It’s a well-known fact that success in festivals and contests can have a huge, undeniable influence on a screenwriter’s career. From simple networking to development deals, these opportunities offer writers huge chances to change the course of their life’s direction. Unfortunately, those chances are fleeting and it’s inevitable that a large number of writers will miss out. Such is the nature of life.
But chances can be increased by writing a perfect, or more realistically, a pretty good screenplay. Many, or all, of the tips listed here will be common sense to many screenwriters. However, that kind of attitude can lead to complacency. By not thinking about these things, you risk another rejection. The margin for error in a contest or festival is very, very slim. The tiniest elements will be critiqued and picked apart to determine who is successful and not. So here is a compiled list of 10 simple and productive ways to increase your chances of success.
1. Don’t Make Mistakes
Number one in the list of ‘common sense’ tips. Screenplays riddled with errors are simply doomed to fail. Why should a reader bother to get through 100 pages if you’re not taking the time to double-check that it makes grammatical sense? Get a proofreader; or preferably several. Every draft should be checked and quadruple-checked for grammatical and spelling errors, as well as plot holes and character inconsistencies. Your voice is a necessary component, but your voice should be easy to read and not lacking in basic literacy.
2. Reasonable Page Count
This, again, is a common screenwriting tip. Your screenplay has no need to be longer than 110 pages, if that. Most festivals will have rules built in to prevent the entry of screenplays longer than a certain length, but it’s always good to remember that readers want to get through the screenplay as quickly as possible. They have a lot of screenplays to read! And a 166 page epic is not going to achieve that goal. If anything, it will put them off. I’ve heard that professional readers tend to move those ‘epic’ scripts to a priority pile known as ‘trash’.
3. Use the Right Formatting
Again, we’re still in the region of things you should just ‘know’ as a screenwriter. And I have no doubt you know these things, and continue to follow them. However, I’ve worked with a number of writers that still seem to deviate from the standard screenwriting formatting and expect to get the movie made. That won’t happen. And it will make you public enemy number one at a festival or contest. Elaborating on a point from the last paragraph: these readers don’t care about you or your history. They don’t care if you’re a maverick or a genius. They’re giving up their time to read your script. If they see that you’re not respecting them enough to follow the rules, they’ll immediately deem you an unacceptable entry.
4. Write Visually
Wordy, verbal screenplays don’t tend to play particularly well at screenplay festivals. I’m not sure why, but I’d guess it’s because the readers are people well-versed in the legacy of cinema. They know, as the writer should, that words don’t sell people on movies like images do. Sure, movies have iconic lines. But I’d bet more people could place a movie from a random image than a line of random dialogue. So should your screenplay. Writing visually is a huge plus for a writer, as it shows they understand how movies (and particularly marketing movies) work, with regards to an audience.
5. Limit Exposition
Exposition should be kept to the bare minimum. No backstory unless it is absolutely necessary. Characters should not exist to spout exposition. All of that is, again, Screenwriting 101. However, the excellent writer knows that any needed exposition should be concealed in a satisfying, smart way. And the really, really excellent writer knows that screenplays overwhelmed with exposition will not get far in any contest or festival. Unless, of course, it’s some kind of contest asking for entirely expositional screenplays. In which case, you’re probably making a documentary.
6. Don’t Overwhelm the Page
No big blocks of text! I cannot stress this enough. I hate it, you hate it, everyone hates big, ugly six line blocks of text in a screenplay. It’s so unnecessary, not to mention overwhelming. The same goes for endless pages of dialogue. Sorkin can get away with it, Tarantino can get away with it, Amy Sherman-Palladino can get away with it. You can’t. Why? Unfortunately, there’s no other explanation other than they have the power to do so. For readers at festivals, overwhelming the page with black is a recipe for boredom. It tires the eye, particularly if what’s going on is not so interesting.
7. Mine Your Concept
In a contest, your concept is the most important thing. It’s the first thing the reader will be aware of before they even open the screenplay, and it’s the thing that should be propelling every scene. But the danger, especially with comedy or horror, is that the writer fails to mine the concept and turns a good idea into a one-note nightmare. Every worthwhile concept is inherently filled with potential for subversions, variants, reversals, twists. You need to be mining that concept for all its worth. Milk it. Producers want writers that know how to squeeze every bit of life out of their ideas.
8. Know What You’re Saying
Confusion leads to disaster. That’s the idea behind this tip, and it’s a sign that I know what I’m talking about. So should you. You should never write a screenplay without knowing what it’s ‘about’ and how it’s ‘about’ it. But in this setting, especially so. Festivals and contests, by and large, prioritise screenplays that have something to say. Fun, loud blockbusters don’t play so well, since they’re mostly about aesthetic. But a screenplay with a strong theme, interesting characters and perhaps a commentary on society will be welcomed with open arms.
9. Don’t Rush!
Never, under any circumstances, rush to get your screenplay completed quickly to meet the deadline. When you rush, you fall into every single danger I have listed above. I’ve done this myself, and have sworn to myself that I will not allow others to repeat my mistake. When you rush, you’re not giving yourself the room to breathe. Because there’s no time to be constantly checking what you’re doing and why, you half-heartedly ruin your own work due to laziness and, typically, poor time-management. If you miss a deadline, you miss a deadline. Keep working on it until you feel satisfied and then move on. It’s much better than handing in a glorified first draft.
10. Never Give Up
There will be times — many — where your script is not shortlisted, for whatever reason. It’s happened to every writer. Failure is a necessary part of art, and it’s of paramount importance that you don’t take that as a personal attack on your work or talent. In fact, it’s another opportunity to prove yourself. Every time you write a screenplay, you get better. When you read and analyze screenplays, you give yourself another advantage. Rejection is not a sign that you’re untalented. It’s an opportunity to try again. And every time you try again, you inch closer to achieving the goal Steve Martin once gave an aspiring comedian: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Common Sense or Understated Tips?
Like I said, this is screenwriting 101. Every screenwriter on the planet has heard all of the above. But when it comes to festivals or contests, you simply cannot afford to forget any of them. Your screenplay will never be perfect, for it doesn’t exist. But it can be pretty good. And a pretty good screenplay is much more likely to win than a passable one. Write these tips down, and keep them somewhere you have to see them daily. Schedule your time carefully, and use it productively. Do not make any mistakes, and don’t write anything that doesn’t mean something to you.
And, obviously, never give up. Consider yourself a member of the Goonies. Goonies never say die!