shaky-camera-in-american-beauty-1Do you have the next American Beauty?

Tomorrow’s the official announcement for The Scriptshadow 250 Contest so I thought I’d talk a little about how to improve your chances in the competition. One of the differences with this contest as opposed to others is that I’m not trying to find a “contest-winning” script. I’m trying to find a MOVIE. That means a screenplay that can be turned into a film. That’s because unlike other contests that just give the winning writer money or pass his script to other people, the winning script here will be optioned by a producer with the ultimate intention of being turned into a film.

So what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean I’m only looking for the next Matrix? No, although I’d certainly be happy with the next Matrix. But if you’ve got the next American Beauty on your hard drive, I’m not going to be opposed to it. I think the idea here is to take a step back and try to objectively see your movie in today’s market. Does it look like a film that a studio would release? Or is it so obscure and so unique that it’d be lucky to land a one-week featured spot on Itunes? I would never close myself off to any script – especially because the smaller ones tend to be the most original. But know this. The more obscure and “indie” your concept is, the better the writing will have to be.

In addition to concept, I’ll be looking for character. In general, the more mainstream your idea is, the less you’ll have to worry about getting a movie star. So if you’re writing the next Kingsman, your lead doesn’t have to be some uber-complex mastery class in character development. But if you’re writing something smaller, a compelling unique character with depth is probably going to be your only shot at winning. That’s because the smaller films need name actors to get made. And name actors are only going to sign on to your script if you offer them a challenging role.

Ideally, you’ll look to create compelling characters no matter what you write, if not for the main role, then in a major supporting role. Take movies like Kingsman, Godzilla, or Pirates of the Caribbean. The lead characters were 20-somethings without much depth. But each script had a role (Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow) with more meat. And again, the smaller the movie you make, the more character exploration you’re going to have to do. I personally like movies with main characters who have relatable flaws and who change over the course of their journey. That’s why I love films like The Matrix and Good Will Hunting. Take a character on one end of the spectrum and bring him to the other end by the end of the film.

There are really two kinds of movies you can write – so let’s go over both of them. The first is the traditional straightforward “been done before” concept. This might be a thriller like The Equalizer, a comedy like Ride Along, or a sci-fi like The Maze Runner. If you’re writing this kind of film, you’re going to need to knock it out of the park, because people have already made these films a thousand times before. So your execution is going to have to be perfect. I’m not saying not to write these. Only that your writing will have to be perfect – since, as a concept, these scripts have all been done already.

The second kind of movie is when you take a traditional idea and find a fresh angle to it. We were just talking about this the other day with The New World. Jenji Kohan didn’t just write a pilot about people moving to the new world, which had been done before. She focused specifically on the female angle. You can do this with genre as well. Instead of writing the super straightforward rom-com The Wedding Planner, write 500 Days of Summer. Instead of writing a traditional sci-fi like The Maze Runner, write Edge of Tomorrow, which uses the Groundhog Day approach of rebooting every day. Instead of writing yet another stuck in the middle of a city with slow moving zombies everywhere zombie flick, turn it into a big action zombie film like World War Z.

Concept creation is what separates the women from the girls, the amateurs from the pros. Newer writers tend to give us the same old thing, whereas pro writers know that they have to bring something different to the table to get noticed. If everything I wrote above is confusing, then here’s a simplified version: Try to come up with something we haven’t seen before. If you can do that AND make it marketable (like The Hangover), then you have a huge leg up on the competition. And one more thing – test your concept on others before you write it if you can. You can save yourself a hell of a lot of time if five people tell you your concept is boring. You can move to the next one and give yourself a better shot, not just with my contest, but in general.

Here are some other thoughts. I’d strongly recommend you outline your script. I can tell 99% of the time when a writer hasn’t outlined because their script starts falling apart around the page 40 mark. You can tell they haven’t really thought of anything beyond the general concept and are therefore spending the back half of their script treading water until they can get to the climax. One of the key reasons to outline is to make sure your script stays exciting all the way through. So make that the goal as you’re planning your story. Make sure page 70 is just as exciting as the inciting incident on page 15.

