5 Worst Screenwriting Habits by Mark Sanderson

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Film Courage: What are your five worst screenwriting habits?

Mark Sanderson: Five worst? Well, it’s writing while I’m rewriting which is like running on a treadmill. You can rewrite after you’re done.

One time I had a job and the contract stated they wanted to see every ten pages. And I was like “That’s a deal breaker for me.” And so I told my attorney, I said “I don’t want that. You hired me to write the script. Let me write the script.” That’s what a rewrites about. You won’t know in ten pages. It’s like running on a treadmill. That’s for me a habit that I don’t do. It’s tempting because when you get bored and you scroll back and you’re like “Oh…I wonder what those…?” And then you realize the day is gone and you should be on page 15 and I’m on 3 because I really worked on those 3.” That’s what a rewrite time is for.

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Another bad habit…let me see. Well, fear. I don’t know if that’s a habit. There’s a lot of fear involved in writing. You’re sitting there with the blank page that you have to fill. And like I said before you can alleviate that by having to sell a treatment which is sort of your buddy and your roadmap and you won’t sit there and waste time.

Procrastination is another terrible one and I’m guilty of it as well. There is always something to distract you and then when the writing gets difficult (as it does), it’s the easiest time to run away from it. And I found that even when you sit with it, like I think Raymond Chandler said he sat at his desk every day at the same time if anything happened or it didn’t. It’s that constant repetition which writing is, it’s not waiting for my Muse. I still have to…I mean the last job…I was procrastinating but I had three pages a day which was a light schedule. But I found myself on the Internet looking up stuff and procrastination is horrible. What are we at now, three?

Film Courage: You’re at 3.

Mark Sanderson: I’m at 3. Number 4…oh, I’ve got to come up with 2 other ones, bad habits? Personal habits?

Film Courage: Screenwriting.

Mark Sanderson: Screenwriting habits. Overwriting, something I don’t do, but I warn against it because when I consult on scripts I read that they are describing the wallpaper, you know you have to know what you need to put in and what you need to leave out. I find a lot of beginning writers hang on so desperately and that’s how you develop a 120-page script and you look through and go “Cut this out.”

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They don’t want to see all of this description and that’s a technique to know when to stay out of the way which is important. I think for writers you’ve got to know when to put your imprint on it, but stay out of the way. And so we’re up to 4 now?

Film Courage: 4. But if you…

Mark Sanderson: 5…what’s the other one? I don’t know. I can’t think of a fifth.

Film Courage: That’s okay. So when you catch yourself procrastinating do you sometimes just say “Alright, I’m just going to do it for a little bit and get it out of my system. Or what do you do to be your own taskmaster?

Mark Sanderson: Well, I used to have a writing partner. So it helps to have someone go “Hey!” Or you’re together because it’s both of your collective time. You’re not wasting somebody else’s time. But when you’re alone, you can waste as much time as you want. “It’s just my time.” But I usually realize that I’m doing it and then snap back into “Oh, I should be…” It’s tough, distractions. That’s why you have to go somewhere and write if you have an office or they have office spaces now that you can rent and it’s a short-term thing per day. And one time a producer hired me on assignment and he paid for that office space so I could go there and it was something about when I go to the gym, you made a commitment to take that trip to get there and park and so you’re going to be productive rather than working at home where there’s a lot of distractions. If you have a family, somebody knocking at the door, the phone ringing, other times I’ve worked at the library where it’s quiet.

So work environment is also very important to fight off the forces of procrastination.

Film Courage: Yeah, the whole co-working culture is very interesting.  What about overwriting, I’m wondering if you can give an example of something that is overwritten versus shortening it down?

Mark Sanderson: Well, mainly it’s the descriptions in the script but also overwriting the dialogue where you can go through in a piece where you can say “You don’t need that beginning sentence. You are saying the same thing in repetition two lines from now. Concise down to the point of…or overwriting where a character says something and it would be better if they just had a reaction. I always try to air on the side of let the actors act and emote rather than say something. If you see someone’s eyes 60 feet on the screen that’s going to say a lot more than a line of dialogue, you know.

So cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. They say cut the dialogue and then cut it 20% more than that. And no one wants to. I’ve read screenplays that read like a stage play and you’re like that’s not what this is.

