By: Andrew L. Schwartz
Entering a screenwriting competition can be a great way to gain exposure and break into the film and television industry. There are a plethora of reputable contests that offer winning writers a chance to have their script read by a high-level executive, which can then lead to garnering representation or generating a sale. But, while the rewards are high so are the risks: entering your script to a number of contests isn't cheap. If you find yourself entering screenwriting contests to no avail, you might want to consider why your script is being passed on by the contest reader.
It is within the first 10 pages a contest reader can usually make the decision on whether to pass on or advance your script; having a strong set up is absolutely crucial to ensuring the success of your script’s advancement. While writing a by-the-numbers script can often lead to it feeling sterile and unimaginative, there is no denying the basic structural foundation to the art of screenwriting.
Here are three common errors to avoid when submitting your script:
Lack of a Dramatic Premise
When attempting to grab a reader’s attention, the set up and pacing of the narrative are the most crucial ingredients. One of the most common errors new screenwriters make is not clearly indicating what the film’s dramatic premise is in the opening pages. When the stakes of the drama are never made clear, it prevents the reader from being engaged in the action. Often times, writers will focus too much time on everything but the dramatic premise and will fail to introduce a tangible conflict the protagonist will have to overcome. The majority of scripts lacking an indication of the dramatic premise tend to take too long to arrive at this crucial moment. By the time they arrive at this point, it is often too late and the reader has already made up his or her mind.
For example, despite being a sprawling epic, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is expertly set up with a prologue that depicts the film’s overall external conflict and stakes of the drama — the fate of Middle Earth teeters on an uncomfortable thread so long as the One Ring is in existence. Subsequently, Frodo Baggins, the film’s central protagonist, is then sent on a mission to destroy the One Ring, which becomes the dramatic premise.
Another common pitfall amongst new writers is creating characters that don't feel multi-dimensional. When setting up a narrative, the internal conflict is just as vital to the story as the external conflict is. It is crucial for the first 10 pages of a narrative to clearly convey the protagonist’s life up until the very moment the dramatic premise is introduced. Before arriving at the high-stakes conflict that will challenge the protagonist and propel him or her into the second and third acts, we need to know exactly who the protagonist is, what motivates them throughout their daily routine and what challenges they need to overcome. Having an even balance of internal and external conflicts will give the narrative a natural trajectory — one that follows an engaging protagonist on a clearly defined journey to overcome a tangible, high-stakes conflict.
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) does a good job of introducing multi-dimensional characters by binding the protagonists’ to their respective identities. The film’s central protagonist, Billy Costigan, is a tormented soul, or, as Mark Wahlberg’s character puts it,“a double kid.” Billy, whose parents separated at a young age, spent his time between living with his mother in an upscale environment and his father who had connections to a Boston crime family. Bouncing between these two identities caused much internal conflict for Billy. This character set up then paves the way for him to embark on the film’s dramatic premise: infiltrating the crime family as an informant.
Amateur screenwriters tend to spend time on fleshing out their action descriptions in such a way that reads more like a novel than a screenplay. Focusing too much time on the micromanaging of scene directions can be a huge red flag for readers. Ultimately, screenwriting is a visual medium. A script with too much tell and not enough show demonstrates a tenuous grasp on the craft; it shows the writer’s lack of understanding on how a screenplay functions — as a blueprint for a film that will most likely be shot by someone else. Word-heavy descriptions filled with frivolous adjectives do little to advance the narrative — they detract from the reader’s ability to be engaged with a script.
Taken from Vince Gilligan’s pilot script for Breaking Bad (2005), read how Gilligan describes Walter White’s house in a succinct and creative way —
“EXT. WHITE HOUSE – NIGHT
No president ever slept here. No millionaire ever visited. This is a three-bedroom RANCHER in a modest neighborhood. Weekend trips to Home Depot keep it looking tidy, but it'll never make the cover of "Architectural Digest.””
There are no frills or unnecessary language — just a clear and concise way of describing the look and feel of the location.
As a reader for a number of contests and production companies, and despite having favorite genres and character types, scripts that stand out the most are ones that offer a multi-dimensional protagonist with a clearly defined problem he or she needs to overcome — regardless of genre. By avoiding the above problems, you will be presenting a reader with a script that feels fresh and interesting enough to advance to the next round of the contest.