Counting the common mistakes

Infographic for script submission (click on link for details)

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this interesting article. Yes, whilst every man and his dog has their own pet theory about what makes a good script and bad script, one scriptreader has actually gone through the trouble of totting up from 300 unsolicited scripts which problems were occurring, and how often. The results make some very interesting reading, and whilst this will inevitably be swayed by the reader’s own preferences, it’s a far more reliable technique than claims that go “In my experience bad scripts make mistake X.”

This is about screen plays rather than stage plays, so this needs to be treated with a little caution. In particular, it’s unwise to dwell too much on a hero/villain format in a stage play. But, on the whole, I broadly agree with what’s listed here. Also there were some interesting stats, such as male writers outnumbering female writers over 10:1, and the big disparity between male and female leads. That is a serious problem throughout theatre, film and television, and I will return to this another day.

However, you might be thinking that by praising one reader for some openness about what’s being accepted and rejected, that’s an implicit criticism of everyone else who doesn’t. And I’ll admit you’re sort-of right. But rather than criticise, it better to set an example. So, here goes. Based on my own list of 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting, let us bring forth this list:

Common mistake Count
Writing a screenplay for the stage 0
The gag-driven plot 0
Padding 0
Essays instead of lines 0
Local reference overkill 0
Over-dependence on research 0
Characters doing implausible things 0
Idealised characters 0
The opinion play 0
Trying to be clever 0

Throughout 2014, I’ll be updating this. I’m not going to update you on a play-by-lay basis because I don’t want to embarrass individuals by picking out what they’re doing wrong in public, but I’ll certainly aim to have it updated at the end of each of the three main fringes. This is a slightly different exercise to the one above because I’m looking at plays that have made it as far as a stage performance, rather than a pile of unsolicited scripts that may or may not make it as far as a performance. But it should still be interesting.

Am I right about how common the common mistakes are? We’ll see.

3 thoughts on “Counting the common mistakes

  1. Rutegar March 2, 2014 / 7:39 am

    Still not a fan of Aaron Sorkin, then ?

  2. Rutegar March 2, 2014 / 7:43 am

    PS : while the attached spreadsheet of “errors” is interesting to read, I am one of those who has to wonder with so many experts in the industry spotting what is wrong with scripts why so many f**king abominable movies get made !?!

    Above all, William Goldman’s notorious edict should be repeated EVERY DAY — NO-ONE KNOWS ANYTHING !

    • chrisontheatre March 4, 2014 / 10:20 am

      That’s a very good question. Probably the biggest culprits for abominable films are those where executive producers have both eyes on the balance sheet. There are countless examples of blatant formulaic films where the formula is aimed at maximising revenue by pandering to expectations, whilst artistic merit gets little or no consideration. This happens in television and theatre too, but films are by the worst offenders.

      But one of the most dangerous attitudes you can have as a writer is “I can write better than this, therefore I’ll get my film produced too.” The unfortunate reality is it doesn’t work like that. In film and television, most writers have very little power, often limited to dialogue and minor plot developments. Film companies still want decent writers to pen the script, but the big decisions get made way over their heads. The saddest thought is that whilst the writers of Fartmonster III are probably people who are capable of writing better films, but don’t have the means to get them produced.

      Anyway, the lesson for other writers is don’t use bad films as an excuse not to get better yourself. You shouldn’t be taking that attitude anyway, but if you submit mediocre scripts and think they’ll go through because you’ve seen worse get produced, you’ll probably be disappointed.

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