by Tim Schildberger (@LiveReadLA)
We are in Competition Deadline Season! Many of the biggest screenwriting competitions have their final deadlines in the next few days and weeks — the Nicholls final deadline is May 1, and the Austin final deadline is May 15 — so now’s the time to polish that script you’ve been toiling over and roll the dice.
But before you do, here are six common ways writers hurt themselves when presenting their scripts to overwhelmed readers who, in reality, are looking for any reason NOT to read your entire script. These script problems are all things that can be addressed with some chopping, so hopefully you’ll have enough time to make these quick fixes before your next looming entry deadline.
The six common (but very fixable) script mistakes to avoid when submitting to screenwriting contests are…
1. Too Much Scene Description
When a reader opens a new script and is confronted with over half a page of scene description… on page one… he/she groans audibly. A giant block of words means a bunch of information to be absorbed quickly. Which sucks. If your script has a giant slab of set up right at the top, either take out the chainsaw, insert some dialogue, or understand you’ve just made your reader’s life harder, which is annoying. Don’t annoy your readers.
If your scene description mentions the mental state of a character in more than one word (“angry” is plenty), you’re in trouble. It’s great that you know a lot of words and are able to describe things in glorious prose. When you write your novel, it’ll come in very handy. For a screenplay – LESS IS MORE. Sure, some books encourage you to insert a little personality in your action lines – and that’s fine – to a point.
Think brevity at all times, but especially at the beginning, or you’ll annoy your reader. And you really don’t want to do that.
2. Too Many Characters
The more people you throw into your script, the more you risk confusing your reader. You don’t want to confuse your reader. Too many characters make it harder to give each one a unique voice, which risks even greater confusion. If I find myself flipping back in a script to try and remember who “Kevin” is, your script is on life support when it comes to making the next round. Look at your script, and ask yourself who is CRUCIAL to the story you want to tell.
Anyone who doesn’t meet that standard – remove or diminish.
3. Pointless Dialogue
If you waste a line of dialogue on a waiter saying “Here are your menus,” take it out now.
“I said no.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yes.” “You can’t be serious.” “I am.”
Keep things moving wherever possible. Please.
4. Delayed Plot
This one is very common, and entirely understandable. Many writers craft a nifty logline, and by page 30 they are nowhere near it – lost in set ups, character descriptions, and fear.
I get it. Some writers have a subconscious fear that if they get to the plot too quickly, the reader will lose interest, and the script will fail. As a result, many of us drag everything out endlessly, and by the time we get to the actual plot, guess what… the script has failed.
Don’t be afraid to jump in. The quicker the better. Trust your central idea is interesting, appealing, and captivating. Delay is death.
5. Too Many Pages
The brevity thing applies to total pages, too. Remember, a reader in a big comp (with 7,000+ entries) is probably being paid per script. So it’s not in their best interest to embrace 130 page screenplays. First time, unknown writers VERY RARELY attract attention with a gigantic script. 120+ pages tells a reader before they’ve read a word that there is an excellent chance you’re not great at self editing. You’ve probably delivered something bloated and overwritten. You’re already less likely to win, and all the reader has done is look at the page count.
Competition scripts should aim to be no more than 100 pages. Make the reader’s life as easy as you can. Screenplays are exercises in discipline. It sucks… but it’s the format you’ve chosen. Every page matters.
6 Directing on the Page
If you’re telling the reader about tracking shots, close ups, crane lifts over a cityscape, etc. etc. – stop it. That’s the director’s job. Focus on doing your specific job – telling the reader a compelling story well enough that they can visualize it in their head. They don’t need to see the specific movie you see, they just need to see your story. Let them use their imagination.
Directing in the script reveals a lack of experience and a degree of insecurity. You don’t need to let a reader think you don’t trust your story to speak for itself. Your job is important. Trust your story, your skills, and write the best darn story you can.
Try to make your overworked reader’s life easier to give your script the best chance to make it into the next round.
And finally, if you can’t quite get your latest script ready in time for Nicholls and Austin (and even if you can), check out the new Write/LA screenwriting competition from LA Screenwriter and LiveRead/LA. The early deadline is this Sunday, April 30.
Tim Schildberger is a produced writer, script coach, and the series director of LiveRead/LA. Every six weeks, LiveRead/LA offers a series of screenwriting competitions and live read events, each featuring a different Industry Insider. LiveRead/LA also holds writing workshops in LA led by Tim. Learn more at LiveRead/LA.