Another easy toss-away for me are lazy scripts. Lazy scripts universally consist of writers who take scenes off. Here’s some life-changing advice for screenwriters: MAKE EVERY SCENE AS GOOD AS IT CAN POSSIBLY BE. That doesn’t mean each scene needs to be a showdown between your hero and villain. But even if a scene is mainly there for exposition, look for ways to still make it entertaining or compelling. The best writers NEVER TAKE SCENES OFF. They make sure every scene is the best they can make it. I know a script is done whenever I read two bad scenes in a row. And sadly, that usually happens within the first fifteen pages. Don’t be that writer!

One last thing. Dialogue should not be a venue for your characters to say exactly what’s on their minds or to state the obvious. In dramatic situations, people tend to hide their true motives and feelings and talk around issues. The best dialogue typically comes when at least one of the characters in the scene is keeping key information from the others. Characters will say what’s on their minds in confrontation scenes, but confrontation scenes tend to only happen a couple of times in a script (once around the middle, once near the end). “Flashy” dialogue (Juno, When Harry Met Sally, most comedies) is a different story. This is where clever fun dialogue is driving nearly every scene. This kind of dialogue is extremely talent-dependent so be honest with yourself that you’re that kind of writer before you commit an entire script to this style.

Truth be told, I’m just looking for something great. And if you’ve got that thing even though it goes against everything I just said, by all means, submit it. Rules are meant to be broken and rewritten, and the best scripts usually accomplish this on some level.  But the above guide is based on reading thousands of scripts that have made the same mistakes over and over again. So, at the very least, keep it in the back of your mind.

Tomorrow, the competition begins. I can’t wait. Good luck!

  • Adam W. Parker

    MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAT!! Can’t wait to see this unfold and maybe participate. Great advice.

  • Matthew Bishop

    Looking forward to it.

  • Fish Tank Festival

    “That’s because unlike other contests that just give the winning writer money or pass his script to other people, the winning script here will be optioned by a producer with the ultimate intention of being turned into a film.” — That’s a bold statement. And wasn’t this already accomplished with the most recent impressive script, WARS OF THE ETERNAL SPRING?

    • klmn

      It happened with The Disciple Program but I haven’t heard any news about WOTES.

  • kenglo


    Neo looks down at the street twenty floor below, then at Morpheus an impossible fifty feet away.

    Okie dokie. Free my mind. Right.
    No problem.

    Let’s do it, what have we got to lose?

  • MichaelAQ

    If we submit for the contest, should we still try and send in our scripts for AOW?

    • hickeyyy

      A very good question. Does submitting to AOW to get feedback on the script disqualify it from the contest?

      • Bob Bradley

        AOW can only improve your chances of winning. Submit, rewrite, submit.

      • klmn

        I don’t know. Would Carson read the same script twice? Even in an improved version.

  • drifting in space

    That’s a bingo.

  • Linkthis83

    I’m going to apologize in advance for winning. I just don’t see how I can’t with some of the scripts I could enter:

    American Booty
    The Hat Tricks
    The Bangover
    Bad Bill Bunting
    The Differentiator
    Plains of Today
    Wool War: Sheep
    Skypig Knight
    The Maize Shucker
    Pyros of the Mediterranean
    Drift With
    My Left Groot
    How Larry Killed Wally
    Screenplay Silhouette
    50 Grades of Ray

    • romer6

      If “50 Grades of Ray” is about Ray Liotta´s life, I´m sold. We´ve got a winner here, people, turn around.

      • Jonathan Soens

        You could also go Ray Rice. Really cuts down the budget if it’s limited to an elevator.

    • drifting in space

      How Harry Killed Sally would actually be a pretty amazing idea.

      • Jonathan Soens

        As long as it’s the same cast as the original, I would pay money to see this in a theater.

    • klmn

      I’m hard at work on my Dragon loves Santa Claus script.

