February 27, 2014

The Ecchh Factor

            Pop culture pun.  I don’t do puns, normally, but it works.  As you’ll see.
            This is mostly going to be for screenwriters.  Writers of prose—please don’t feel left out.  There’s a couple of things in here for you, too.
            Tis the season for screenplay contests.  A few of the big names have opened their mailboxes for submissions, and there’s a dozen more noteworthy ones past that.  It’s a great way to get your name out there and even win some decent money, too, if you plan accordingly.
            As some long-time readers know, I used to read for a couple of screenplay contests (four different ones, in fact).  I have several friends who read for some of the same ones, and some others, too.  This time of year used to be a time of great sadness for us.  And also a time of great drinking.  Usually for the same reasons.
            For an average contest, I’d probably read about a hundred scripts per year.  That means there were years I’d read over three hundred scripts, usually all in the space of three or four months.  It was a fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) overview of amateur screenwriting.  To be honest, it’s one of the big things that convinced me to start the ranty blog.
            It also gave me a real sense of certain patterns.   There were certain types of scripts that would show up again and again and again.  And it got to the point that I (and most of my friends) would let out a groan—an Ecchh, if you will—when we opened the next script and realized it was another one of those stories.  Usually we could tell within the first few pages.  In rare cases, the story would go along fine for twenty or thirty pages and the big first act revealwas… it’s just another one of those stories.
            I drank a lot during this period of my life.
            Now, I’m not saying any of these are automatically bad scripts that no one would ever pay a dime for.  We could probably check IMDb box office listings right now and find examples of more than half of them.  But contests aren’t about the box office, they’re about the submissions pool.  Unless it’s something truly, utterly spectacular, each of these all-too-common screenplays is going to get an automatic response from a contest reader.  An Ecchh.  And that means my script is already starting in the negative.  And even if the reader’s just subconsciously knocking off two or three points for being an Ecchh-inducing script, those points could mean the difference between making it to the next round or winning a contest.
            So, a few types of screenplays you should think twice about before submitting.   I’ve mentioned some of these before, so if they sound familiar… well, I thought it was worth repeating.
The 50% Script
            I’ve mentioned this idea here a few times.  In any pool of submitted material, around half of the submissions can be usually be disqualified by page three.  It’s when I submit my stoner sex comedy to a Christian values screenplay contest.  Or my romantic comedy to a horror contest.  Or my five-act play to… well, any screenwriting contest.  The same goes for short stories.  Very few screenplay contests want to see short stories.  Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.
            The 50% scripts are also the result of me being incompetent and/or lazy.  If I  don’t know how to spell, have only the faintest understanding of grammar, and no concept of story structure…  that’s a 50% script.  Or if I send in a first draft with all its flat characters and wooden dialogue.  Or if I don’t even bother to learn how to format a screenplay.  Or if I wrote my screenplay under the assumption I’d be directing it from this draft.
            If my script falls in that 50% group, the reader’s going to know very soon.  And they’re going to Ecchh because a lot of contests require them to read the whole script… even if they know it’s not going to win.  Most readers will toss a 50% script as soon as they can.  Sometimes sooner, if they think they can get away with it.
The Writer Script  
            I’ve said this a dozen or so times.  Do not write about writers.  I did the math one year as a reader and it turned out almost 15% of the scripts I read had a writer as one of the main characters (yeah, I started keeping track of this stuff).  When I was interviewing contest directors for Creative Screenwriting, one joked that if her contest banned scripts about writers they’d probably lose a quarter of their entries. More than a few professional editors have said they’ll toss a book manuscript if it opens with someone writing on their computer.
            No one cares about the day-to-day struggles I go through as a writer.  No one.  Most of you don’t—you’re here to learn about the successes.  Definitely not a bunch of script readers, many of whom are writers themselves.  If I’m being sincere, I’m going to bore everyone (more on that in a bit).  If I make up some idealized writing lifestyle, the readers will Ecchh over that because now I’m delving into fantasy.
            Let’s assume they didn’t toss my script aside as soon as they saw the writer character.  If they get to the end and said writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay and wins the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever… the reader will crumple my script into a ball and burn it so nobody else will have  to read the damned thing.  Then they will get my personal information from the contest director, hunt me down, and cram the ashes in my mouth.
            And I probably won’t advance in the contest.
The Current Events Script
