Competition is tough out there. We all know there are more spec screenplay submissions than can EVER be read. That’s why *your* submission has to be the very best it can be, not only on the page, but also in terms of making that all-important first impression when a reader opens your screenplay.
Yet when a story works, it works – and why and how it works can be hard to pin down. Sometimes it’s easier to think what NOT to do, so here’s a list of 8 things that are GUARANTEED to stop people reading your submission ON PAGE ONE! So, without further ado, chew on these for size:
1) Start with clichés. I can’t stress this enough: human beings prize novelty. So if you start your spec screenplay with stuff we readers have seen countless times before??? It’s one of the fastest ways of losing a reader’s interest. True story. MORE: How To Write The Most Cliched Script Opener EVER
2) Write no opening image AT ALL. Where does your screenplay START, as in, what’s the first IMAGE we see? Too often scene description just “sets the scene” in a rather roundabout way. NO! Think of the very first thing an audience will SEE. Crucial difference. What does it say about your storyworld, genre, tone, character POV? MORE: 5 Openers The Make Readers Groan
3) Do crappy-looking formatting. Yes, yes format sucks but guess what: it’s not about “rules,” but getting BUSTED. Any reader worth his/her salt isn’t going to care about minor deviations, but if your formatting DISTRACTS from the STORY?? That’s when you have potential problems. MORE: The 5 Biggest Format Errors Spec Screenplays Make
4) Write epic swathes of black on the page. Very often submissions with start with swathes of black, no dialogue whatsoever on page 1. This, writers will often say, will be because they’re “setting up” so readers can “visualise” the storyworld. NAUGHTY WRITERS! See point 2 instead. Moreover, yes sometimes openers have no dialogue but this needs to be a considered choice and you better hope it’s JUSTIFIED …. But even if it is, there’s STILL no excuse for a trillion words of description on page 1. Make every bit of your description count. Or else. (Yes, I am aware of the irony of this bit being the longest section in this article!). MORE: A Little Less Description, A Little More Action Please
5) Use super-monologues. Look, I’m not a McKee-ite who says narration or voiceover sucks. Done well, VO can be a FANTASTIC tool to both anchor the audience in the story and push it forward. But a long monologue on page one doesn’t do that, it’s just a big isolating block of text. We need those all-important images again! MORE: All About Voiceover
6) Use clunky news exposition. Giving background info via news programmes within the storyworld CAN work very well (especially in science fiction, hyper real and/or dystopian future worlds), but this device often becomes rather clunky and obvious in spec screenplay submissions, especially if used upfront on page one. Avoid. MORE: How Does Exposition Work? AKA 9 Common Exposition Qs Answered
7) Start with a montage. Montages can be FAB tools to help push the story forward and/or reveal character, but it’s rare they can do this on page 1. Instead, writers will include them to – uh oh – “set the scene”! See point 2 again. MORE: All About Montage
8) Start with flashback. Again, I LOVE flashback – but how do we START with flashback, if we don’t know where we’re flashing back FROM? Also, the whole “intriguing hook then REWIND to X hours earlier” is feeling a bit stale at the moment. Avoid! MORE: Good Examples: Flashback, Intercut, Dream Sequence
I know, I know … if the above seems harsh, that’s cos it IS. It used to be you had ten pages, but these days it’s more like one – there are just too many submissions, all vying for attention. But avoid the above and you may just get to page ten … and even onto a full read, which is half the battle in getting noticed.
Good luck out there!
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