How to tell you’re reading a terrible screenplay

Terrible screenplays. Ugh. Sometimes, we script readers get lucky.  That is, when we dig into a screenplay to give script notes or do script coverage, sometimes we know right away that the script we’re reading is gonna be a painful read. Just a terrible, terrible screenplay.

Most times, that takes us a few pages.  But sometimes, right off the bat, we get some really great clues that let us know “Hey, this screenwriter might not yet be ready for prime-time.”

The script includes description like this:


The obviously poor screenwriting is, well, obvious. “Murder Scene” doesn’t say anything about where the movie takes place, “During this scene” is uber-cringe. “We hear” and “We see” are acceptable, and a lot of writers use those terms, but are just clunky as all heck, in my opinion. Not to mention we’re staring down a huge block of black ink at the very beginning of the script, and that black ink isn’t very concerned about saying as much as possible with as few words as possible.  It displays a lack of respect for the reader’s time and eyeballs, and comes off as less-than-adroit writing.

The writer isn’t paying attention to his own screenplay


Scripts with these default title pages come in every single day here at Screenplay Readers. Usually it’s a result of the Export-to-PDF function of Final Draft or other screenwriting software suites when the screenwriter doesn’t bother filling out the title page information, and selects “Include Title Page” in the PDF export.  It’s such a simple little thing to fix, and yet so many screenwriters ignore it, and send in these screenplays with “Mystery Meat” title pages.  If you’re trying to look like someone agents and producers shouldn’t take seriously, this is definitely the way to do it.

Scene headers include way too much detail


Scene headers just need to give us the bare bones. Not the camera angle, not how the camera moves, not the granular detail of the location. Just where we’re at, the time of day, and whether we’re indoors or out.

The words on the script page don’t make sense


Confusing your reader in the first two lines of your script is generally considered bad etiquette, mkay? In this example, we’ve got “Sand Topia Beach” – okay, fine, proper noun/named place. No problem.  Then we’re told there’s some mosquitoes. Fine, fine.  But wait, no, maybe they’re not mosquitoes, because the screenwriter has called them Blood Hunters.  Okay, wait.  Are these special mosquitoes or something? Robots?  Mutants?  No, wait, they’re employees.

Huh?  I say, “Huh?”

Within one line, the reader’s mind goes from “regular mosquitoes” to “possible mutant/robot mosquitoes” to “moquitoes who are employees.”

And then the next line is a whole lot of long, descriptive text that implies these things are large, but isn’t really clear about that, so I’m still in the dark.

Ambiguity in a screenplay or a motion picture is okay.  Sometimes. Sometimes.  But confusion?  Never.  And on page one, line one?  Verboten.

The script includes a preface or prologue

bad script snapshot - writer introduction

Isn’t that cute?  The screenwriter opens his screenplay with a one-page, 10-point font rambling treatise on why/how we should read his screenplay. His terrible screenplay. The result:  I’ve already thrown it across the room (I go through a lot of laptops that way.)  Not only does he tell us how many pages it’s going to be (as if turning to the last page to find out is too much work for us script coverage types), but he tells us how to show or hide the comments he’s contained within the script’s Word file.  His comments.  In the Word file. As we read.  Line-by-line.

And to top it off, he gives us his cutesy bio, complete with the cliche “I was born at a very early age…”  This sets up the read perfectly by letting us know that what’s to follow is most likely gonna be a series of bumper-sticker slogans and tropes strung together by a guy who feels that in order to understand his screenplay, we have to read along with his line-by-line Word comments.

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