            I’m going to go out on a limb here.  If we could look at the pool of Nicholl submissions for this year, I’d bet we’d see a fair number of Olympic scripts.  Several of them would be about stray dogs in Sochi.  Also a bunch of screenplays that tie somehow to health care laws.  A few on government gridlock, too.  And most of them were probably written in four weeks or less.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I saw a news report about some fascinating nuance of the world and realized it’d make a great script…it’s a safe bet at least a thousand other aspiring screenwriters saw the same news story and had the same idea.  Probably more with the way stories spread on the internet.  Even if only half of those writers do anything with the idea, and even if only ten percent of those people are sending their script to the same contest as me… that’s still fifty people rushing out scripts about the exact same thing I am.   Even if half of them are completely incompetent and the other half are just barely on par, it means the contest reader is going to be reading a dozen scripts just like mine.  Ecchh.  And that’s if we stick to a thousand as our base number.
            Mine may be the best in the batch, of course, but it’s going to lose a lot of appeal because now it’s a tired, overdone idea.  And none of us want to be thought of as the best take on a tired, overdone idea.
The Actor Script
            When people are trying to be positive about this one, they’ll call it “a character script.”  It means my screenplay is just a thin plot with a handful of over-detailed character sketches piled up in it.  There’s usually lots of deep and meaningful multi-page conversations about mundane things, often held in a few basic locations, and very little action.  Of any sort.
            The thing is though, is there anything remotely interesting about a story that’s indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead?  Is there anything impressive about me putting all that boring stuff down on paper? Is there any sort of challenge there, for me as a writer or you as a reader? 
            As it happens, this leads nicely into…
The True Script
            A kissing cousin of the character script is the true script.  On the cover or either the first or last page (sometimes several of these) I assure the reader this tale is based on true events involving me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article.   These true events are often stressed to give a certain validity to what the reader is about to take in.  After all, they can’t call my story or characters or dialogue unbelievable if it really happened, right?
            Thing is, no one cares if my story is true or not.  Nobody.  Ecchh.  They just care that it’s a good story and it’s well-told.  So my tale of prepubescent paraplegic drug addicts in 1990s Los Angeles needs to be as enjoyable—on some level—as a story about Neanderthal superheroes battling prehistoric lizard men in 1990s Los Angeles.  Whether or not one of them’s a true story is irrelevant.  In the end, I’m telling a story, and it’s either going to be good or it isn’t.  Reality doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for me.
The Formula Rom-Com   
            The man pursuing his dream girl realizes his best friend has been his real dream girl all along.  A woman’s engaged to a condescending, controlling executive and then meets a poor artist and discovers he’s the real love of her life.  Aphrodite/ Cupid/ an angel comes down to Earth on an assignment and falls in love.
            Do any of these sound familiar?  They should.  Pretty much every one of them has been made into a dozen movies and a few thousand screenplays.  Yeah, flipping the genders doesn’t make them any more original, sorry.  Once it’s clear on page three this is a rom-com… Ecchh.
            My romantic comedy has to be really spectacular and original to impress a reader.  Again, it’s that sheer numbers thing.  In four years of contest reading—a hundred romcoms, easy—I read one that stood out.  Just one.
The Holiday Script
            If you add in straight-to-DVD, movies of the week, and pretty much everything Shane Black‘s done, there’s a good argument to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling genres out there.  However, just because my script is very sellable does not mean my script is very good.  Or original.  And if my contest is looking for good (see above), well… 
            The trick is to come up with something a contest reader hasn’t already seen again and again, to the point that they go Ecchh as soon as they see the mention of Halloween decorations.  And—speaking from experience—they’ve seen most of it.  They’ve Santa Claus quit, get fired, and get replaced by a temp, an elf, Mrs. Clause, his evil twin, his evil other personality, a robot, an alien, another holiday figure, another supernatural figure, Jesus.  It’s all been done.  The Easter Bunny has learned the true meaning of Easter, Cupid has learned the true meaning of love (see above… again), and Gobbles the Turkey has learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving.  The hard way.  Many, many times and in many, many ways.
            There you are.  Seven very common types of scripts that will make a contest reader Ecchh.  Probably more like eight or nine if you read between the lines a bit.
            Again, I’m not saying I could never, ever win with one of these scripts.  But I am saying that if I’m going to go this path I absolutely must knock it out of the park.  No questions, no conditions, no exceptions.
            Speaking of movies, next week I’d like to talk about the lessons we can all learn from that fine classic film Satan Met A Lady and its slightly more well-known remake, The Maltese Falcon.
            Until then, go write.      
March 21, 2013 / 4 Comments

