16 Screenwriting “Red Flags” and How To Avoid Them

screenwriting red flags

“Seriously, Lana, call Kenny Loggins, ‘cause you’re in the danger zone. From Top Gun?”
– Archer from Archer

In relationships, “red flags” are moments or behaviors that give us pause and make us think “is this something I should be concerned about?” Well, they exist in screenwriting too, and we need to be sure we’re not committing them. After all, we don’t want to “turn off” anyone reading our scripts.

YOU WILL GET IN THIS POST:

  • A list of screenwriting “red flags”: what they are and some ways to avoid them.
  • Over 18 action items you can take to help improve your screenplay.

A “red flag” is a flaw or potential problem that will stand out to the script reader and could show them that your work is too flawed to be useful. Many red flags come from screenwriting basics. The basics are vital, and most screenwriting resources point this out. If your screenplay consistently shows a lack of understanding of or a disregard for screenwriting basics, it will probably result in a “pass.”

The irony here is that although some of these things are very basic, they can actually overshadow other, more complex aspects. In other words, for some script readers if they feel you don’t have the basics covered, then they won’t bother looking at the rest.

The following are what most script readers would consider to be “red flags” in your screenplay.

Incorrect screenplay format

Screenplays have a specific format. This format will have variations across different mediums, but there is a general standard that you should know and follow. A screenplay for a feature film will look different than a screenplay for a half hour comedy. A half hour comedy for network television will look different from a half hour comedy for streaming or cable – you need to know all the distinctions. A few formatting mistakes or inconsistencies usually won’t kill your screenplay’s chances, but too many errors might.

  • ACTION ITEM: Consult screenwriting screenplay format resources such as books “The Hollywood Standard,” “The Screenwriters Bible,” or “The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats” or other resources to make sure you are following appropriate screenplay format.

Lack of conflict in general

Bored friends watching film

source – freepick.com

You’d be surprised at how many screenplays lack conflict in a majority of their scenes. This is the screenwriter forgetting that we are writing (and watching) heightened life, not real life. The audience wants to see conflict of some sort in every scene, not everyday events or behavior – those are boring! This does not necessarily mean conflict like screaming or fist fighting (although it often does). It means dramatic conflict, regardless of the genre. Differences in opinion, pursuits of different agendas, and tense interpersonal moments are just a few examples of interpersonal conflict. Regardless of type, without conflict your scenes will be flat and uninteresting.

  • ACTION ITEM: Check each scene idea in your screenplay and make sure there is some sort of conflict happening in each. Ask “is there some sort of disagreement or problem or opposition within the scene?” If there isn’t any conflict yet, be sure to rework the scene so there is.

The screenplay is overwritten or underwritten

If your screenplay is very over- or very under the acceptable page range for its medium, this does not bode well. Most feature films fall into the 95-110 page range. Hour long television for network fall within 44-63 pages, hour long for cable/streaming 55-68 pages. Half hour screenplays for network is 22-32 pages, half hour for cable/streaming is 28-38 pages. If your screenplay is well below or well above these generally accepted page ranges, this will be a red flag for readers.

  • ACTION ITEM: Note the page count for your screenplay and determine if it falls within the generally accepted range(s) listed above. If it doesn’t, either cut down or flesh out your screenplay, accordingly.

Big paragraphs of action description

If your screenplay physically looks too much like a novel – with large paragraphs of action description – it will make the read much harder for the reader and chances are, important information will probably be lost in these big chunks of words. In general, try to keep your action statements to around three or four sentences. This will keep the screenplay easier to read and also help keep the flow of the scenes moving.

  • ACTION ITEM: After every draft, be sure to quickly flip through the pages and look for any big blocks of action description that resemble paragraphs in a novel and break them up in to chunks of 3-4 sentences.

Too many pages with no action description

In screenwriting, not having enough action description can make your screenplay look too much like a stage play. Don’t forget, screenplays are part of a visual medium, so not having enough visuals can make the reader question why this is a screenplay at all. A few scenes of all dialogue are fine, but if there are too many scenes that are all dialogue, the reader will wonder if the story is visual enough for a screenplay.

  • ACTION ITEM: Check each page of your screenplay and if you have two (2) or more pages in a row with no action lines, rework the scene to include more visuals.

Inconsistent Sluglines (Scene Headings)

Often screenwriters will refer to a single location in different ways throughout the script. This happens mostly because we write scenes over many different days and often don’t remember exactly how we referred to a particular location in prior scenes. Inconsistencies can be confusing, and script readers are often put off by this lack of care regarding sluglines.

Too many clichés

As in all writing, in screenwriting, clichés can be fine if used sparingly but distracting if overused. If you don’t know what defines clichés and what some examples would be, we recommend you do some research.

Too much repetition

In screenwriting we do our best not to show things more than once unless it’s for a specific effect or reason. If you repeat words, ideas, lines of dialogue, and even sentence construction, the reader will find the material frustrating. In everyday life you’ve heard people repeat themselves too much, and it’s hard to listen to, right? So don’t let that happen in your screenplay either.

