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Confessions of a Screenplay Contest Reader

A peek behind the scenes



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by Naomi in screenwriting

I vowed never again, but here I am:

judging screenplays for a competition.

And actually, it’s the best time I’ve ever had reading for a contest. It’s one of the big ones. Very reputable. They run it well and there’s a marked difference in the level of these screenplays from those entered in other contests. Writers who advance in this contest start getting scouted even before the final round. If you’re going to enter screenwriting contests, it’s one of the best.

So that’s all good.

But if I’m being totally honest, I feel bad about the feedback these writers will receive.


Don’t get me wrong – I know the writers will receive comments that are made with the best of intentions, from myself and any of the other judges. We take the job seriously and we’re all as honest and accurate as possible. Every script entered in this contest is read in its entirety – which you would think would be industry standard, but trust me – not so. Lesser contests don’t have that sort of standard in place. I like being part of something with so much integrity. And it makes me feel like they value the work I’m doing, which is nice too.

Yet, I know a lot of writers say they enter contests for the feedback. But if a screenplay contest offers feedback at all, what the writer receives is probably minimal.

Most of the writers whose scripts I read will only receive the summary section of my reader notes — the “overall impression” portion — even though I wrote more than that. (The rest are used internally, but not given to the writers.)

And that keeps me up at night. Because I feel like I have a relationship with these writers now. Even though I don’t know their names, and they’ll probably never know it was me who read their scripts. I’m a writer too and I know how it feels to ask someone to weigh in on a draft of your script. I know the sweat, tears, coffee, whiskey, and time that went into those screenplays.

And no matter how diligent any of us contest readers are, four or five sentences of feedback can’t do justice to the work that went into the script. It certainly can’t offer the kind of really specific, targeted, helpful feedback that I would want to get, and that I want to give.

And I know how that feels too – having someone drop criticism in your lap without explaining it. That’s pretty much the worst.

Screenplay feedback is most effective when it’s a conversation, you know? When I can ask you what you were going for with a particular choice, or when I can tell you what my impression was and together we can gauge how far off that was from where you were aiming. And then brainstorm solutions to get you to the target.

So, even though I’m totally for entering screenwriting competitions (as long as they’re reputable), and I believe they can be a good way to gauge where you stand amongst your peers and get a sense of how your script would be received in the industry…

Contest feedback is a tough one for both of us, reader and writer. It’ll probably be frustrating for you (because there’s a limit to how useful it can be), and it’ll definitely be frustrating for me (because talking about screenplays and stories is one of my favorite things to do, and contest reading just doesn’t allow for it).

But guess what? I’m the boss around here (bwahahahaha). So I’m going to talk about some of those reader notes that writers are getting on their scripts this year. And no one’s limiting me to four or five sentences (clearly).

Specifically, I want to talk about the most common issues I’m seeing in the scripts I’m reading right now. These are the things I find myself commenting on over and over again.

They’re probably going to seem pretty obvious to you. But it means something when the same issues keep cropping up – especially amongst a batch of scripts that are actually pretty good in the grand scheme of amateur scripts. Maybe these “obvious” issues are harder to recognize in our own scripts than we want to admit.


“The concept lacks originality.”

Ouch. This often means one of two things:

Either the script’s concept is too similar to other existing movies (or spec scripts) and the writer hasn’t put an original spin or fresh take on it, or

It’s a familiar story (say, based on a fairy tale or a real life event) that hasn’t been done before in film, yet the writer hasn’t put an original spin or fresh take on it.

(Do you see what both of those root problems have in common?)

You might be saying, “But IP is all the rage right now! If I’m telling a story that already exists, then of course it’s going to feel familiar!”

Or, “How am I supposed to put an original spin on a real life event? It happened the way it happened!”

Sure. I feel you. But even using existing story material, the writer still needs to bring a perspective to it that makes the telling of that story unique and compelling in some way.

Everyone's favorite example of a fresh take on a classic.

Everyone’s favorite example of a fresh take on a classic.

I mean, put yourself on the other side of the desk: if you were going to hire a writer to adapt material, you’d want to make sure he or she wasn’t just a transcriptionist, right? You’d want the writer to bring a little more vision than that.

If you’re struggling with how to unique-ify your screenplay concepts, check out the best article ever written on this subject: Terry Rossio’s “Strange Attractors” piece. (You should probably just put all of the Wordplayer articles in your reading queue.)

“It takes too long for the story to start.”

A first act issue, for sure, and usually related to the placement or nature of the Inciting Incident.

Often what the writer has intended to be the Inciting Incident doesn’t appear to the reader as having clear Inciting Incident properties. Meaning it doesn’t kick the story into motion in a way that the reader can track.

It’s possible that every screenwriting book that’s ever described the Inciting Incident as simply a “wakeup call” or a “knock at the door” has been doing writers a disservice. Because the Inciting Incident needs to do more than break a little news. It needs to cause a problem for the character.

And – just as crucially – the reader has to know that the problem exists, even if the character doesn’t. If your readers don’t recognize a problem has been created? We’re bored. We’re like, “When is something going to happen?!”

The problem the Inciting Incident creates is going to be related to or indicative of the problem that will take the rest of the movie to solve, so you’re giving readers a sense of where you’re taking them. We can sense you’re buckling us in for the ride.

It’s just the start of what will require some other wild journey, crazy plan, or heroic mission, which will be launched at the break into act 2, but we have to know, see, and feel that the Inciting Incident is beginning to lead us there.

Setting the bar for screenwriters everywhere

Setting the bar for screenwriters everywhere

“The story lacks conflict.”

A reader might comment that the story needs more big-picture conflict, or that the existing conflict is inconsequential, i.e. that characters are able to overcome it too easily and then the narrative continues on unaffected (at the story and/or scene level).