Vocabulary 101

            Yep, you’ve had some time off from my rantings.  Now it’s time to get back to basics.

            I keep coming back to spelling.  There’s a reason for that.  Talk to any editor, publisher, contest director, or producer and they’ll say the number one problem they see in writing is spelling and grammar.  No matter what the story is, lots of manuscripts get rejected because the raw number of mistakes make them look amateurish and unprofessional.  It’s not the only reason they get rejected, granted, but I’d put money down that it’s a major factor in most rejections.  There’s a reason I lump such things into the 50% rule.
            I can’t be a chef if I can’t distinguish between chicken and turkey.  If I can’t tell an alternator from a carburetor, my career as a mechanic is going to be very short-lived.  And if I want to succeed at this writing thing—not in a spiritual way or a making-Dad-proud way or an I’ll-show-my-ex way, but in a serious, financial, this isn’t just a hobby way—I need to know how to use words.  There’s no way around it.  None.
            So here are some words that get misspelled—or misused—a lot.  And the writer doesn’t know, because they don’t know how to spell.  They just use a spell checker, because they thing it will never, ever mace a mistake… even if they did.
            The list is going to be a bit shorter this time around.  One of my regular contest-reader sources cut back on his hours a bit, and I haven’t read as much as I wanted to the past few months.  But my regular rules still hold—pretty much all of these words come from major websites, screenplays, or manuscripts.  Two of them are from published books.  My definition is for the word they thought they were using.  So if you’ve got a good vocabulary, you’ll probably get a chuckle or three over these.
            Pick up your signaling devices and….
solid and soiled – you only want to step on one of these things
foul and fowl – one of these tastes like chicken
balaclava and baklava – only one of these should be on your head
grisly and gristly – one of these is a tough piece of meat
grizzly and grisly – one of these is a bear
bear and bare – one means to endure or tolerate
passed and past—one of these means you didn’t get the promotion
definitely and defiantly – one of these is absolutely correct
succeed and secede – one of these means your state ends up alone
succession and secession – one of these is the process of ending up alone
due and do – one of these you pay
capital and capitol – one of these is money in the bank
            Did you know all of them?   
            Bonus round.  Which of these words get applied to a horrific scene?  Which one’s a tasty dessert?  If I owe money, which two of these words will probably be on my next bill?
            As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s not enough just to know the words I’m asking about.  As a writer, I need to know all of them.  These are the tools of my trade, and I can’t be half-assed with them.  Knowing three ingredients in a recipe and winging it with the rest just doesn’t work.  If I’m going to call myself a chef, I’ve got to know them all.
            Because if I don’t know my words, my story starts to become muddled and unclear.  And I can’t be lazy and say “people will understand it from the context,” because using the wrong words changes the context.  If Phoebe decides togrin and bear it, it means she’s not going to let on how much the current situation is getting to her.  If she decides to grin and bare it, though, it means she just pulled her shirt open in a moment of naughtiness.  That changes the whole tone of the scene, and it could really change our view of Phoebe as a character.  So to speak.
            I need to learn to spell.  Me.  Not my spell-checker, not Dictionary.com.  Me.  The more I depend on someone else to do it for me, the weaker I am as a writer.  And if I’m a weak writer who’s decided to partner up with an idiot, well…
            Next time, I’d like to offer a quick tip I came up with while down at ConDor a few weeks ago.
            Until then, go write.
November 6, 2010 / 2 Comments

Why You Didn’t Win

This week’s rant is a bit screenwriter-centric, but it really applies to any sort of submission anywhere. The following words are going to be a bit harsh (even for me), so if you’ve got thin skin… well, next week I was going to talk about characters a bit. If you’re quick to offend, maybe you should just go check out John August’s blog for now and come back here next week.

