Some final deadlines are looming for the more prominent screenplay competitions and I can already see that some of the pet peeves I’ve listed in the past continue to persist.
While the likes of NIGHTCRAWLER by Dan Gilroy can get made well and never adhere to a ‘traditional’ screenplay structure. Fact is, if you are entering a competition breaking from tradition will not bode well for your entry. Become a winner and sought after writer first, then do whatever you want.
Competition readers read quickly and get into a cadence during the process so while some pet peeves feel nitpicky, there are some things that easily break that rhythm of the reader and any break gives an opportunity to fall out of love with the script.
EVERY competition uses some variation of key elements to score the entry and while they may be categorized differently the score and evaluation is based on:
Structure, writer’s voice
Concept, premise, marketability
It’s fair to say the average rating among thousands of entries, is pretty good, just not great (so if you are grading on 1-10, most come in between 6-7) you need a 9 or 10 across the board to win.
#1 issue is a great concept — poorly executed.
Followed closely by, the writer has spent the best part of his or her effort in the first 10-20 pages only to put me to sleep 10 pages later. I have a post it on my desk (hundreds actually) but one reads — whammo every 10 pages and another is 5 (20 page) cliffhangers
90% of scripts have a good concept, one which scores above average, but the execution of the concept is almost always lower in score than the idea. Live up to the promise of your premise.
Aside from concept, what are my pet peeves may not be the same with every reader. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they were for the more seasoned readers – especially those that are not the first pass readers.
- Spacing between scenes. PLEASE double it. Final draft does this automatically, so if I see a script without it I know right away that they used another software. Not that that’s a script killer but it raises a flag. The reason for the double spacing goes back to when the script goes into production and is broken up into 1/8 pages but for a reader the reason is simply that it gives the eyes a break and the brain a visual cue that a new scene is here. Which leads to:
- Cut to: between scenes (or any other transitions other than a smash cut) are not needed and eat up valuable real estate. When a new scene starts we know there was a cut.
- Introducing a lot of characters in one action block on the first page. Unless this is an ensemble from a collective point of view, give each character their own dedicated space and have them doing something that supports their personality, write actor bait not a laundry list of who is on set.
- Parentheticals that should be action lines. First, parentheticals should not be used unless absolutely needed (where a tone may not be understood or who is being addressed) but I cannot tell you how many writers include entire action blocks in parentheses). Also on this note, they should be broken onto a separate line; not embedded in the same lines as the dialogue. Again, Final Draft does this automatically apparently other software does not.
- Giving us a character’s entire (un filmmable) backstory in their introduction. Very often a writer will go into lengthy descriptions, of relations, jobs, friends and feelings without giving the character any action or dialogue to portray this. A little is okay, to establish tone and voice but more often than not it does neither of these two.
- If you feel the need to direct (don’t) direct the audience/readers’ eye with how you write, not camera angles. Here’s a crude example:
A Knobby hand, cracked with calluses, turns a doorknob.
EXTREME CU of a knobby hand on a doorknob, we’re so close we can see years of calluses!!
The first line does the job on a mundane detail and keeps us in the story. As an aside, please forget that exclamation points ever existed the words that portray character peril should suffice.
- Sluglines should go from the small to the big (establishing)
EXT. CENTRAL PARK, NYC – NIGHT
Establishing shots need descriptions, not this:
INT. LIVING ROOM is a cheat — if you are establishing something then by all means, do so with some description. Even if it’s street lamps flicker, or a dog sleeps on the porch. give us something to ground us in that establishing shot.
- EXCESSIVE WORDS: For instance — If someone peels themselves off the floor with a hangover. There is no need to write: he peels himself off the floor with a hangover from drinking too much the night before. (is there another way to get a hangover?)
So, strive to make every aspect of your script worthy of 10, there’s no reason to get anything lower than that for formatting or structure, these are things that are in your control – while the premise may not be for everyone, you can’t dispute spelling, spacing, margins, fonts, etc. GOOD LUCK!