COMMON WRITING MISTAKES AND HOW TO AVOID THEM BY DAMARIS IRUNGU OCHIENG’

One of the best things that happened to my writing career earlier on was becoming an assistant script editor, then a script editor and story developer. Reading people’s scripts sharpened my eye to what works and what doesn’t work in a story and script.  The season that accelerated my writing career was when I worked on the MNET commissioned Africa Magic Original Films (AMOF) 2013-2014, the beautiful films are on showmax, catch them now that we have a lot more time to watch!

For us to have 71 TV movies to shoot, meant that I read through hundreds of scripts. I rarely got a script that blew my mind, at times some would do a good job, but again, when you are working under so much pressure, you sometimes yearn for a story that knocks you off your socks.

What broke my heart most was reading scripts with mistakes that could easily have been avoided, had the writer put in the hours in learning the art and craft of writing. Read below on some common writing mistakes and how to avoid them.

  1. Never submit your first draft: This seems pretty obvious, but a number of writers seem to have no problem at all sending in a first draft to an editor.  Friend, if you are serious about your writing career you will know to keep your first draft for your eyes only. No first draft is ever good, unless you’re a pro with many awards to your name, but still, most pros would not submit their first draft to anyone. A first draft is more of a vomit on the page, spend your time re-looking and re-editing before you give another person to look through your messy thought process.  I cannot emphasize more. Your first draft is for your eyes only!
  2. A cliché idea with no twists and turns:  Yeah we all know there’s nothing new under the sun, all ideas have been done. An idea can however be freshened up by adding a twist to it. E.g if you want to write about domestic violence, how about writing it from the point of view of an abused husband or from the eyes of a teen who lives through his parents fighting and how that affects him/her? It’s a done topic but a different POV adds a twist to it making us curious enough to watch/read it.
  3. Predictable plots: Off the back of the point above on cliché ideas, the idea/premise might be great, but  as the writer, you don’t surprise us or get us curious because your twists and turns are predictable, we can tell your characters next move, next emotional reaction, next line of dialogue. Let’s strive to surprise and give our audience an unpredictable experience by making the obstacles and complications unexpected. They will love us for that.
  4. Weak Inciting incident or comes in late or too early before we connect with your audience. Friends, you can place your inciting incident anywhere…but unless you have mastered your craft, you just don’t experiment, place it within the 25 percent of your telling, if you’re writing a 90 minute feature, what is 25% of 90? If you place it after the 25% the story starts to drag, if you place it much earlier like the first 5 minutes, it might backfire as we haven’t connected with your character well enough to root for them. Don’t listen to the pros who tell you to do what you want, even in school, you had to know what the rules were to break them! Know the rules then break them, otherwise you’ll be serving us ‘mathogothanio’ (a mishmash) Your inciting incident also needs to be powerful, if your protagonist can say no to your inciting incident and their life goes back to normal, you have no story, the inciting incident has to be so strong that it completely disrupts your protagonists life and they have to react to it and try to bring back normalcy to their lives.
  5. You make it easy on your protagonist: I know you love your protagonist and might be tempted to make life easy for them, DON’T! The harder you make your protagonists life, the more we love you as a writer.  The reason most of watch fils/TV and read books,  is to escape our boring lives for the excitement of the protagonists life, so go for it, torture us, we are paying for it!
  6. Not delivering on what you promised: If you say your script is a comedy…my friend, you better deliver those laughs, if a thriller, better thrill us, if an action –adventure, we better see some action in there. You have to deliver on what you promised, you can’t promise me Indian butter chicken and serve me githeri curry (mix of beans and maize). That’s a NO!
  7. No increased jeopardy/ No raised stakes: Fellow writers, we are in the emotional delivery business. You need to raise stakes, their needs to be jeopardy for the character through whom we experience the story.  You have no excuse to give us anything short of that!
  8. Underdeveloped characters: As a script editor I can tell from the first few pages how much time you’ve spent with your characters, from the first few pages I can tell just how bored or excited your characters will make me feel. Please don’t take shortcuts here, get to spend time with your characters, know them inside out, and let them make you laugh and cry before you bring them over to us to move our emotions.  Observe life, observe the people you know in life, no one is one dimensional, we are multi- dimensional humans. Make sure you do the same for your characters.
  9. Characters sound the same- weak and clichéd dialogue: We are all different in life, we all have different vocabulary, I don’t sound like my brother, husband, sister or daughter, we sound very different. We might have a few catch phrases that go around but the rest of the words, how and where we place them are very different. Why then do we expect our characters to sound the same and use the same choice of vocabulary?  In as far as clichéd dialogue goes, a husband says to his wife, ‘I love you,’ the normal response would be, ‘I love you too’, which becomes cliché…but Imagine him saying ‘I love you’ and her asking ‘Why? Why do you love me?’ or anything else…find ways to spice up your dialogue and see where that leads you.
  10. Pacing:  I know of many writers who say how much they hate the 3 act structure. Ignore them if you are starting out your writing career. The three act structure will help you so much in your writing, as I said earlier, you have to know the rules to break them, understand the three act structure and how that can help you with the structure of your story(pacing) Think of it as a guide and not a formula.  Screenwriter &Director Akiva Goldman once said ‘Screenwriting is like fashion. All clothes have the same structure. A shirt has two sleeves and buttons, but not all shirts look alike.’

Hope this article helps you avoid some common writing mistakes. Share this blog post with a friend. TIA

Happy Writing and Happy Creating!

3 thoughts on “COMMON WRITING MISTAKES AND HOW TO AVOID THEM BY DAMARIS IRUNGU OCHIENG’”

  1. Hi.. I’ve just completed writing a novel. Would love if you could critique it.

    Regards
    Henry

  2. Just joined in..love the part where you said the first draft is like vomit on the page..you got me there.

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