So, last night I was at the Nicholl Fellowship dinner to see the five new folks get awarded their fellowships. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of you weren’t there. In fact, lets be honest… most of you reading this weren’t there. I’d even be willing to bet a few bucks none of you were there.

Granted, I’m betting not all of you entered the Nicholl this year, but I’m pretty sure a couple of you did. And you weren’t there last night, were you?

A shame really. The steak was fantastic. I mean, seriously, it was amazing. Three of the best meals I’ve ever had have been at Nicholl dinners.

But I digress…

First off, let’s get one thing straight. Nobody deserves to win a contest. Just because all your friends won doesn’t mean you get to as well. It’s never your turn, it’s never about time, and luck has very, very little to do with it. We’re not talking about statistics. A screenplay contest (or any writing submission) is not a lottery.

With that being said, the ugly truth is, most of you reading this don’t deserve to win a contest anyway. Especially not one as prestigious as the Nicholl. That’s all there is to it. You can argue all you like but that’s the way it is.

Let me explain.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say I’ve decided to hold a contest for horror screenplays. One grand prize, with four lesser prizes. Everyone who subscribes to the ranty blog enters, and let’s say some folks past that, too. By fortunate coincidence, I end up with 100 entries.

Let’s look at those 100 scripts (or short stories, or novels, or whatever it is sitting in a big pile in front of me).

Well, first off, there’s the 50% rule. Out of these 100 screenplays, odds are half of them are going to go right out the window. Figure some people submitted comedies or dramas that features zombies, but they figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Some of them probably didn’t even have a horror element–they were just straight romcoms or fantasy or sci-fi. I’ll probably recognize their genius and give them an award anyway, though, won’t I?

Plus a few of them will be short stories, not screenplays, and probably a few that are in stage play format, too. One or two will be novels that were very poorly converted into a screenplay template (I mean, it’s all essentially the same thing, right?).

And some will just be God-awful. No other way to say it. Twenty blatant typos on page one. Characters so flat they could slide under a door. Dialogue that makes it sound like English is everyone’s second (or third) language. A plot that sounds a lot like a five year old explaining where dinosaurs came from.

So right there, 50% gone from my horror screenplay contest with almost no effort on my part. Maybe as few as 40. Perhaps as many as 60. In my experience, though, 50% is a great rule of thumb.

The next level of cuts will be those scripts that just don’t measure up. They’ve got an interesting premise, maybe a very clever take on an old idea, but they just didn’t do enough with it. Maybe the writer didn’t work on the screenplay enough because they took the lottery mentality and tried to enter four or five scripts that all could’ve used another two or three drafts. Or maybe it was just one script and it really just needed one more polish.

True story. A few years back I entered a contest that kept their own message boards up so people could talk. One guy proudly stated on these boards that he’d entered over a dozen screenplays. He also directed people to his website, where he had loglines for the three dozen or so scripts he’d written in the past two or three years. When none of his scripts placed, it was all the proof he needed that this contest was obviously a scam.

(I came in third. Got a free copy of Final Draft and a nice certificate.)

If this is the first draft of your script, it’s not going to win a contest. A lot of you may argue that there’s always a chance, I shouldn’t be negative, you may be a truly gifted amateur, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. This is true. It’s also true, by every known law of physics, that random atoms in the air could come together in just the right way as to form an ounce of pure gold that drops right into your lap. True, and statistically possible, but the odds of it happening are so insanely, ridiculously low that you might as well say it’s impossible.

Please note, this doesn’t mean the script is bad or the writing is inherently flawed. It just means it isn’t polished enough. Despite what you may believe, there are actually tons of diamonds in the world. Literally, tons of them. They’re not all gem-quality, though, and not all of the ones that are get cut and polished correctly. That’s why engagement rings cost half a year’s pay.

So, that kills almost 2/3 of the scripts that are left. They’re good, but they aren’t great. Now we’re down to seventeen entries (rounding up, because I’m feeling generous).

Next is the rough one. It’s the human factor, and it pervades every single level of the judging process to a small degree. Readers are human beings doing a job. They have good days and bad days. They can get distracted or they can focus on the wrong thing. Think of your day job– are you 100% focused on it every minute you’re there? Or does your mind wander to your holiday shopping, your personal life, wondering about the cute temp’s personal life, wondering if your boss is that clueless or that brilliant…?