  • mulesandmud

    On the subject of outlines: let’s bear in mind that outlining doesn’t have to be a yes or no question. The word spans a wide range of story prep.

    There’s the incredibly short beat sheet/step outline version, which can be as simple as a list of major scenes or plot points.

    There’s a synopsis-type outline, which attempts to briefly summarize the entire story while introducing key characters and major dramatic elements.

    There’s a pitching outline, which focuses more on outward presentation than internal planning. It attempts to communicate the overall tone and style of the project, often including visual references and verbal components.

    There’s the full treatment outline, which walks through every scene of the story in as much detail as possible, potentially including character profiles, world-building context, thematic progressions, research, and anything else relevant to story development.

    Plus, there’s everything in between. Outlines are a spectrum, and just about everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum.

    The important thing is to make sure you’re not avoiding outlines because you don’t want to do the work. If you get to a part of the writing process that feels harder than the rest, then chances are it’s something that needs doing. Do the work. Do it.

    Also, if you hope to make a career from writing, you’ll be expected to deliver quality outlines of all kinds. Sometimes that document will decide whether or not you get the gig.

    For the last two years or so, I’ve switched to a process that builds gradually from short outline to full script, and spends most of its time as awkward scriptment that is neither fish nor fowl. This gives me the freedom to plug any notes or ideas I have directly into the sequence or scene they refer to, even if I haven’t written that part yet.

    Lining up your thoughts in the right order lets you see how much work you’ve already done: my initial document usually ends up around ten pages. Then I just keep adding; I plug in a scene heading if I know where it happens, drop in some dialogue if it occurs to me, weed out useful description lines from the blocks of prose I started with, etc.

    Before I know it, the file is huge, and has become more script than outline. This has been great for helping me tear down the psychological barrier that tends to crop up between the idea phase and the actual script.

  • mulesandmud

    One quick SS250 thought:

    If there’s a specific producer waiting in the wings to option the winner, then I hope that person will have a lot of input into the selection process. Producers, like writers and directors, often specialize in certain types of material, possibly focusing on specific genres or working within certain budget ranges.

    If the winning script is too far outside a producer’s comfort zone, it’ll seriously hamper her or his ability to get the project off the ground. Better to know up front that it’s a good fit.

    Best of luck to everyone entering.

    • brittany

      Exactly what I was thinking. The producer who loves the sci-fi-thriller is not going to be so enthused about the quirky indies… Sort of makes me wonder if he’s already got a producer on board (and, if so, it is a good idea for them to be a part of the vetting process, for sure) OR if he’s going to reach out after the contest is won and try to find a producer then. I guess we’ll find out more as time goes on. Nevertheless, good luck to everyone!

      • kenglo

        I wouldn’t make the promise of ‘if you win, I’ll get it produced’ unless I had someone in my hip pocket to get it produced. Just sayin’….

        • Eric

          “the winning script here will be optioned by a producer with the ultimate intention of being turned into a film.”

          If you look closely, that statement has quite a lot of wiggle room. On the other hand entry is free, so who are we to complain.

          • kenglo

            Reminds me of “Project Greenlight”

    • drifting in space

      Just write the best script you can and go from there.

      • MGE3

        Any chance we’re missing the obvious and Carson is the producer? The script that wins the competition would be the best fit for him.

        • klmn

          In that case think low budget.

  • kenglo

    Wow, just thinking…probably be competing against PROS too…..or will it be limited to people who have not had a screenplay ‘sale’?

  • klmn

    OT. Bruce Jenner has only been a woman for a couple weeks and he’s already forgotten how to drive.

  • E.C. Henry

    O, how I hate it whenever you bring up the “American Beauty” comparison. You so know how to get under my skin! Don’t you remember when you posed that whole “gautlet challenge” thing? To which I actually responded REQUESTING a gautlet challenge, the script which I penned, which is entittled, “A Heart Built on the Sand” vs. Allan Ball’s “American Beauty.”

