If you enter the word “screenwriting” into Google, you’ll discover from its Autocomplete function that after “software,” “competitions” is the second most popular search term on the web. But how do screenwriters WIN or place highly in screenwriting competitions, my Bang2writers always ask?
Well, from my time sifting through submissions for screenwriting contests, schemes and initiatives both big and small (especially at London Screenwriters’ Festival), here are my thoughts on how to ensure YOUR submission has its best possible chance of standing out from the pile:
ON THE PAGE
1) Include An Opener. I’d venture 80% of scripts in the spec pile do not include an opening IMAGE. Instead, characters will simply walk into frame, or even just start talking. This means that when a script opens strongly, with an image that sets the tone for the story, it immediately stands out and grabs the reader. MORE: 5 Openers That Make Readers GROAN
2) Start Late. I’d hazard about 95% of spec screenplays start far too early in the story, usually because they introduce us to characters for an extended period so we “care” about them. This means the reader is asked to “wait” for the story to start … Scripts need to hit the ground running, regardless of whether they’re drama or genre; audiences (and thus readers) DEMAND to be introduced to the story AND characters hand in hand. Never underestimate this. MORE: Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters
3) Be Visual. Scene description is one of the most undervalued elements of spec screenwriting. Very often it will be packed full of extraneous detail, so readers don’t know what’s important; or on the other end of the scale, it will be dull and “vanilla”: “Character X walks across a room, puts hands on her hips” etc. YAWN. Write VITAL scene description, that reveals character and pushes the story forward! As Script Secrets’ William Martell puts it, “Scene description is scene ACTION”! MORE: 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description
4) Shout Loud. This is the thing: we don’t need or want anymore vanilla screenplays. We want to feel that ONLY YOU can tell this story, just like the great screenwriters … Love or loathe the likes of Tarantino, Goldman, Koepp, Cody, Black **insert uber-famous screenwriter here**, they all have a unique style and way of storytelling that instantly communicates their voice on the page. So what’s yours like? MORE: 7 Ways To Showcase Your Writer’s Voice
5) Write a Rocking Good FIRST PAGE. Lots is written about the first ten pages, but in all honesty? Your first page is where it’s at. You need to impress right from the get-go, because in a screenwriting competition time is at a premium and a reader is probably making his or her decision based on various factors like what you open with; what your scene description is like; do we know who your characters are; what the first piece of dialogue is; how your writer’s voice comes across; what your screenplay’s format looks like — all as s/he OPENS THE SCRIPT. So you really need to hit them between the eyes! MORE: 7 Things Readers Can Tell About Your Script On Page 1
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Next, here’s the nitpicky stuff that gets on admin assistants’ nerves and may even mean your precious screenplay ends up filed incorrectly, or trashed altogether:
6) Format. Spec screenplays should be “industry standard” format – that’s Courier 12 pt, with normal margins. That’s it. Nothing else. Yes, even if it’s a TV pilot. But you’re not home free yet: there’s loads of finicky format errors you can still make! Check out my Format One Stop Shop for a complete rundown of the format errors I see most frequently, plus what to do about them.
7) Title Page. No, your title page does NOT count as part of your page count. Always, always include one and unless told NOT to, put your name and contact details on the front, including your email address.
8) One-Page Pitches. There’s no “industry standard” to one-page pitches – they just have to be interesting! And make sure you include the ending and have your contact details on. MORE: 6 Tips On Writing A One-Page Pitch
9) File Name. Make sure you NAME your file with your own name and what you’re sending. Do not simply put the title, or name it “screenplay”! Argh. MORE: The Submission Tip Nearly ALL Screenwriters Don’t Do
But that’s not all … You don’t polish your screenplay ’til it shines and then leave it to fate – there’s still things you can do to improve your chances in the competition pile:
10) Never Submit Unfinished Work. Some spec screenwriters enter competitions as a sort of validation and if they don’t place, decide this means their script needs more work. As a strategy this is problematic, because the writer frequently ends up feeling around in the dark, especially when what’s “good” storytelling means different things to different people. As a result, that writer may NEVER finish, writing, rewriting and tweaking ad nauseum. This is a waste of your time (and if applicable) money. Instead, ensure you have “signed off” on drafts before you submit them to screenwriting competitions. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever rewrite them, but you should ideally be at a place where you’ve had lots of feedback and development on it and feel comfortable it’s the best it can be. If you gain no traction with it then in the contest circuit, you gain the realisation that project is perhaps a dead duck and you need to write a new one. MORE: James Cary aka @SitcomGeek has some excellent cautionary advice about the “blessing and curse” of screenwriting competitions.
11) Make Multiple Submissions. Multiple submissions at the same time mean not only multiple chances of winning or placing highly, it can be a valuable learning curve as well: some Bang2writers in the past have discovered they’ve done extremely well in one contest, only to crash and burn in another! So make sure you budget accordingly and ensure you can enter your screenplay into at least THREE of the major paid-for screenwriting competitions (Final Draft BIG BREAK, Scriptapolooza, Bluecat, The PAGE Awards, Screenwriting Goldmine, American Zoetrope, etc.) at once. MORE: 5 Career Strategies For Writers
12) Always Enter EARLY. Most paid-for screenwriting competitions have an Early Bird Deadline, so make sure you always aim for this. If you’ve “signed off” on drafts, this won’t be an issue. MORE: Script Angel’s Epic List Of Screenwriting Competitions
13) Enter Less Well-Known Competitions. It’s a no-brainer to think that the more established a competition (or name/brand running said competition), the more entries it will get. The major contests usually get in the region of approximately 3000 entries, whilst initiatives like those run by BBC Writersroom will often get between 500-750. So less well-known competitions ARE worth it not only because the odds are better, but because winning one can still advance your career. I worked on one contest years back that only had ten entries for three places … The winning writer won a largeish cash sum (which she used for extra childcare, to get some more writing done) and a meeting with an agent, who now represents her. Check out this great comprehensive list of screenwriting contests from FreelanceWriting.com
14) Enter Contests With Feedback. Lots of paid-for screenwriting competitions offer feedback, either as part of the fee or as “add ons” you can buy. If it’s possible, ALWAYS get feedback. Sometimes it will be helpful, other times it will be junk, but it’s all useful because it will enable you to weigh up whether your screenplay is working or not. MORE: 5 Ways To Use Feedback Effectively
15) A Word On Contests With Specific Briefs. Some competitions, especially those for short film screenwriting like LondonSWF’s 50 Kisses initiative, will have specific briefs, asking screenwriters to come with stories based on a theme, or to include something specific. If this is the case NEVER go with your first idea, but brainstorm lots of responses to the brief, amalgamating many different sources for your inspiration. Why? Because otherwise there is a HUGE chance you will end up literally writing the same as everyone else! True story. I’ve read for so many brief-led contests now and am always surprised by how different writers come up with the SAME stories, over and over … Yet the ones that win are always the stories that are “different” to the rest (without being completely “out there”).
Obviously the story you choose will have a part to play in whether your screenplay “speaks” to a reader from the spec pile too, but taking all the above into account means you can make sure it’s ONLY the story and not some annoying, finnicky format or craft issue and/or timing problem that stands between you and contest glory … Or indeed, deciding this avenue into screenwriting is NOT for you after all.
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Related Articles and Tools to Help:
- More Submissions Insanity articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Legally Speaking, It Depends – Screenplay Contests
- Submissions Insanity #4: Screenwriting Contests
- Screenwriter’s Guidepost: Can Screenwriting Contests Advance Your Career?
- Screenwriters World Conference
- Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest
- Screenplay Development Notes from The Story Specialists
- Screenwriting Coaching from The Story Specialists