10 Red Flags of The Amateur Script (1)

When you read a ton of scripts, patterns start emerging. Little things occur here and there that indicate you’re dealing with an amateur. This article is not meant to attack these mistakes, but rather highlight them so that anyone can avoid them.

By Carson Reeves

I never give up on a script if I encounter a couple of these red flags, but when they start piling up, especially early on, I know I’m in for a long read. Here are ten common things that tell me I’m dealing with an amateur, and therefore ten things you should avoid!

1. Misspellings/Mis-used Words (Especially in the first 10 pages)

Of the hundreds of scripts I’ve read with rampant misspellings, there have been maybe two that turned out to be good. The thing is, misspellings and misused words speak to a larger issue — that the writer isn’t putting enough effort into his/her script. All it takes is sending your script off to a friend for a spell check, or combing through the script religiously yourself, to fix the problem.

Misspellings and misused words speak to a larger issue —
that the writer isn’t putting enough effort into his/her script.

People who don’t put a lot of effort into spelling most likely aren’t putting a lot of effort into bigger issues like plot construction, character development and rewriting. Keep in mind, professionals take a lot of pride in their work. When they finish a script, they want to present it to you in the best light possible, so they make sure everything is perfect. Therefore when everything *isn’t* perfect, it’s natural for a reader to assume they’re not dealing with a pro.

2. Blocky Chunks Of Text

I get that some scripts are going to require more description than others, but when I’m repeatedly seeing blocks of text 5-6 lines long (or longer) I know I’m dealing with an amateur.

Blocks of text need to be lean in order for your script to be easy to read. Pros know this. They know that taxing the reader’s eyes is going to result in a less enjoyable reading experience. So they keep descriptions lean, and when they do have to go into detail, they break those chunks up into multiple paragraphs so they’re easier to digest.

Taxing the reader’s eyes is going to result
in a less enjoyable reading experience.

Some genres get a little more leeway in this department. For example, I’m okay with paragraphs *occasionally* getting 5-6 lines deep in a period piece. But if I’m reading a comedy, you better have a damn good reason to go over 3 lines consistently.

3. No Character Description

This one kills me, however I acknowledge that some pros are guilty of this as well, so it’s not always a guarantee that you’re dealing with an amateur.

Here’s how I look at it. Your characters are your everything. They’re the lifeblood of your movie. If we don’t know what they look like, how are we supposed to connect with them? Here’s a description for you: “Gene, 40, takes in the world behind a pair of steely gray eyes. He always looks at you for a little too long, as if he’s sizing you up for some later experiment.”

If we don’t know what they look like,
how are we supposed to connect with them?

Here’s another: “Gene, 40, short and stocky.” Try and convince me that the reader doesn’t get more out of the first description. Obviously, you’re going to give shorter descriptions for less important players, but an attempt should always be made to bring characters to life when they’re first described.

4. Too Many Characters

Amateur writers love introducing new characters. 20-30 characters counts are normal to them.

Pro writers not only understand that too many characters become hard for a reader to remember, but that by combining characters and/or focusing on less characters, it allows them to develop those characters more, therefore making them more interesting. Keep your character count down. Only introduce characters if they’re absolutely necessary to the story.

Keep your character count down.

5. Melodramatic

New writers aren’t yet aware how much is enough when it comes to evoking emotion, and usually way overdo it as a result.

Someone dies. A couple of scenes later someone gets cancer. A couple of scenes later there’s a car crash and someone goes to the hospital. It feels to the writer like they’re creating captivating drama, but the overindulgence of it all actually creates the opposite effect, making it feel ridiculous and unrealistic.

Someone dies. A couple of scenes later someone gets cancer.
A couple of scenes later there’s a car crash and
someone goes to the hospital.

Pick and choose your spots where your script gets heavy. And don’t cram too many intense dramatic moments together.

(To be continued next week)

-Carson Reeves

19 thoughts on “10 Red Flags of The Amateur Script (1)”

  1. Good, solid advice is always welcome. Would love to read your views on scriptwriter crack. By this I mean things writers do too often; one exclamation point leads to 20; one use of the f-bomb leads to 30 f-bombs. Sure, a Samuel L. jackson type character might feel organic speaking likecthat, but not all characters can pull it off.

  2. Great post–but now I gotta wait to find out the next 5?!

    I’m in the process of writing my very first script, a short film. I’m happy to say I have none of these mistakes. *whew* Yet.

  3. Here’s my guess for the remaining five (seven actually). This is what I look out for, anyway. In no particular order…

    6) Undramatised exposition, where characters explain things to other characters, simply for the benefit of the audience.

    7) no subtext, where characters say exactly what they are thinking and feeling – rather than avoiding saying what they are thinking and feeling, which is how real people actually behave.

    8) writing scenes where nothing happens, or indeed whole scripts where nothing happens.

    9) lack of research – writing about subjects of which the writer knows nothing, or only knows about it from other movies.

    10) writing thinly disguised autobiography, in the mistaken belief that if it happened to the writer, it will of course be of interest to an audience. (connects to 6)

    11) writing the unfilmable, such as a character’s thoughts, smells (yes, really), and what happened last week.

    12) and finally, whisper this one quietly – excessive use of adverbs and parentheticals. (Suddenly)

    • Actually there was a blog on here last week by a working writer of some quite famous movies who disagrees with you about thoughts. Frankly I do to. But you can’t over use it and it is only so the actor knows how to express themselves.

      I guess an easy way to think of it is, a thought process at a particular time is like a back story to be expressed by the actor, not in words, but expressions and behaviour.

  4. for me no.1 is when they write what is not visual. eg. “s/he felt happy” – or they use more than 1 adjective before a verb or noun for that fact. Some instances call for it, but usually a single colourful word is more than enough.

  5. Well-put! I teach college screenwriting classes in Philly, have worked on nearly 25 screenplays in the past five years (one produced, one optioned, a couple in development) and I completely agree with everything you said.

    • Thanks Michael.

      When I saw the comment in my email box (before seeing which article), I feared it was my own mistake, as it would be typical for me – I’m not a native English speaker…

      I’ve learned something today, too. Thanks!

      • In that case I have to say well done on an exceptionally well written, and informative, article!

        I couldn’t write so eloquently in another language.

        Thanks, Karel!

  6. As to Red Flag 4, Too Many Characters:
    What about features like \”A League of Their Own,\” \”The Replacements,\” \”Major League,\” and others, including \”It\’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World?\” Over the top, big, broad comedies seem to have \”too many characters,\” but can be extremely successful.

  7. I have a quick question on misspellings? When writing dialogue between characters that use slang, is it OK to spell the words/ slang the way that they sound? For instance, “We gotta bounce.” As opposed to, “We have got to bounce.” Or another example might be, “What cha doin’?” As opposed to “What are you doing?”

    • Yes, you can print dialogue semi-phonetically for the odd slang line. However, many readers prefer a neutral – or softened – spelling for main characters, as continued slang may impede the reading. In this case you precede the dialogue with a note “Brenda speaks with a thick Irish accent.”


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