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Writing the Prize-Winning Script
by Laura Brennan

Return to Screenwriting & Scriptwriting · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Script competitions are mushrooming in terms of sheer number, prizes offered, and (unfortunately) entry fees charged. So how can you make sure they're worth the time, money and emotional investment?

First, of course, have a prize-winning script to enter. There are no shortcuts here: write and rewrite, have other writers read your work and give you feedback, proofread and polish until it shines. Beyond that, my years of entering and judging writing competitions have shown me there are certain rules the top scripts all follow:

Write a story with heart

Prize-winning scripts have something to say about our world and our lives. This doesn't mean you can't write, say, a thriller about a cop whose partner is murdered. It just means that within this well-worn formula, you need to find an underlying theme worth exploring. Guilt, redemption, racism, good vs. evil, the transformation of a corrupt cop into a good man (or woman)... Any of these will lift an ordinary plot into an above-ordinary experience.

The same is true if you're writing a TV script. Many competitions now welcome television spec scripts, but you need to pick your series carefully. Ideally, choose something critically acclaimed and well-watched (NYPD Blue, Everybody Loves Raymond, almost anything on HBO). Within their structure, there should be room for poignancy, even in a sitcom. The stories that stand out present difficult, intensely human moments where characters are forced to reveal -- and sometimes transcend -- their own limitations.

Create rich, complex relationships

Plot may be the skeleton of your story, but great characters are the spark of life. Your main character will grow and change not just because of events, but also in response to other characters. Relationships engage us; we live and love vicariously.

In television, you're not allowed to permanently change basic dynamics between recurring characters, but you can tweak them. Creating a bond, however temporary, between two characters who normally don't get along can make your script memorable long after the judge has reached "The End."

Knock 'em dead in the first ten pages

Open with a bang. In television, the first scene is often known as the Teaser, and whether you're writing for the big screen or the small, that's what the first few pages must do: tease the reader with just enough information to capture their interest, and enough surprises to keep them turning the pages. The classic example is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even the delayed shot of Indiana Jones' face is part of a strategy of suspense and surprise that signals an extraordinary movie experience.

Make the ending memorable

If you've gotten them to read 120 pages (industry max), you want to make sure they leave with an indelible image in their minds. You don't need the hero and heroine to ride off into the sunset, but you shouldn't have them trampled underneath horses' hooves either. You want an ending that surprises, yet at the same time fulfills the promise -- the soul -- of the movie. "Thelma and Louise" is a great example: not a happy ending, yet a victorious one all the same. And utterly unforgettable.

Be outrageous

Be inventive. Take some risks. Be bold with character, plot, and execution. Tell your story in the most interesting manner possible. You don't have to go as far as "Memento" or "Pulp Fiction," but the tried-and-true is only a step removed from the truly boring. Ideally, you want how you tell your story to reflect what your story actually is. Something set in the music world can use music and lyrics to great effect; a thriller with a ticking clock could play with time in an unexpected way. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Do your homework

Check out the contest before you send them your check. A great website is http://www.moviebytes.com -- full of information about competitions and even feedback from past entrants. Also, decide what you want from the contest: to win, of course, but beyond that, do you want a contest that gives you written feedback? Cash prizes? Industry reads? A fellowship where you have to move to Los Angeles or New York? If the prize isn't something you want, don't enter.

Make the most of your win

Be prepared to toot your own horn once a win comes your way. Have a list of agents you'd like to work with and producers who might want to buy your script. Put your win (or top-ten finish) prominently in your query letter, or follow up a query with a postcard announcing your latest achievement. On the phone, the first thing you want to do is establish your credibility, so be prepared to list the contests where you did well (winner, finalist, or semi-finalist), in order of prestige (national beats out local).

If your prize is an industry read, touch base with the reader to make sure they have a clean copy (you can always say you've done a polish since the contest and would like to send them the latest draft), and then follow up about six weeks later to see if they've had a chance to read it. This is a terrific opportunity to get feedback from someone in the trenches. Never take a "no" personally; instead, ask them if they could let you know why they passed on the project, any advice they might have for you, and what other types of scripts they're looking for. The entertainment industry is built on relationships; if you can get an open-door invitation from a judge or reader to come back with your next script, that's a prize that can pay off for years to come.

Find Out More...

21 Ways to Better Your Chances of Winning Screenplay Contests, by Elizabeth English

Writing-World.com: Tips on Winning Writing Contests

Copyright © 2001 Laura Brennan
This article is not available for reprint.

Laura Brennan has written for a number of television shows, including The Invisible Man for the Sci-Fi Channel. She also co-created the children's series, Queen Augusta's Heroes.


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