Well, readers do the same things. And, alas, they do it while reading your script.

There’s plusses and minuses to this. On the downside, your sci-fi romance screenplay might land on John’s desktop. John hates sci-fi and he just found out Phoebe’s dumping him for someone else. So today, well… today it might be a little tough for him to be impartial. You’re probably going to lose a point or three from him, and those points are crucial.

Or it might land on Wakko’s desk. Wakko loves sci-fi. Lives and breathes it. He’s got an Enterprise telephone and a TARDIS cell phone charm. Plus, he had his third date with Phoebe last night and… well, the third date went very, very well. So he’s thrilled to get your script and he’s almost definitely going to pass it on to the next level, even if maybe it doesn’t really deserve to make the cut..

Then again, it could go to Dot. She’s okay with some sci-fi, doesn’t mind it, but your script will get a fair shake with her. But little indy character dramas with no plot? Man, she loathes those things…

Maybe you’ll luck out. Maybe you won’t. Alas, statistically, the human factor is more likely to hurt than help. Y’see, Timmy, a good script that gets shot down stays shot down. A so-so script that doesn’t get shot down now most likely will get shot down later and then stay shot down. So if the human factor has a permanent effect, it’ll be a bad one.

At the most though, as I said, we’re only going to lose a few scripts to this. Let’s say three.

Now we’re down to fourteen out of the original hundred. See how quick they go away?

Last but not least…not everyone wins. When it comes down to it, contests have only so many slots for winners, and they can’t hand out prizes to every script that may deserve them. I’m giving away five prizes. That’s it. You can write a spectacular script and still come in second. Or even eighth.

That’s not just math, it’s life.

Keep in mind, while not winning is heartbreaking, it doesn’t have to be the end. Many contests offer feedback and judges’ comments on entries, so losing can still get you valuable information about how your script was perceived. You can use these responses to hone and polish your script even further, so the next time it goes out it will be stronger than ever.

It’s also worth noting that several producers, agents, and managers who keep track of contests look at the semi-finalists and finalists with just as much interest as the actual winners. James V. Simpson was a finalist for the 2006 Nicholl Fellowship. He didn’t get the fellowship, but his screenplay, Armored, still ended up selling for almost half a million dollars and got released earlier this year with a star-studded cast.

You will not win every contest, but–as special-snowflake as it sounds– you can try to make every one a positive experience.

Next time around, I want to talk about character. Because good characters rule.

Until then go write. And don’t get discouraged just because you didn’t win this time.

February 19, 2010 / 5 Comments

Scripts that Make Men Cry

No, we’re not talking about tender character moments.

Writers of prose, feel free to take this week off. Or follow along, if you like, and maybe glean a few things here or there.

Would-be screenwriters… let’s talk about that script you’ve been working on. It’s that time of year where a ton of screenwriting contests are beckoning, especially the heavyweights like PAGE and the Nicholl Fellowship.

My friend who blogs over at Live To Write Another Day reads for three or four contests a year, some of which you’ve probably heard of if you dabble in such things. She once told me that easily a quarter of the scripts she’d read for one contest made The Fly II look Oscar-worthy. It ties back to something I’ve mentioned once or thrice here in an off-the-cuff manner. I call it the 50% rule. I’ve got no hard numbers or research backing this up, just my own experience and the experiences of other script readers, editors, and contest directors I’ve spoken to over the years. The 50% rule goes like this…

In any pool of submitted material (contests, publications, etc), half of the submissions can pretty much be instantly disqualified. They’re the people submitting gothic romances to sci-fi anthologies or entering plays in screenwriting contests. They’re also, harsh but true, the incompetent people. The ones who don’t know how to spell, have only the faintest understanding of grammar, and no concept of story structure. The folks who sent in their first draft with all its flat characters and wooden dialogue. If my screenwriting contest gets 1000 entries, I’d bet real money 500 of them can be tossed into the big pile on the left in less than five minutes.

That’s the 50% rule.