Or scenes that every director I’ve worked with said give me something to shoot where the scene is just flat and two people sitting and Quentin Tarantino can do it with interesting dialogue with 10 pages of dialogue. But two characters sitting in a dinner scene, the directors I’ve worked with they hate it. They are like “What are we doing?” It’s just this, this, this, you know? And plus the food would be spoiled, it takes a long time to film it.

And overwriting the descriptions like I said before, describing things that are not your job. You just set the scene and if it’s a castle you don’t have to say all of the intricacies of the interior of the castle or there is a Knight in Shining Armor or there’s a tapestry. The set designer will do that. You have to stand back and in a way you have to really know what you need to put in that’s necessary and what is unnecessary. And I think a lot of beginning writers don’t know that (that fine line) and they just put everything in.

Film Courage: And if someone were to read it and it drags, would they know? Let’s suppose it’s their work and they think “Oh, no…but I’m describing this interaction between two people and the tension and it’s great.” But then an outside person is looking at it saying “this is dragging.”

Mark Sanderson: Yeah, cut to the chase of what’s going on. Less is always more, you know what I mean? And a producer that I work with, he caught the repetition in dialogue and I didn’t even see it. You are saying the same thing again here and we don’t need it and I’m like “Oh, my gosh, you’re right.” And he’s a big anti-repetition producer and I’ve never had that before, like a producer who would point out those specifics and I’m like “I’ve got this bad habit now of not even seeing it. And so now I’m very cognizant of that when I work with him and in general that we only have so much time on the screen and so many pages and if you don’t like the constraints, write a novel. You can do whatever you want. But if you like the screenplay format you have to have these dense packed scenes with subtext but not go on for 6-8 pages. There’s a rhythm to it, there’s a feel. Like you say you start reading that the script is overwritten, you just know everything is described and the writer is so afraid to let go that their vision or ideas wont come through on the page. Well, once they take that script and make it, yeah. But your imprint is the script, so all these other little particulars are not going to help when it’s overwritten.

Questions for the Viewers: What are your thoughts on these bad habits? Do you agree?

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About Mark Sanderson:

Mark Sanderson (aka @Scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, author, script consultant and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with over two-dozen screenplays written in genres ranging from comedy to drama. His work ranges from his sketch comedy writing and performing as a founding member with The Amazing Onionheads, writing for MTV, to his spec sale, and nineteen screenplay assignments with television premieres and worldwide distribution of his twelve emotionally compelling films— the WWII indie feature “I’ll Remember April,” Lifetime Network’s “An Accidental Christmas” and “Deck the Halls,” the stylish indie noir feature “Stingers,” and action-packed thrillers “USS Poseidon: Phantom Below” (aka HereTV’s “Tides of War”) and SyFy Network’s “Sea Snakes” (aka Fox’s “Silent Venom”), LMN’s “Mother of All Lies” starring Franchesca Eastwood, Lifetime’s highly rated thriller “Mommy’s Little Girl,” the LMN Network premiere “One Small Indiscretion,” and his latest produced films “Deadly Vows” aka “A Wedding to Die For,” “A Night to Regret,” and “Hunted by My Ex.”

Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime Network, LMN, SyFy, Fox, HereTV, HBO Canada, Christmas 24, and NBC/Universal, The Movie Network, and have been distributed globally. His films have been recognized at festivals including a premiere and opening the Palm Springs Int. Film Festival, premieres at the Hawaii Int. Film Festival, St. Louis Int. Film Festival, The Rainbow Festival in Hawaii, Newport Beach Int. Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale Int. Festival, and nominated for the Starboy award at the Oulu Int. Children’s Film Festival in Finland.

Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers Paul Colichman (Academy Award® winner “Gods & Monsters”) and Mark R. Harris (Academy Award® winner “Crash”), veteran directors Brian Trenchard-Smith, Fred Olen Ray, George Mendeluk, and the late Bob Clark, and has written films starring Academy Award® acting nominees Seymour Cassel, the late Pat Morita, Haley Joel Osment, Tom Berenger, and Emmy® acting nominees Mark Harmon and James Hong…(Read more here).