BREAKING IN: Judge a Screenwriting Contest, Become a Better Writer

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees’ famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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BREAKING IN: Judge a Screenwriting Contest, Become a Better Writer by Staton Rabin | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Want to become a better screenwriter, and learn what other writers are cooking up at the same time?  Become a screenwriting contest judge. Obviously, the major screenwriting contests won’t hire you as a judge unless you have proven experience as a script analyst or “reader” in the film business–  as I had when I got that job.  But some of the smaller or more specialized contests may be open to hiring script readers who have little or no professional experience (especially if they have a degree in film or screenwriting, and are willing to work for low pay). If necessary, you can get work experience as a script reader pretty easily by becoming a volunteer, receptionist, or administrative assistant for a local “legit” theater or a small film production company that also needs someone to evaluate script submissions. Or if you can’t get a job as a freelance script reader that way, then write reader’s reports (following proper formats, which you can find online) on three very famous screenplays and use these as samples of your analysis.

I’ve been a screenplay contest judge for about 15 years.  Here are 5 things I’ve learned–  and you can too– by being a judge for a screenwriting competition:

1) JUST HOW GOOD YOU HAVE TO BE IN ORDER TO WIN ONE. In the past, you may have entered your own scripts in screenwriting contests, only to be disappointed– or even outraged– when you don’t even make it past the first cut. To you as a writer, it just doesn’t make sense!  How can it possibly be that your masterpiece didn’t even make it out of the first round of judging?

But if you become a screenwriting judge, this will no longer be a mystery to you.  As a reader for any screenwriting contest, you’ll read lots of good scripts. The truly great ones are rare, but really stand out.  As a judge, your job is to find the great scripts —  the best ones, not the merely good ones. Looking in from the outside, you may assume your script is a real stand-out.  But, as a judge, you’ll read hundreds of scripts within a short period of time that were submitted by aspiring screenwriters, and the truth will become painfully obvious.  The odds are that your own work is perhaps better than average, but not among the top 10 scripts out of thousands in any contest.  And the interesting thing is that it is never difficult for readers to spot great scripts.  I can do it.  You could do it.  So could anyone you pull off the street who is reasonably intelligent and can read.  Great scripts are not just a little better than good ones.  They are light-years ahead of them in quality.  By being a contest judge, you will learn how great your own screenplays must be in order to win a screenwriting contest —  or get optioned or sold in the marketplace. You will gain a very good and realistic idea of what you’re competing against in contests, and out in the film world.  If you thought you could just “coast” or toss off a high-concept idea with sloppy or routine execution and win a contest, you’ll find out just how high the standards really are.

2) ALL BAD SCRIPTS ARE BAD IN THE SAME WAY. Tolstoy once wrote that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I would add to that that all bad screenplays are alike; each great screenplay is great in its own way. By reading hundreds of scripts as a contest judge, you will discover that there are uncanny similarities among the screenplays. It’s not just that many recycle the same obvious, old and tired concepts.  It’s also that writers tend to make exactly the same mistakes.  The dialogue sounds like an assortment of clichés from bad movies. These scripts have plots that meander, there’s too much dialogue and not enough (succinct, economical) action and behavior, and the writers seem to be chasing after the latest trend in commercial movies. Action lines are packed with unnecessary and irrelevant information, or tells us things that we won’t be able to see or hear on the movie screen. Characters are lazy stereotypes who have no unique personal qualities.

If there’s one overarching theme to these bad scripts, I’d say it’s that their writers don’t understand what a story or plot actually is.  They don’t understand the requirements of dramatic structure and what creates conflict in a story.  And they clearly haven’t done their homework to the degree necessary.  They may have seen a lot of movies, but never really dug down deeply to study and learn what makes them tick.  And they clearly haven’t read a lot of produced screenplays–  because what they put in their script doesn’t resemble them.  Often, scripts that fail try to generate excitement or empathy for the main character by immediately immersing the film audience (and the reader) in shocking, gory violence or misfortune–  not realizing that without providing us with story context first, and setting up a relationship between the audience and the main character, the audience will not feel anything much at all (except perhaps revulsion). I read a great many scripts that begin with a helpless victim (usually a woman) being tortured by a villain–  or, after meeting a family for a few lines of happy dialogue, there’s a car accident that ends with a funeral.  Neither of these things will engage our emotions–  at least not in any way that serves your purposes as a writer.

