Alright, so the top 25 scripts in the Scriptshadow 250 Contest have been announced. And while I’m sure many of you are happy for the finalists, let’s be honest. You want to know why the hell your script didn’t make the list. I’ve already seen people complaining about the loglines. “This is it??” they’re saying, forgetting that we’re not running a contest for best logline here. If we were, yesterday’s list would be a lot different. We’re looking for the best scripts. And because of that, a lot of the best loglines fell by the wayside. Believe me, I was pulling for them. The holy grail is the great concept WITH the great execution. But those scripts are like unicorns, appearing once or twice a year.
But let’s get back to that question: Why didn’t I make it? In some cases, the answer was specific to the script. I had one script that didn’t advance because the character naming was so ridiculous, it became impossible to take the script seriously. Imagine someone named Clarkwardenfall. IN A DRAMA. Then multiply that by 20 characters. But for most of the misses, there were patterns. The same issues kept coming up. Maybe by highlighting these issues, I can help you do better in your next contest.
1) LACK OF CREATIVITY – By far, the biggest issue was a lack of creativity in the storytelling. Everyone’s writing the same scenes, the same characters, the same plot beats. Nothing fresh or creative or unexpected or unique is happening on any level. I was a million pages ahead of writers on so many of these scripts. This is why the industry values “voice” so much, since voice is the antithesis of this. Writers with voice are constantly making unexpected choices that are keeping the reader on their toes. But you don’t need to be blessed with a unique voice to thrive in this area. Creative choices can be learned. You have to a) be more aware of how original your choices are and b) hold yourself to a higher standard once you recognize low-quality choices (by digging in and coming up with something better). Be brave. Do a few things that surprise even you when you tell a story.
2) TOO MUCH CREATIVITY – There’s a type of writer who writes in the opposite manner to what I just described. They don’t see behind or in front of them, but focus only on the present, writing their stories “off-the-cuff.” Because of this, their screenplays keep the reader guessing (unlike the uncreative folks). But since the writer possesses no plan, their choices usually lead you down paths to nowhere. These writers need to learn how a story is structured (beginning, middle, and end) and they need to spend more time outlining, so that their choices contain a plan behind them. As soon as I realize you don’t have a plan or as soon as things get too scattered or unfocused, I’m out.
3) LACK OF SOPHISTICATION – In a good 20 of the scripts I read, writers tackled subject matter that was well beyond their level of sophistication. For example, a writer might have written about a tragic World War 1 story, yet the writing was simplistic, lacked detail, and didn’t possess the proper mood or tone to capture the period. If you’re going to tackle weightier subject matter, make sure you possess the writing skills to do so. If you want to get better in this area, read strong literary material, carry a curiosity for vocabulary and grammar, and practice your ass off.
4) SECOND ACT BLUES – There are still too many writers who don’t have a clue of what to do once they reach the second act. One of the scripts I read was cruising through its first act. I was like, “This might make the top 5!” And then the writer spent the first 25 pages of his second act giving us extensive background on his 12 main characters. The screenplay lost all its momentum and never recovered. The second act should be doing three things. 1) Every scene should be moving your hero closer to his goal. 2) The second act should be exploring the major lines of conflict between your key characters, and 3) The second act should be placing obstacles in front of your characters so that they have things to overcome in order to achieve their goal. The second act is the act of “conflict,” so every scene should contain conflict on some level. Even if it’s just two people in a room, there needs to be something unresolved there, something that starts off negative and poses a problem that must be solved, for one or both of the characters.
5) ROSES ARE RED, PROSES ARE DEAD – I read three scripts from writers who may have made the top 25 if they didn’t grind their scripts to a standstill with walls of text. And guys, just because you divide 50 lines of description into 3 and 4 line paragraph chunks? THAT’S STILL A WALL OF TEXT. I’ve found that these writers fall into two categories. The first is the “need to impress” category. These writers tend to be young and believe it’s their job to impress you with their word-skills. The second is the “show-off” category. These are writers who are genuinely talented writers and want to show that off, but don’t realize their scripts aren’t being read in a breakfast nook with a blanket and a hot coffee, like novels are. Screenplays are meant to be read quickly, in a high-pressure industry where people are constantly asking for the new hot thing. So fair or not, it feels like WORK if we’re reading a lot of words to describe simple things. Once your script starts feeling like work ON ANY LEVEL, you’re done.
6) LACK OF NUANCE – There were a lot of scripts where writers weren’t nuanced in their writing. So a character would be really angry one second, then really nice the next, with no insight into why their mood changed so suddenly. Or a character would wake up in the middle of the night, walk outside, and all of a sudden be fighting a bunch of bad guys. How did we get here? Where did these bad guys come from? How did this character even know to wake up and check outside in the first place? There was a TON of this, and I call it “In Your Head Writing.” “In Your Head Writing” is when you’re thinking about what makes sense TO YOU (in your head) and not someone who will be reading this for the first time. To you, you may have thought, “My angry character is done being angry, he’ll be nice now,” so you make him nice. But you never shared with us (the people outside of your head) why that transition took place. If you’re being told that your writing is confusing a lot, step outside of your head and see if your writing makes sense from a third-person’s perspective.
But the biggest thing, guys, is to keep practicing. As hard as this is to hear, you may not be ready yet. I know that sucks but you may need to work more on structure or character development or dialogue. All that stuff takes time to grasp. So keep writing, keep reading (scripts), and keep studying. I’d even add “get more feedback” to that list. How can you know if you’re writing “in your head” if you don’t have a third party giving you feedback? Now get back on the horse and write something great.