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Be Sure Your Spec Script Gets Read: Don’t Make These Mistakes

March 23, 2015

This is a list of five of the most common mistakes you can make when writing a spec script that will ensure your script does not make it past the reader. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are 5 of the biggest made by amateur screenwriters. Most of them made within the first few pages. Avoid making these mistakes and you’ll greatly improve your chances of getting your script into the hands of the decision makers.

Your title page. If you’re looking for representation, if you’ve never sold a spec script before, if you don’t already have a reputation, do not use fancy font on your title page. If you browse online and find scripts of TV shows or feature films, you might notice that a lot of them use fancy, even large font, for the title. Those are shooting scripts… by well-known, professional writers. They can get away with it. YOU can’t. Don’t do it. A reader will look at that and immediately throw your script into the circular file. It screams amateur.

Properly formatted scene heading/slug line. I previously wrote a blog about what belongs and what doesn’t belong in a scene heading. Again, you’ll find the contrary on scripts you find online and again, those are shooting scripts written by professional screenwriters. If you are not a professional with a reputation and a resume of sold scripts, format your scene headings by the rules. If you are unsure about the differences between a spec script and a shooting script, read my other blog post, Spec Script vs Shooting Script: What’s the Difference.

Poor grammar. You’re a writer. Act like one. Use proper grammar in your action lines. You can get away with poor grammar in dialogue if it fits the character, but you should always use proper grammar in action lines. The action lines should look like they were written by a professional writer, not a two-year-old or a criminal without the benefit of a high school education. You can get away with writing incomplete sentences as long as the action is compelling. If you need advice about how to write compelling action lines, I’ve written a blog about that, too. If a reader has to re-read lines of action in order to understand what you’re trying to convey, be certain that they won’t. If they didn’t understand it the first time through, they won’t read it again. They’ll toss into the big, overflowing pile of rejected scripts

Camera direction, sound direction, or direction of any kind. Do not interject camera angle direction into your action lines. Don’t use POV, ANGLE ON, PAN LEFT, or any other camera direction in the action lines of your spec script. Those are used in shooting scripts only. Again, if you don’t have a reputation as a well-known, professional screenwriter, if you’ve never sold a script, DON’T USE CAMERA DIRECTION IN YOUR SPEC SCRIPT. Don’t use phrases such as “we see” or “we hear.” They don’t belong in the spec script of an amateur screenwriter. These things will slow down the reader and infuriate them. And if that happens, guess what? You’re script will end up in the big pile of “NO.”

Large blocks of text. Readers don’t like to see large blocks of text. They will skim it, or worse, skip it all together. Keep your paragraphs to a maximum of 10 lines. Once more, you may see this rule being broken on the scripts you read online, but now you know… those are shooting scripts by well-known, professional writers. THEY can break the rules. YOU are trying to sell a script or get an agent. Keep it to 10 lines or less. I give more advice about how to do that in another blog

If you’re looking for representation or if you’re looking to sell your first script, there are certain rules you need to follow. If you don’t follow those rules, you run the risk of your script never getting read. This is a short list of things that will put your script into that category. These are biggies. Follow the advice above and you’ll have a better chance of getting your script read. When is it okay to break the rules? When you’ve proven that you can follow them successfully. Once you’ve established a name for yourself, then you can write any damn way you want. Until then, keep following the rules; keep getting your scripts into the hands of the people that make a difference. They’ll never make if you don’t. Until next week, happy writing.

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2 Comments
  1. Daniel Malone permalink

    Hey mate, your blog posts are really useful as a screenwriter just starting out. Just wanted to ask about the “one page per minute” rule. I read your blog covering this topic, but I just wanted to ask in a little more detail.

    Some pages of the script I’m working on have more dialogue, some with more action. The pages with dialogue (although I know it’s best to keep it as brief as possible) take up most of the page and I’m pretty sure it’s not a minute worth of film.

    Is this something that should be amended no matter what or is there flexibility?

    Would really appreciate a quick bit of advice,

    Thanks!

    Daniel Malone

    Like

    • Daniel, the short answer is don’t make any adjustments. The long answer is the formatting of a script is what keeps it to an average of a page a minute. As long as you’re keeping your actions lines and dialogue lines to a maximum of 10 lines in a row (10 lines in a block of text) the format will adhere to 1 page per minute.

      Like

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