others that are favorites of mine at the moment are The Science of Writing Characters: Using Psychology to Create Compelling Fictional Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican, TV Writing on Demand: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era by Neil Landau, and Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald.
You’re writing a screenplay like a novel
Screenplays have their own unique cadence more akin to poetry than prose.
Not only are you writing to entertain the reader with your work, but you are also making them aware that you know what a screenplay looks like, feels like, and ultimately sounds like.
There’s a special way that you need to construct your words on the page to give them confidence that you have a mastery of your craft.
The only way that you can get an idea of what a screenplay looks like is to read screenplays and understand this special way of writing.
You don’t know your genre
Always remember that an audience comes to watch your work with expectations, and those expectations are easy not to meet if you don’t know the genre of your script.
Although it’s good to subvert old and tired tropes to give them something new and exciting on the screen there are some which shouldn’t be messed with.
If you are writing a horror… it should be scary. If you’re writing a comedy… it should be funny. If you are sitting down to pen high drama… I should be bawling my eyes out at the end.
You’re not writing with the market in mind
When you are writing have in the back of your mind that what you are putting down on paper is not the finished product. Someone will one day want to turn your words into images on the screen. Therefore, you have to make it produce-able on a budget.
I’m just as guilty as you for this one with my multiple space opera spec scripts sitting there on my hard drive which take place in galaxies far, far away.
But your first script is much more likely to get made if you can craft a story that can be made for under $1 million. Really consider limiting the VFX, reducing the locations, and scaling back the speaking roles.
None of this means that you can’t write a piece with ambition and scope to it… Just think about setting it in your sitting room rather than space… Or a sitting room in space.
You’re not putting your work out there
Your work is meant to be read! Make sure that you are getting it out there so that people can engage with it.
Find yourself a few critical friends who are willing to have a look at what you’re writing, join a writers’ group and/or submit your work to competitions.
The true test of a piece of work is how it affects someone else.
You’re not taking feedback seriously
Feedback is an important part of the writing process and any notes that are offered to you in good faith are worth listening to.
This is especially important if you are getting the same or a similar note repeatedly as it points to an area of your work that lots of people are bumping against and it might be that there’s something to look at there.
However, it might be that…
You’re taking feedback too seriously
Feedback is an important part of the process…
But it is only PART of the process…
Once you have been given feedback it is about finding what parts of it are the most useful to you and discarding what isn’t.
There’s an old adage that opinions are like… Well, there’s a more intellectual variation on the same theme from screenwriting stalwart William Goldman who famously said: “No one knows anything.”
All the feedback in the world shouldn’t compromise your vision of the story you want to tell.
You’re not having FUN
Yes, writing can be hard. Sometimes it’s grueling and painful to drag those words out of you and each one of them feels like they are awful, derivate, and ill-conceived.
However, writing IS fun! You get to play in the largest toybox in the known universe: your imagination.
If you are not populating your narrative worlds with characters you love, plotlines that grip you, and situations that bring out some deeper emotional truth… dive back into that endless plain of creativity inside you and find some that do!
The more you engage with what you are creating the more likely it is that a reader will.
You think that this is a sprint and not an (ultra)marathon…
Stop being in such a big gosh darn hurry.
We’re bombarded with stories of overnight successes in this business, but I promise you that it actually took a long time to get to that point of overnight success.
Make sure that you’re prepared for the long haul as this is a business that rewards those who are willing to just keep on putting one foot in front of the other until they eventually cross that finishing line!
We all make mistakes — or — happy accidents. The trick is to get back up, brush yourself off, and get back to work. Hopefully these tips will help you avoid some of the pitfalls you’re bound to face as a writer, but even if they don’t, don’t lose heart. Just keep writing.