Confessions of a Screenwriting Contest Reader
At ScriptArsenal, some of our analysts also read for prominent screenwriting contests. After reading dozens of scripts for a prominent contest (and hundreds for previous contests), here are some things to avoid for screenwriters looking to advance in screenwriting contests.
- Crazy opening sequence plus “Five days/two weeks/seven years/etc. earlier.” This is a cliché that is incredibly popular. It shows up (anecdotally) once in every four or five screenplays. That’s an unbelievably high rate. The story starts at some moment of high tension, typically one from later in the screenplay, and then jumps back to “Two weeks earlier” or some other time variation. The implication is that the story will eventually circle around to the event from the prologue. This is a cliché, full-stop. It will cause your reader to be dispirited, because they will have read this exact structural gimmick many, many times before. If your story can’t simply start chronologically without being compelling, there may be other problems that need addressing.
- The formatting and presentation of the screenplay suggest minimal study of any professional screenplay. There is no longer any excuse for this. You can literally Google “Professional Screenplays” and easily find plenty of examples of pro scripts, which are correctly formatted. When a contest reader opens a script and the first scene heading is EXT. OUTSIDE THE MALL – THIS EVENING, they pretty much know that script is going to be of a lower quality. Not taking the time to research how scripts are presented creates a poor first impression. The good news is this is the easiest thing, by far, to fix in a screenplay.
- The script is 130+ pages. In the old days, 120-page screenplays were the norm. Today, most screenplays clock in between 100-110 pages. There’s nothing wrong with writing a 120-page screenplay. But if your script is 130 pages, 135 pages, or longer, there’s almost always somewhere to cut for pacing. Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino can write screenplays at whatever page count they want, but for aspiring screenwriters, there’s no reason a great story can’t be told in 110 pages.
- “As you know, Bob, I went to Juilliard.” In the words of David Mamet, who famously said this in a memo (the all-caps were his choice) to his writing staff on the CBS series THE UNIT, “ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER AS YOU KNOW, THAT IS TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” It’s bald exposition. The challenge of writing a screenplay is for characters to behave as if there is no camera and no audience, most of the time. When characters speak in an expositional style, they are too-obviously bending their behavior unnaturally to inform the audience.
- Good but not great screenplays. One of the most encouraging things about being a contest reader in 2020 is seeing how the general quality of screenplays has risen dramatically in the last ten years. The wide availability of learning tools for screenwriters online has likely fueled this. Most scripts are above-average, compared to ten years ago. The problem is that’s not enough. In screenwriting, the script must be great, and perhaps more importantly for writers looking to break in, memorable. Is there something your script does that is bold? That might fail? That might be too strange, or uncomfortable, or risky? GREAT! That is often the difference factor between the script that places as a semi-finalist and the script that wins a contest.
Hopefully these tips help you in your contest entries for this year. What has been your experience with screenwriting contests? Let us know in the comments below.