    STILL waiting for you do THAT gautlet challenge, which I think would be fun exercise for everyone. Knowing EXACTLY the nature of some people here lends naturally to my next point…

    “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But I’m just gunna shake, shake, shake, shake. Shake it off. Shake it off–to getting that gautlet challenge that I SHOULD have gotten a long time ago”

    Sorry, kinda going through a Taylor Swift phase right now. She’s wonderful at eveything she does. Thank God she set county music asside and tried her hand at pop muisc, my ipod thanks her.

  • Pooh Bear

    It seems Carson probably wants to produce. This is an interesting point in SS history. Start a blog, give tips, shepherd a group of unknown screenwriters as they work on their craft for 4 or 5 years. Work on connections in the business. Then strike. There’s bound to be one unknown out there with a great story.

    Carson already has a vetting process in place. But unlike AOW, he’ll read the ones that strike his fancy himself. There’s bound to be a gold nugget in the thousands of submissions that will be filtered down to 250 read screenplays. And he doesn’t have to read them all cover to cover either.

    I’m thinking original, contained, great characters, low budget, manageable cast and set present day will be the perfect combination. Shoot for a high ROI.

    Also, great concept, okay execution is probably the better side to error on. Under Carson’s keen eye, he can probably develop the idea even further, or toss it out to the SS community to tear it down and rebuild it up.

    A great story may attract the talent, you may get it in the can. Then the real work begins. I hope he’s aligned with someone or some entity that knows distribution. The festival route doesn’t count.

    To quote Jaws: “I don’t know Chief. He’s very smart or very dumb.”

    This can be very epic or a complete waste of time. Good luck everyone, including Carson.

  • Eddie Panta

    What no cash money dollars? No swag? No lifetime supply of hemorrhoid cream?
    No lunch at the IVY with Carson…?

    Count me in anyway.

    • Eddie Panta

      FIRST PRIZE: A movie deal
      SECOND PRIZE: A set of steak knives.

      • Dan B

        The rest of the writers are fired. In this case executed.

        • walker

          Execution is the most important part of screenwriting.

        • Eddie Panta

          Where did you learn your craft? Your trade? What makes you think you could compete with men.

          • Montana Gillis

            Coffee is for closers…

      • Mhocommenter

        … and COFFEE is for closers!

        • Eddie Panta

          I don’t have to sit here and listen to this.

          • kenglo


          • BigDeskPictures

            You see this watch…? You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car.

          • Eddie Panta

            A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention – Do I have
            you attention? Interest – Are you interested? I know you are, because
            it’s write or walk.

    • klmn

      If you’re lucky you’ll get a double-double.

  • Ninjaneer

    He said it would be optioned so looks like whatever the agreed optioned price is would be the winners payout.

  • Mhocommenter

    Contest opens Feb 20th Friday… when’s the deadline to enter?

  • klmn

    If David Carradine can star in Kung Fu why can’t Jenny do the same? And she wouldn’t need yellow face, just some eye makeup.

    Wait, Johnny Depp is the one who likes eye makeup. There’s your casting right there – Johnny Depp is Wing Chun!

  • Randy Williams

    If “Breaking The Chain” doesn’t win, will someone throw a fit?

  • fragglewriter

    This article gives me hope Carson that I have somewhat of a chance of my script being considered a read.

  • klmn


    • gonzorama


  • Malibo Jackk

    Do you have change for a five?

  • Nicholas J

    Eating a bowl of soup, why?

  • Nicholas J

    Funny the article mentioned Last Man on Earth. That and Kimmy are definitely the two comedies I’m most excited about seeing. I think both have the potential to be great and something unique, but both can also be screwed up very easily. It’ll be interesting to see how they do.

    No surprise Kimmy went to Netflix. NBC has no idea what they are doing, seemingly aiming for a more CBS brand of comedy, rather than sticking to more unique shows like their past hits 30 Rock and The Office. Once Parks and Rec is over, NBC is going to be a comedy wasteland.