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Confessions of a Screenplay Contest Reader

A peek behind the scenes

 

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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.

CONFESSIONS OF A SCREENPLAY CONTEST READER

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 enter contests for the feedback. But what they may not realize is 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.

But since you can’t have that conversation with your screenplay contest reader, I thought I’d shed a little light on 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.

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.

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.

That problem may seem like an opportunity rather than a true problem, but it still creates a situation that the protagonist wants to do something about.

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 related to or indicative of what the protagonist will spend the rest of the movie doing and pursuing, 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.

“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. Revisit your one sentence, or your logline. 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.

9 Comments
  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!

  2. Huw Henderson says:

    There are some good Competitions – if your work is good enough, although many push the paid-for rewrite notes aspect a bit hard. However, I’d recommend avoiding The Shore Scripts Competition. Really insulting. They failed to send me the updates/notifications they promised. When I queried this and asked them to send the emails which had never arrived, they started contradicting me. I then asked them to resend the emails, they ignored this, and got ruder. I asked them to either resend the promised notifications or refund the fee, and to identify which employee was sending these emails. They then went silent – which says it all. Zero out of 10 – that’s not the way to treat customers and representing £55 very poorly spent on an amateurish setup with its strange mix of well known and poor judges. Some both UK judges I know and will let them know how the company that uses their names really operates.

    1. Naomi says:

      Good to know. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. Michael Lance Ritter says:

    Dear Naomi,
    As a screenwriter, I truly appreciate your sincerity. I’m also a published author and editor and know both sides of writing. Editing, similar to judging, is usually not enjoyed by unpublished writers, but serious writers (as you know) virtually crave it! My screenplay certainly can be improved (BTW, an introduction to it is at http://www.manoftwoworlds.net if you’re interested). Can you recommend a reader or competition worth getting involved with? Again, thanks for your marvelous discussion on screenplay reviewers!

    1. Naomi says:

      Hey Michael! Thanks so much for your comment. Your Man of Two Worlds script sounds smart — based on a real person / true events gives it a lot of appeal, plus tons of action and romance to boot.

      The competitions I think are worth entering are the Nicholl Fellowship and the Sundance Labs. Having a win in either of those contests will open doors. Austin Fim Festival is reputable and well run as well, so I recommend it as a gauge for your own purposes. But as far as its benefits to your career, I know people who have gotten attention from placing in AFF, and others who say they didn’t get any additional attention so it’s maybe less effective in that way.

      As for readers, of course I recommend my own services first! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions I can answer.

  4. Michael G. McGlasson says:

    Dear Naomi: I am about to enter a screenplay contest for the first time in almost 20 years. The first time I sent out a script I won 2nd place (it was called Bandolier Entertainment). Since then, I have become a published author (Bear Manor Media) and have learned a helluva lot about writing. Here’s the most important thing that I finally realized after 20 years about screenwriting–in the “old days,” screenplays were called “photo plays.” Why? Because a movie is nothing more than moving pictures and each scene is a picture. Describe the picture in as few words as possible and use dialog to support the action/no action in the picture. Read the script for Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.” The first 13 minutes has no dialog, only pictures. Now you know why Quentin Tarantino loves Leone so much! Michael G. McGlassson

    1. Naomi says:

      Hi Michael – thank you for posting this! So true: “Describe the picture in as few words as possible and use dialog to support the action/no action in the picture.” That’s a great, concise explanation of the target you’re trying to hit with every screenplay. Good luck with your contest entry!

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ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Starting a screenplay? Pitching a project? Write a logline that launches your screenplay with this free 15+ page guide - including 8 logline templates. Enter your email address below and get it delivered straight to your inbox.

100% privacy guaranteed.