  • ACTION ITEM: Hearing your script read aloud is a great way to catch many issues, especially repetition. Some screenwriting programs can read it for you (by assigning computer voices), which is a good first step. A better step is to read your own script aloud yourself. Of course the best option would be to have other people read it out loud, whether professional or non-professional. Do at least one of these for your script to catch repetition and other issues.

Overuse of character names by other characters

Similar to repetition above, if characters consistently use each others’ names too much, it can be distracting and even annoying. Certainly it’s important to establish the characters’ names for the audience, and you might need to have their names said more than once to make sure the audience is clear on them. But overusing character names can really kill your dialogue.

  • ACTION ITEM: Make a list of all your primary characters (characters that are most present in the story). Within your screenwriting program, perform a “Find” for each primary character’s name and if it comes up too many times (more than once in a scene, more than one scene in a row) in dialogue of other characters, edit some of the usages out.

Too many spelling or grammar issues

Script readers can let a fair amount of minor issues go in any particular screenplay, but too many spelling and grammar errors will make them think that you are simply not a good writer in general and don’t understand language very well.

  • ACTION ITEM: If you struggle with any aspects of spelling or grammar (no judgment here), first use the built in spell-checking and grammar functions built into most screenwriting software. But these functions sometimes miss things, so you can always get someone to proofread your screenplay as a last step before you send the script out.

The font “trick” / screenplay font size tinkering

Changing the size or type of the font is a classic “trick” that many screenwriters employ to get the page count of their screenplay to a more desired number, whether it’s adding pages or removing them. If you think you can fool the reader into believing your script is coming in at the proper length, you’re wrong – script readers look at pages all day long and have finely-tuned awareness as to what is the proper size and font for screenplays (12-point Courier). Don’t try to trick readers – it rarely works and is not worth it, regardless.

  • ACTION ITEM: Most screenwriting programs have the ability to list the sluglines in their own list. Create this list and check it to make sure your locations are named in a consistent way.

The PDF, script file, or printed script’s pages has errors

Many people don’t do a basic check of the documents they send, whether electronic or printed. Don’t trust that your screenwriting program converted the screenplay without any problem – it’s not always the case. Missing pages, missing page numbers, repeated scenes, or a corrupted file are some common problems that occur during export.

  • ACTION ITEM: Before sending out, open the PDF of your screenplay and scroll through all the pages. If the script is printed, flip through all the pages.

UP FOR DISCUSSION

Some aspects of screenwriting can go either way for script readers.

Some of these topics are matters of opinion or preference, and other times are simply looked at differently across the industry and across individuals. Another way of saying this, is that each reader’s experience, personality, and agenda will influence whether or not they view the following topics as problems.

These topics may or may not be “red flags” for any particular reader.

“Hot Button” topics

Whether or not to include controversial topics when screenwriting

source – unsplash.com

As in life, controversial topics can go either way with script readers, and also for the people or organizations for which they are reading. Some potential “hot button” topics are: religion, political views, racism, misogyny, and abortion. If one of these topics is the purpose or central idea of your screenplay, then of course it would need to be included, and then be handled appropriately. A good rule of thumb is that if your screenplay is specifically about the topic then go for it, but if the topic is not integral to the story, consider why it is present in your screenplay at all.

  • ACTION ITEM: Make a list of any “hot button” topics in your screenplay, then decide whether or not they are vital to the story. If they are only a small part of the story or only a line or two of dialogue, they can most likely be removed.

Voice Over / Narration

While certainly a valid screenwriting approach, how script readers view the use of voice over and narration will vary. Some are completely fine with it and others look at it as a red flag. Open Screenplay recommendation: try to avoid voice over and narration if possible, otherwise make sure it has a purpose and it’s used to its full effect.

  • ACTION ITEM: Find any instances of voice over or narration in your screenplay and ask “can this information be presented in a scene in another way?” If so, rework your scenes to eliminate unnecessary voice over or narration.

Flashbacks

Depending on what the flashback is showing and how it applies to your story, script readers will find them either helpful or unnecessary. Some script readers feel it is better to show information rather than to tell it (generally true), others will look at flashbacks as a halting of the current story’s progression. Open Screenplay recommendation: try to avoid flashbacks unless they are absolutely necessary to be seen.

  • ACTION ITEM: Find any flashbacks in your screenplay and ask: “is this material/information absolutely vital to the main story?” If not, rework the scenes to exclude flashbacks.

Pop culture/current references

Depending on what kind of story you are writing, pop culture or current references can either work well or take us out of the moment because they are dated references. For screenwriting, they can distract the reader or viewer. Examples of these are usually references to current technology (apps like Instagram, hardware like iPhones), current events (today’s news items, scandals, etc.), fads, or current celebrities. Keep in mind that today’s reference could be tomorrow’s distracting moment. Open Screenplay recommendation: generally, avoid them unless they are timeless references.

