Molly Naylor is a scriptwriter, poet, director and theatre-maker – she is also the NCW Academy tutor of our Screenwriting: An Introduction online course. We have courses in fiction, crime, memoir, historical fiction, romantic fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Find out more →
Here Molly shares five common scriptwriting mistakes and suggests solutions for fixing them. This advice is so useful that much of it is applicable to any fiction writing, scriptwriting or otherwise.
1. The character’s goal is undefined
When we first introduce a character, we have to make clear that they want something. This goal is what will get the story started. It needs to be clear, defined, and capable of propelling your character through their story. Their want might link to the themes of the story. It might represent a flaw in them, or be a sign of weakness. They might have an underlying psychological need that directly opposes their want. Often characters don’t get what they want; or if they do, it’s because they’ve been forced to change who they are or to make a sacrifice. But if they don’t have an aim or goal, then the story isn’t going to take off. Characters have to move us through the story. They make choices, and those choices inform the action. It might look as if things keep happening to them, but – particularly in films – we have to let our characters lead. They want something. They are trying to get it. Keep this in mind in every scene.
if characters don’t have an aim or goal, then the story isn’t going to take off
2. The themes are stronger than the characters
When describing stories, people sometimes talk about theme rather than character. ‘It’s a story about hope’, they’ll say; or ‘mental health’, or ‘the challenges of non-monogamy’. This is fine for marketing copy but your script isn’t actually about a concept – it’s about people. When we’re talking about our favourite films or shows we might discuss theme but it’s more likely that we’ll be talking about the characters… ‘it’s about this quiet, family man who’s a chemistry teacher, and he finds out he has cancer and he can’t afford treatment so he starts making and selling methamphetamine with an ex-student of his…’ = more exciting than ‘it’s a story about fear, pride and the lengths we will go to to protect our family.’ We need to do a lot of character work before we begin our scripts, in order to make sure they are sufficiently psychologically rich. Ask yourself if your character is interesting enough for people to be deeply curious about their motivations and desperate to see what they are going to do next.
do a lot of character work before you begin your scripts
3. The stakes are too low
When we meet a character, we’re meeting them at a specific point in their life. Presumably, a point at which something is happening to them rather than a point at which they’re reasonably content or getting stuck into their admin. We often let our characters off too easily – we might find cheats to help them out of tricky situations earlier than we should. It’s far more satisfying, gripping and emotionally engaging for our audience if we do the opposite. Give them more problems. It’s only in their darkest and most desperate hour when our characters have fully hit rock bottom that they might find the answers they need or the key to redemption. Your character should choose a path (informed by the combining of her pre-existing flaws and goals) which will lead her into danger… and you need to keep making things worse for her. At every new challenge, she will be faced with a decision or dilemma, and it’s watching her make those choices that keeps us interested.
it’s only in their darkest and most desperate hour that characters find the answers they need
4. There’s not enough conflict
This is linked to #3 but specifically refers to conflict within your scenes. The notion of ‘conflict’ in this context is often misconstrued as violence or people arguing. Conflict can be an internal struggle, or subtle status interplay; it’s not always a gun-fight. But pretty much every scene has to have it. When summarising scenes, we shouldn’t ever be able to say something like ‘Jo and Zara discuss Jo’s new job.’ Discussions are boring. Find the conflict instead – ‘Jo tries desperately to convince Zara that her new job is going brilliantly’. It’s a subtle difference but you can see how the second scene has the capacity to be much more interesting, forcing the audience to ask questions about the characters and their relationship, rather than just taking in the information offered.
conflict is not always a gun-fight
5. No one changes
All too often in scripts I read, the protagonist doesn’t appear impacted by the things they have gone through. This is often as a result of all of the factors mentioned above not functioning properly. If you have an interesting, dynamic, complicated character who really, really wants something; who encounters challenges along the way which force her to make hard choices; who is often in conflict with herself and others; then the chances are she will have to change at the end. In television drama, characters might not change until the final episode of the series. Up until that point they may have been given the opportunity to change, but may have chosen not to. This is what keeps the show going. If Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character decided to change and face her demons in the first episode of Fleabag, there would be no show. She changes as a result of things happening to her (which happen as a result of her choices)… and through the ways in which she is challenged, provoked and hurt she finally reveals the capacity for personal development. In films, the trajectory is shorter as we’re dealing with a more concentrated time frame. The change can be subtle. It might even take place after the film is over, but if it’s not at least hinted at then we’re likely to be left wondering what all of it was for.
if you have an interesting, dynamic, complicated character they will have to change at the end
Molly Naylor is a scriptwriter, poet, director and theatre-maker. She is the co-creator of sell-out storytelling event True Stories Live. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Sky One. She has performed her poems, stories and shows all over the world. Website
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