Sound unfair? It isn’t. It’s brutally fair, to be honest. Wakko entered the contest to be judged and he was. He made the judgment very easy, in fact. Unless there were a lot of specific promises or assurances past that, he’s got nothing to complain about.

However… I’m going under the assumption you’re not part of that 50%. You’re one of the ones who actually has a chance at this. Not saying a great chance, not saying you’re going to succeed, but you’re good enough at this that you’re not getting discarded in less time then it takes to listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

That being said, there are still traps to fall into and mistakes to make. One of them is submitting a very, very common screenplay that covers well-explored material. I’ve mentioned some of these types of scripts before, so if they sound familiar… well, just try to keep in mind that I thought this was all worth repeating.

I also want to be clear of something else right up front. I’m not saying any of these are bad scripts in and of themselves. Many of them are awesome. I’m sure anyone who follows the ranty blog could easily name half-a-dozen films from the past decade that fit each category. I know I can. But we’re not talking about what’s in theaters–we’re talking about what’s being submitted to a contest. Your competition is not on screen, it’s in the submission pool. That’s a much harder group to stand out in.

So, a few types of scripts you should be a bit leery about submitting. Take a deep breath, and…

The Current Events Script

A friend of mine reading for a contest last year found that a noticeable percentage of the scripts dealt with Israel or Palestine. This was about four months after the brief-lived 2008 war on the Gaza Strip.

If Yakko saw some news report about some fascinating nuance of the world and realized it’d make a fascinating story…here’s the thing. It’s a safe bet at least a thousand other aspiring screenwriters saw the same new story and had the same idea. Even if only half of them do anything with it, and even if only ten percent of those people are sending their script to the same contest as Yakko… that’s still fifty people writing scripts about the exact same thing he is. Even if half of them are completely incompetent and the other half are just barely on par, it means the reader is going to be reading a dozen scripts just like Yakko’s. His script may be the best in the batch, but it’s going to lose a lot of luster because it’s just become a tired, overdone idea. It may be the best take on that tired, overdone idea, but is that really what any of us are aiming to be?

The Formula Rom-Com

The beautiful-but-totally-business-oriented, bitchy female executive who finds love with a middle-class Joe Everyman. The guy engaged to bridezilla who meets the real love of his life. The awkward, nerdy girl who needs to realize she’s the most beautiful girl around. The man chasing his dream girl only to realize his best friend has been his real dream girl all along.

Any of these sound familiar? They do after you’ve read nine or ten of them, believe me. Yeah, flipping the genders doesn’t make them any more original, sorry.

Does the script also have a scene where someone finally ignores their constantly-ringing cell phone in favor of quality time with that special someone? Maybe a prolonged, awkward scene where someone has to change clothes for some reason and ends up in their underwear/ robe/ a towel with that soon-to-be-special someone?

A rom-com has to be really spectacular and really original to impress a reader. In the past three years, I’ve read one that stood out. Just one.

The Game Script

Yes, it was the most amazing night of Dungeons & Dragons or Cities of M’Dhoria or Left 4 Dead in your entire life. That doesn’t mean it’d make a good movie. In fact, odds are it won’t (and I’m not even touching the copyright/ trademark issues). Most of the fairly successful game movies have one thing in common. No, it’s not the hot leading ladies. If you look at Resident Evil or Tomb Raider, they don’t follow the stories being told in their respective games. The screenwriters tossed them out and made up something new that just used a few story or character elements.

Y’see, Timmy, most games use a different type of storytelling, one that deliberate makes the audience (i.e. the player) part of the story. Odd as it sounds, it depends on the same problems that make first person so challenging to write. RP games of all types–both the computer and the pen-and-paper ones– want you to project into the story. They want you to fill in the details. This was a cool fight because it happened to Wakko, it was a clever puzzle because he solved it, and it was eerie and atmospheric as hell because he invested in a top-of-the-line surround sound system for his entertainment center. What happened in the story wasn’t cool–what Wakko experienced was.

However, if Wakko can’t get every one of these sensations perfectly on paper–and translate the experience to a believable third person character–it’s just going to be a lot of shooting while flat, uninteresting people run from A to B.