Sometimes a script really is lacking conflict, but other times it’s a matter of conveying it so that it makes an impact – so that your reader really gets the nature of the conflict and why it matters.

Since the feedback you get might not specify the root of the issue, you’ll probably have to evaluate this on your own. Here are a couple of strategies that should help:

+ Inspect the story’s foundation. Look at your focus sentence. Make sure you can identify and articulate both the external and internal conflicts in the story. Gauge for yourself (and perhaps with the help of some trusted screenwriter friends) whether or not those conflicts are big enough to carry an entire screenplay.

+ Look to your beat sheet or outline, or make a new list of all the actions the protagonist takes to achieve his goal. For each one, list out what stops the action – whether that’s a counter-action by the antagonist, another type of obstacle, or new information that causes the protagonist to change direction.

Now, evaluate. Is the protagonist successful in his actions more often than not? That could be a problem. Do the actions and obstacles generally escalate in intensity over the course of the story? Do the obstacles cause visible effects on the story? Meaning, can the protagonist go right back to his original plan of attack after encountering an obstacle? Has something changed, internally or externally, from each encounter?

“Characters need to be fleshed out.”

Sometimes this refers to all characters, sometimes it’s everyone but the protagonist; usually a reader will specify.

A lot of writers spend time getting their main characters in order — developing flaws and motivations, giving them interesting layers, thinking about the story through their eyes — but what about the supporting characters? Too often they just feel like placeholders.

If you’ve received a note like this, try beating out each character’s story independently of the others. For a given character, this might be very few beats and they might even be solely in relation to the main character. Still, look at the story from each character’s point of view. This will help you see where you can explore and flesh out those relationships and supporting characters themselves, and help you locate opportunities to add different levels of conflict to your story.

“Can’t tell one character’s dialogue from another.”

This one’s related to the note above, and the root of it is pretty obvious, right? The writer hasn’t differentiated each character’s voice.

If one of the main functions of dialogue is to act as a constant expression of character, then dialogue really should start with identifying the defining characteristics that will be expressed. So here’s a hack to help address this note:

Write up a profile for each character. I don’t mean one of those long, boring, backstory-driven bios. I’m talking a 3×5 notecard that lists the character’s defining traits, whether that’s their worldview, two or three specific adjectives to describe their personality, a quote that represents their main strategy for surviving in life, their most valued virtue or vice; whatever handful of things make up the core of that character.

Then, have that notecard in front of you as you re-write the dialogue for each character, taking them one at a time.

When you write dialogue for more than one character at a time (what we do for at least the first several passes on a scene, right?), you’re thinking about the dialogue as a conversation, and as a way to convey what you need to in the scene. But if you take one character’s sides at a time, you can focus on how they’re saying what they’re saying.

You wouldn’t be able to use this approach too early in the scene-writing process. But at this point we’re talking about working on a script that’s basically all there, and just needs to be given a boost, taken to the next level.


So screenplay contests can help you figure out where you stand and can give you an idea of the areas of your script that readers aren’t totally sold on yet. But once you have those clues you’ll need to do your own critical thinking about your script, and probably pull it apart a bit to figure out how to fix it.

Rewriting is a multi-step (and iterative) process. Identify the problems. Identify the source of the problems. Make a plan to address. Implement the plan. Repeat.

Contest notes point out the problems, which can feel overwhelming and frustrating for the writer on the receiving end. But hey – you don’t have to tackle that rewrite alone. Having conversations with your readers – whether they’re your friends, writing group buddies, or mentors – will help you find your way forward.

Your turn: Have your received any of these notes from your contest entries this year?

  1. David McCartney says:

    Hi Naomi–First, let me say, I think all of your advice is very worthwhile and valid…and much appreciated, but I would like to give you a different take on screenwriting from someone who has lingered on the outer fringes for several years, and now has shifted my writing efforts from a career pursuit to a bucket list item. 30 years ago, when I wrote my Dutch Harbor and Apache Echo screenplays, agents actually read them before deciding if they were interested in representing them, and every one who read them, wanted them. But obviously they have never fallen into the right hands. Of course, it’s a different world now, and only contest judges are reading my Apache Echo screenplay (rewriting Dutch Harbor) and it continually places in the top five, including the American Movie Awards, Aura Screenwriter Awards and Screenplay Festival, but in recent times it has never been read in it’s entirety by an agent or production company. Why? For the most absurd of reasons. To touch on just a couple, one company passed because they couldn’t connect with the protagonist–in a two-paragraph synopsis! An agent passed because ONE scene description wasn’t written to their liking–really?

    Anyway, from my point-of-view, I don’t think every story falls into a rigid, meticulously-defined format, in some cases minute-by-minute structuring. I believe that some stories take their own direction. What is surprising is the amount of online classes, books, etc on how to write a screenplay, most of which are very specific…perhaps too specific? Does anyone really need to take 100 different classes or read 50 different books on how to write a screenplay? Where is the creative process and individual thought? If there is such a rigidly-defined, magic formula for success in Hollywood, why are box office receipts at a 20-year low? If you read this, thanks very much for your time. My Best, David

    1. Naomi says:

      Hi David, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! It’s awesome that you’re continuing to rework existing screenplays — you obviously believe in the stories.

      Just from what you’ve said here, I would think — and of course feel free to disregard this if you’re not looking for additional input — it would make sense to enter your scripts into some of the prestige contests (Nicholl, Austin, etc.) The smaller contests generally don’t get much industry attention. If your scripts fare well in the top contests, that can be enough to open other industry doors. And then it’s up to your concept and writing to reel them in.

      Best of luck!

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