Instead, great scripts use carefully selected building blocks of action, dialogue, images, and character behavior to rapidly build excitement, suspense, and empathy for the hero’s plight, by creating a plot context to mold and determine the audience’s emotional response to the film, the story, and its characters. Great writers understand how to create empathy for the hero very quickly–  and that simply being “a victim of misfortune” won’t necessarily do this. Instead, this is achieved through giving the hero qualities we admire or respect and opportunities to demonstrate them, in a plot context that forces him to take action and overcome obstacles in pursuit of a worthy, urgent, high-stakes goal.  You will gain a better understanding of all this when you evaluate large numbers of scripts and notice the few that succeed on a very high level.

3) ALL GREAT SCRIPTS ARE GREAT IN THEIR OWN WAY. Great screenplays are a perfect balance of familiarity and surprise, are tightly plotted, use images to tell the story, are specific in their rendering of characters and show a profound understanding of human nature.  They demonstrate the writer’s diligence, expertise, and research without getting bogged down in boring facts, are suspenseful and have high stakes, show an understanding of what a story is (an urgent and compelling high-stakes goal and conflict for the hero, who takes action in pursuit of his goal despite obstacles, are key), don’t have any political “message” unless it’s done in a subtle way and entertainment is paramount, are highly selective in their descriptive details, are an easy and fun “read”, are crystal clear at all times about what’s going on, don’t overtly reference any other movies, don’t chase the latest trends, and reflect the writer’s unique way of seeing the world. The writer is in command at all times, but stays out of his characters’ way.  Above all, great screenplays are unique and specific, the action lines are succinct and the script as a whole has a clear “voice” (not character voiceover; I mean the writer’s “voice” comes through).

But when it comes to the specifics, great scripts have almost nothing in common with each other — except that each one has solid story structure and is a unique reflection of that writer’s passionate vision and understanding of human nature (yes, even in comedies).  When you read for contests, you will quickly learn that chasing the latest trends in commercial movie-making will get you nowhere.  As in life, you must be yourself, apply your mature, adult understanding of people and the world to whatever you do, and then learn your craft.

4) ALL GREAT SCREENWRITERS UNDERSTAND WHAT A STORY IS.  The best way to learn your craft is to read successful, produced screenplays (classic and new scripts that were critically acclaimed and financially successful), to study movies like a scientist, and then follow successful dramatic formulas exactly —  but with your own unique story twists, setting, characters, and view of human beings.  You must begin with a story concept that is dramatically, structurally sound.  To learn the craft, understanding how to structure a movie concept correctly– one that can work as a blueprint for a feature film–  is the single most important step you can take to becoming a successful screenwriter.  In order to write a workable one, two, or three-sentence concept (which you should do before you write anything longer than that), you first have to understand what a story and plot actually are.

You don’t have to attend a university screenwriting program to learn what a story is — but you can’t learn this simply by reading a book.  You have to see hundreds of movies, read dozens of screenplays, and really study them.  You have to know what you’re looking for: what makes them work as plots.  Ask yourself why the core concept is a good “map” or dramatic structure for writing a full-length movie. Think about how the writer put the story together to pull in the audience, and make them empathize with and root for the hero.  How are scenes structured and where do they start and end?  How does each one advance the plot? What is included?  What is left out?  At what point in the lifetime of the hero do we enter his story–  and why?  Over what time span does the story take place, and is there a “time lock” for the hero to accomplish his goal?  What kind of jeopardy will he or someone close to him be in if he fails?  Why and how do we “see” this movie? How does the writer build suspense?  What are the stakes for the hero and why are they urgent and compelling?  What’s his conflict?  Why do we root for the main character? Does he have any flaws?  Do we forgive them?  Why?  What makes the dialogue effective? How does the story foreshadow what’s coming later?  What is the hero’s problem?  What does he do to solve it?  What obstacles does he overcome? Is there an antagonist?

