The biggest mistake most aspiring screenwriters make is that they don’t unfold the story properly. I’ve been a professional television writer for 25 years. I’ve written on numerous hit shows, sold a dozen pilots, and two features. On the series where I’m showrunner, part of my job is to hire the writing staff. This means reading countless scripts from young writers, and this the biggest mistake that I see over and over again.
Most new writers simply do not understand what a story is. To be fair, it’s a tricky concept and an easy mistake to make. Think about it, if I were to ask you to define what a story is in one sentence, could you do it?
Go ahead and try. Most aspiring screenwriters will say something like, “A story is a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.” But that explanation is far too vague to be helpful. And if you can’t define what a story is, then how could you possibly expect to write one?
Here’s the definition I use and it’s brought me a lot of success over the years.
“A story recounts the struggle of a hero, fighting an obstacle, to achieve a goal.”
Until your audience can consciously or subconsciously identity the hero, the obstacle and the goal, you don’t have a story. In fact, you’re just boring them. You’re daring them to be patient until things get interesting. In today’s world where we have so many entertainment choices at our fingertips, you’ll lose that dare every single time. Think about how many times you’ve watched a television show or movie and thought, “I just can’t get into this.” It’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the writer or the director because they haven’t yet established the hero, obstacle and goal.
Some writing teachers tell aspiring screenwriters they need a hook. I don’t like that advice. It makes it sound like you need some kind of gimmick in order to get the audience interested, and that’s not really the case. You just need to establish the story.
But there’s two more things you need to know:
- The bigger the obstacle, the more interesting the story. In an adventure movie, the obstacle is seemingly insurmountable. How many times has James Bond gotten himself into such a dangerous predicament that we all thought, “How the hell is he going to get out of this one?”
- The better the goal, the interesting the story. So James Bond doesn’t want to save Trenton, New Jersey. He wants to save the world!
Another mistake novice screenwriters make is that after they start one story, they take long, meandering side trips. Every scene and every line must propel the story forward. There must be stakes and drive. If the hero meanders, then she doesn’t want the goal enough. And if she doesn’t really care about achieving her goal then the audience isn’t going to care. And if that’s the case, you’ve failed your job as a screenwriter.
Hopefully, these tips will propel you on your journey to become a screenwriter. If you’re interested in learning more, I offer an online screenwriting course here. This is practical advice that I’ve learned over the years, having studied under the some of the best television writers in Hollywood. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve had the time to assemble all that knowledge into a course that I can now share with you.