Conquering the Contest Circuit -
Tips on Scoring & Placing Higher
It seems like more and more screenwriters are breaking into the industry by being discovered from a contest. From securing managers, getting hired, selling scripts to movies and TV pilots being produced, placing high in a reputable contest could lead to recognition that could jump-start your career.
President of Stage 32 Happy Writers
But with some contests bringing in 3,000 - 8,000 submissions, a simple and avoidable mistake could be preventing your script from making it into the finals.
Working so closely with hundreds of executives and hearing their perspective, I wanted to write about 5 of the most easily avoidable traps that could be dinging points off your script read!
- Submit your script as close to an Industry Standard as possible. That means submitting your script as a PDF file. Submitting your script in a word doc instantly tells the reader that you do not take the craft seriously. "Industry Standard" means the script has a title page with the writer's name and contact info on the bottom and the script is saved as a PDF version (Final Draft, Celtx, etc. all come with save-as PDF functionality). Also, do not watermark your script. It's distracting to the reader to see the watermark on every page and could sometimes even blend into the words.
- The first 5 pages are crucial. In the higher valued contests a reader could end up reading hundreds of scripts for consideration. After reading so many scripts, a reader will tend to make quick judgments and compare your screenplay to the last well written script they read. Your first 5 pages need to be virtually typo-free, sparsely worded and easy to follow. The tone of your story should also be easily conveyed in the first 5 pages. By page 5, the reader has already formed an initial opinion on if the script should progress or not.
- If your story has a twist to it, don't depend on that twist in act three to carry your whole script. Sometimes writers will hold the cards too close and drearily lead to a more compelling climax. But if your compelling event doesn't start until page 90, your wary reader could have already formulated negative opinions of your story and, after reading a hundred other scripts, might be too frustrated by the limp lead up to really feel engaged by your twist. Every scene needs to count, not just the climax. Also, make sure your break into act two is clear, sharp and happens no later than page 25. You don't want the reader to think, "When does the actual story start?".
- Your story needs to be easy to follow and the reading process should be smooth and painless for the reader. Before submitting to a contest make sure your script is tight. Try to add as much white space to your pages as possible. Imagine the relief a reader finds themselves in when swiftly moving through your pages. Put yourself in the reader's shoes when submitting to a contest. Would you be more excited to read a sparsely written 90-100 page script or a densely written 110-130 page script? If your answer was defiantly the latter, ask yourself again knowing you have to read a mountain of other scripts on a deadline.
- An action or thriller script with a ton of fast sequences does not necessarily make for a fast read. Sometimes writers will depend too much on non stop car chases, gun fights and brawls to try to keep the pace going. But if your reader doesn't connect with the characters and have a clear understanding of what your main through line is, the reader might find themselves having to back track to keep on course. You never want to have your reader backtrack. I once heard an executive give a writer advice that I thought was just brilliant: when you are writing a story with a unique, complex backdrop (i.e. world), make sure your main through line is clear and straightforward. If you have an easily digestible backdrop, then you can make your main through line more complex. You do not want to make both elements complex. It will overwhelm your reader. When trying to add complexity to your screenplay, heed the words of this execs advice.
The good news when submitting to contests is that most of the time your script will primarily be scored on plot and characters opposed to how marketable it is. That's why in some of the most prestigious contests you will find indie dramas taking the top prize even though it might be the hardest to produce.
Before submitting to any contest, pause, and read your script again as if you are a contest reader with a mountain of other scripts to read. Make sure it's tight, concise, easy to read and thoroughly proofread. This submission could be your chance.
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