Some writers intuitively understand what a story is.  Others–  most– have to learn this.  Too often, writers who enter screenwriting contests have not studied the medium of film with enough precision to understand what a story really is–  and isn’t.  If you don’t know what a film story is, you will have to either go to film school to learn this, or create your own “school” program of study for yourself.  Most screenwriters and story analysts I know did this without consciously setting out to study movies– simply because, from an early age, they loved movies and tried to understand on a deep level what makes them work as dramatic entertainment in a visual medium.  They took apart the watch to see what makes it tick.

If you read a lot of screenplays as a contest judge, you will soon learn which ones have a story, and which don’t. You’ll understand the relationship between a concept and a feature film (hint: the one or two-sentence concept that the writer began with before writing his or her story contains all the ingredients that make the script, and resulting film, work from a structural standpoint — or that inevitably will make them fail).  Understanding the “why” of this is key to becoming a better screenwriter yourself.

5. ALL GREAT SCREENPLAYS SHOW AN UNDERSTANDING OF FILM AS A VISUAL MEDIUM. The vast majority of scripts I read that are written by aspiring screenwriters have almost no sense of film as film. I don’t know if the problem might be that writers are watching too much TV these days.  Don’t get me wrong: I think that much of the best work being created now by scriptwriters is being done for TV.  But film is different. It’s still more of a visual medium than TV is. Television still relies more on dialogue for its storytelling than feature films do (although that’s changing over time). If you want to understand what visual storytelling really is, read the script for, and see the David Lean movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

TO SUM UP:

By becoming a screenplay competition judge, you will get a very good sense of the zeitgeist: what’s out there in the marketplace today.  You will discover what your fellow writers are thinking about (and it’s often the same thing!).  You may discover that that “new” idea you had isn’t quite as new as you thought.  You will learn just how bored film company story analysts must be by now at having to read the zillionth script about zombies —  and why you shouldn’t write one.  You will understand that great scripts follow tried-and-true dramatic formulas for each genre —  but are unique in their characters, dialogue, view of the world, and “voice.”  Following dramatic formulas, which is a good thing, is not the same as “formulaic” writing.  There’s a big difference. You can’t reinvent the wheel, and shouldn’t try. You won’t come up with a new dramatic formula —  a new plot — nor should you. Instead, find the right structural formula for your genre by studying classic films, and follow it.  But bring to that formula a few of your own unique and unexpected plot twists and turns, and bracingly original settings, characters, and dialogue.

And, almost always, great scripts have plots that are very, very simple, and the story is told in straightforward chronological order. It’s their characters that are complex, not their plots. This will become obvious to you when you read hundreds of scripts as a screenplay contest judge, and identify which ones work best.

As a contest judge, you will notice how SPECIFIC and SUCCINCT great scripts are in their details — including what they include, and what they leave out. The writer clearly did his homework and is an expert on the specific context and situations he’s writing about. But he uses those details judiciously —  enough to be convincing and credible, not enough to overwhelm us with jargon or unnecessary details. By being a screenwriting contest judge, you will learn what works, what to do —  and, just as important, what NOT to do.  As writer/director Billy Wilder said, the most important rule of filmmaking is: “Don’t be boring.”

I’ll tell you a secret: great scripts are kind of shocking, but not in the ways you’d suppose. They’re not usually shockingly violent or sensational — they’re just shockingly true. Shockingly real, shockingly specific and human. Shockingly affecting or funny or both. And shockingly well put together.

Become a screenwriting contest judge.  It just might give you the shock of your life.

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One thought on “BREAKING IN: Judge a Screenwriting Contest, Become a Better Writer

  1. grfrazier23

    Exactly the reason why I became a reader for the Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition and later the Austin Film Fest competition. It’s easy to see what works and what doesn’t when you read scripts, both good and bad. I’ve picked up on a lot of tricks along the way, as well: from effective use of dialogue and description to how to write montages and flashbacks. It also helps to see format in use (and misuse), to bring your own script up to a professional appearance. An added perk is earning conference badges to the film fests! Hoping someday my contest reads can lead to paying gig as a reader as well.

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