The Character Script

A popular thing in the indie field is the character script, also known in Hollywood (somewhat demeaningly) as “the actor script.” At its heart, it’s a tissue-paper-thin plot with a handful of character sketches thrown into it. Nine people wait for their connecting flight and strike up random conversations. Five people on a road trip have long talks about life. A group of women talk about relationships. A group of men talk about how their lives have gone in unexpected directions.

On one hand, it’s hard to argue against scripts like this. These really are the type of people you’d meet in an airport, and they really are the type of conversations and brief relationships that would spring up. On the flipside though, is there anything challenging–or interesting— about something that’s indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead?

This leads nicely into…

The Therapy Script

There’s an interesting sub-group of screenplays that seem to have sprung out of some psychology exercise or group coping session. Usually they involve someone telling off their mother. Or their father. Or their abusive boyfriend. Or their cheating husband. Many of these scripts involve female protagonists, but only enough so it’s worth mentioning. The overall feeling of them is you’re reading a story somebody wrote to help them work through some issues. The object wasn’t to tell a story, but to cleanse and purge or something like that.

The big problem with these scripts is there’s rarely anything to them beyond this big moment of therapeutic release. Everything leads up to that, and not much happens after it. That one moment is all the character development and conflict that happens in the script. So, when you boil it down, it’s just a story about someone throwing out their abusive spouse or learning to trust again or yelling at their shrewish mom. And nobody wants to read that. Not even Oprah. Definitely not a contest reader.

The True Script

Closely related to the therapy script is the true script. More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader this tale is based on real events involving me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer survival (or not), abused children, Rwandan genocides, military struggles, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in. Alas, often they’re about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. The fact this is a true story is often stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to what the reader is about to take in.

Thing is, no one cares if the story is true or not. Nobody. They just care that it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, Dot’s tale of an abused nine-year old cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a cyborg ninja battling prehistoric lizard men from the center of the Earth. Whether or not one of them’s a true story is irrelevant. In the end, you are telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. If it’s easier to read, if it has interesting characters, if it has sharp dialogue– these are what determine if a script is any good or not. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the true script and the therapy script have a horrific bastard child I call… wait for it… the True Therapy Script. In screenwriting terms, this is like one of the little mutant monster babies from that ’80s horror classic It’s Alive. Did your girlfriend leave you? Write a script about it. Tons of father-issues you’re working through? Write a script! Want to share your touching journey through the hell of addiction to booze, drugs, sex, or whatever? There’s a screenplay in that, for sure!!

Hopefully you all caught the sarcasm in those last few sentences.

The Holiday Script

If you add in movies of the week and straight-to-DVD, there’s a good case to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling genres out there. However, as far as a contest is concerned, the trick is to come up with something the reader hasn’t already seen again and again. They’ve seen Santa Claus quit, get fired, and be replaced a dozen times this month alone. The Easter Bunny has been in therapy, evil spirits have tried to save the bad name of All Hallow’s Eve, Cupid has taught someone the true meaning of love, and the first Thanksgiving story has been told—many, many times and many, many ways.

Just in case you missed it– they’ve been told many times in many ways.

The Writer Script

I can repeat this one until I’m blue in the face, but I know in my heart it won’t change anything. Do not write scripts about writers. Jennifer Berg, the director of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest, once joked with me that if her contest banned scripts about writers they’d probably lose a quarter of their entries. I did the math once and in one contest I read for almost 15% of the scripts had a writer as one of the main characters.

No one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. No one. Especially not a bunch of script readers who are probably disgruntled writers themselves. If you’re being sincere, you’re going to bore them (see The True Script up above). If you’re making up some silly idealized writing lifestyle, they’ll call shenanigans on it. And then they’ll pistol-whip you for saying shenanigans.

Let’s assume they didn’t toss the script aside as soon as they saw the writer character. If they get to the end and said character finally sells their book or screenplay and wins the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever… the reader will crumple your script into a ball and hurl it away from themselves. Then they will burn it so nobody else will have to read the damned thing. Then they will get your personal information from the contest director, hunt you down, and pistol-whip you.

I am dead serious about that.

There you have it. Eight scripts that will set a contest reader against you from the start. Again, I’m not saying it’s impossible to win with one of these screenplays. I am saying, though, that if you’re going to go this path you absolutely must knock it out of the park.

Next week, it’s time to finish this thing up.

Until then, go write.