  • ACTION ITEM: Go through your screenplay and identify all pop culture or current references and first ask “is this a timeless reference or can it possibly be outdated in the future?” If the answer is it might be outdated in the future, then either find a more general way of describing the item, or find a different reference, or delete it altogether. (Example: “iPhone” becomes “smart phone.”)There are other screenwriting topics that readers will be divided on, but the ones listed above tend to be the most common.

 

MORE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO AVOID “RED FLAGS”

You might be thinking “wow, that was a lot of topics, how am I supposed to possibly cover all of them in my screenplay?” Well here’s something you will be happy to hear – you don’t have to. Not many screenplays will succeed on every single topic identified in this post. As long you do your best to address as many as you can in your screenplay, it will help your chances of making a good impression on a script reader.

Here are some more things you can do that will not only help you avoid “red flags,” they will also help you improve as a screenwriter in general:

Learn more about screenwriting

Never stop learning. Read articles, read books, go to seminars, sign up for screenwriting newsletters, watch videos, talk to people in the industry – whatever you can do to further your understanding of the craft.

  • ACTION ITEM: Find five (5) or more screenwriting resources each month to learn from.

Read more screenplays

Read more screenplays

source – freepick.com

This also falls under learning more but deserves its own mention. The more screenplays you read – both produced and unproduced ones – will greatly help you in your own writing. You’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t in screenplay writing overall.

  • ACTION ITEM: Find as many (legally posted) screenplays online as you are able and read at least one (1) screenplay per week.

Present your best effort given the time available

If you know that there are things in your script that need work (especially if they might cause the script reader to give the screenplay a “pass”), then it’s not ready to send out yet. Do the needed work first! The caveat to this is that if you have deadlines, especially with paid work, you simply have to do your best given the time allotted. But if you’re just being impatient and send out material that you already know needs work, you’re wasting both your own and the script reader’s time.

Don’t show work that’s too early in its development

You’ve got a first draft done and are totally excited about sending it out… well resist the temptation! Always take the time to do rewrites and refine your screenplays. We understand that it’s very exciting to get a first draft done and the desire for feedback is extremely tempting at that stage. But sending in a first draft is usually a very bad idea – you might burn a bridge with the person who reads it. Generally the first three (3) drafts are probably not ready to be seen yet.

Have fun!

Woman screenwriting and having fun

source – unsplash.com

If you enjoy your idea and the process of executing it in a screenplay, then there is a good chance that the script reader will pick up on this. But script readers aside, you should be having fun writing, regardless!

You are now armed with many ways to help eliminate those pesky “red flags” from your screenplays.

Now if we can only figure out how to eliminate them in relationships….

Enjoy!

 

3 Comments

  1. Bill (William Garrett) Clark August 2, 2019 at 12:49 am - Reply

    I am of the opinion my screenplay,”Rosewood The Early Years” could challenge “Gone With The Wind” for more than ten Academy Awards. I specifically joined Open Screenplay to get some pointers on writing a screenplay not slog through a dozen sections of information. My screenplay does not fall within the normal parameters of a regulation screenplay, yet it has all the elements described in Mr. Wolk’s Webinar last Sunday. I learn quick but I also have very little patience with people who continue to think inside the box. My screenplay is different in that it has No nudity, No sex, No vampirism, No guts and gore. Can any other movie today match that claim? I have a little patience but dealing with people who think inside a box drains it quick. At that point, I move on to greener pastures.

    • Jason Bash August 2, 2019 at 9:36 am

      Hi Bill, thanks for your comment. That’s great to hear you’re excited about your screenplay. I hope the platform and this blog post have been helpful to you so far.

  2. Bill (William Garrett) Clark August 2, 2019 at 11:15 am - Reply

    Mr. Bash, this being my first rodeo, ( screenplay), I should be entitled to a few mistakes in the learning process. I read the “Red Flag” post and yes, my screenplay does have a few. I am a retired aerospace engineer and have a few books, novels, novellas and poetry anthologies in my portfolio. In my screenplay, I do tend to add lengthy descriptions along with good dialogue. Reason being, I do not want any mistake made or assumed in the moment of the mood. True, the director is in charge but I am like a damn good number two guy. As I mentioned earlier, my screenplay has no nudity, no sex, no guts and gone or vampirism. What it does have however, is a chance for the actors to act, using my screenplay they will definitely earn their pay. There is no real acting involved in jumping into bed every five minutes, chopping off heads every second and being reborn every century or so until someone sticks a wooden peg into your heart. Working for Honeywell for all those years, I learned to have a healthy disrespect for people who can’t think outside the box. Same principle involved here. I love movies and I’ll wager, after watching the first five or ten minutes of virtually any movie, I can tell you how it is going to end. That is how “programmed” today’s movies are .If you can guess the ending, what fun is there to continue to watch? So how do we get past this one hurdle? The ball is in your court.

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