A Contest Judge’s Report from the Front Lines: Big Break™ 2010

This year, I evaluated more than 200 scripts as one of the judges for the Big Break™ Screenwriting Contest. And I found a few really superb screenplays (and quite a few good ones), as I do every year. But I have a confession to make:

What makes a script truly “great”? As the King of Siam used to say (at least he did in the classic musical movie, The King and I), “It’s a puzzlement.”

Oh, I know a great script when I read one. All professional script readers do. But you want to know how to write THE contest-winning script. Not a good script, but a GREAT one. What’s the secret? What sets it apart from all the others? And the truth is…

It’s kind of a mystery.

Sure, I can tell you how to write solid dialogue, a well-structured plot, and give your characters more depth. After all, I write articles about the subject, and have evaluated thousands of scripts for film studios, contests, and writers. I can tell you what’s working in a script, what isn’t, and exactly why. I can tell you how to fix it if it’s broken. And if it’s a great script, there’s no way on Earth that this is going to escape my notice. Trust me. Whether it’s a quiet drama, an outrageous comedy, an imaginative fantasy or sci-fi adventure, or a nail-biting thriller, a great script leaps off the page, grabs you by the throat, and won’t let go till the final fadeout.

When I read a great script, I can tell you in enormous detail why it is great. After all, that’s my job.

But how to duplicate greatness in your own scripts? Everybody has a theory, and you can find lots of good and useful advice in Script. But nobody really knows the ultimate secret. The answer is elusive. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you should get the best advice in the world from experts, live your life to gain wisdom, write a lot, and learn your craft. But the rest is up to you and your talents. By the way, lest you think that there’s agreement among readers on what makes a great script simply because there’s some sort of commercial “formula” we are all looking for, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been a reader since 1981, and know other skilled and experienced professional scriptreaders. We all have different backgrounds, training, and experience. Some have gone to film school, some haven’t. We’re not looking for any particular genre or “formula”– except a great story with great characters.

Maybe if my fellow readers and I were asked, “What makes a great script?” we’d answer the way Louis Armstrong once did when somebody asked him to define “jazz”. Said Satchmo: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

So, what IS the secret of writing a great script? The truth is, nobody can tell you. Each great screenplay is at once familiar, and unique. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All bad screenplays are alike. All great screenplays are great in their own way.” But I can certainly tell you what it feels like to read one.

3 thoughts on “A Contest Judge’s Report from the Front Lines: Big Break™ 2010

  1. Carol M. Kimball

    Writing a screenplay was a driving force I had no control of since I had never planned to write until this story kept hitting me at everthing I read, saw, or dreamed until I sat down and just wrote it. After 300 pages and showing it to family and friends, I did research to reformat to Final Draft and got down to the story again. Still looking for an agent, a producer, someone who would make it into a film and not being in LA puts me out of the loop. I’ve been working on five other screenplays over the years and juggling family needs and finding time to write. I love to write; Murder Mysteries, Family, Animated, Women’s Struggles, Biographies, Children’s Stories, Lyrics, Poems, etc. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME???? Help! I need to find an agent!

  2. Pingback: Writing Competitions: Knocking on the Door « Glorified Lollipop Tree

  3. RTA

    Great article. As the character in “Shakespeare in Love” answers when pressed for an answer to how he knows all will work out for the best: “…it’s a mystery.” I believe all great art has that unknown elemment that can’t be expressed through words. It’s a “feeling”, and isn’t all great art intended to evoke that in the first place?

    -Richard Todd Aguayo