The basic “dos” before you send your script to a competition. The following is a very basic list of items that get my attention as a competition reader. If your script addresses each of these points, you’re doing a good job. I will be excited to read your script.
DO have a title page. Sometimes readers are just given your pdf and a number, so unless you have a title page on the piece, I won’t know what your title is. A great title is a nice way to make a great first impression.
DO use Final Draft – or properly format your screenplay. If it is not properly formatted, it’s hard to take seriously.
DO number your pages – the screenwriting software should do this, but if it does not, you need to do it. I need to be able to see the page numbers and not waste my time counting them.
DO keep your page count under 115 and, genre dependent, above 90. Horrors and comedies can easily come in at 95 to 105 pages. Most scripts these days do not come in at 120+ pages.
DO write using proper English grammar, quality prose, and evocative verbs. If you don’t know what proper grammar is or have a doubt, look it up.
DO write with your own voice. From page one, I want to feel that you have your own voice.
DO your research: know about the world about which you’re writing. Make sure the tone matches the world.
DO write the hell out of your first 10-15-20 pages. I will forgive a LOT later on if the beginning is great. Conversely, if the beginning is poorly written or confusing, I likely won’t read to the end. That is a guaranteed pass.
DO write in ONE genre. You can mix genres, but then you have to manage the conventions of both genres competently.
DO write something that feels familiar but is fresh, a new and unique take on subject matter we’ve seen before.
DO choose current, relevant and interesting subject matter that will appeal to millions of people. You’re writing a story that should, in theory, want to be heard by millions of people.
DO tell me a story that somehow illuminates the human experience.
DO establish the normal world. This is somewhat genre dependent, but I like to see a couple of scenes in the character’s normal world before that world gets rocked. This helps with character arc so we know where they came from in order to better understand where they’re growing to.
DO give me a real sense upon the opening of the script where your character has come from. I don’t want to feel as though this individual just began existing with page one of your story.
DO make me laugh and cry. Make me feel something. The more I feel about your script, the more the characters come alive, the more I’ll be willing to fight for your script.
DO have ONE protagonist. We should experience the world through his/her eyes.
DO write very compelling characters that are sympathetic, interesting, complex, feel like real people and get the reader very emotionally invested.
DO put your characters on a journey where upon the last page I will think, “That was incredible and I learned a lot. That character’s experience taught me a lot about life.” This is my way of saying that you should be writing scripts that contain some degree of social commentary. Although screenplay is not an intellectual exploration of any topic, what your character experiences and the way in which he experiences it can inform on a variety of topics.
DO take the time to introduce ALL of your primary characters using an anecdote or incident that somehow exposes the core of their being and hints at their character arc.
DO introduce your primary characters with thoughtfully chosen names, gender, specific age. Do use the most common spelling of names where possible. If using an uncommon name, make sure it motivates that character and let me know how it is pronounced.
DO use 4-5 action lines to introduce your character. Be vivid, unique, evocative. I don’t care what they’re wearing. I much more care about qualities of their person that indicate the character arc – where they’re at now and to where they will grow.
DO give proper names to the major players in your script. If one of your main characters is introduced as “GIRL,” I will assume that is a minor character and be really annoyed when she’s still in the script 5 pages later.
DO use an action line (ongoing) or parenthetical (one off) to indicate when someone is speaking in a foreign language.
DO properly establish the location and setting from the very beginning of the story. This is a good time to use your 4 action lines to let me know where the story takes place.
DO use the climate to your advantage. Winter? Fall? Summer? Snowing? Raining? Sunny? Windy? This helps to establish tone.
DO establish the scene and then get into the dialogue.
DO enter scenes as late as possible and get out as early as possible.
DO write down the page. The read should be as clean as possible. The more you break up the flow of scenes with block text, the more I’ll be removed from the story. Set it up and then get into it and keep the pace with the genre.
DO keep your scenes to 3 pages or less. Meaty scenes can be 3 pages. Other scenes should be less than 3 pages.
DO keep your action lines to 3 or less once we’ve met the players. You probably don’t need as much text as you think. Remember, we’re not set designers. Write to the story beats.
DO keep your dialogue to 3 lines or less. A speech can warrant more lines, but block dialogue is also a no-no. You can probably cut it down or at least have another character interject to break it up.
DO be sure you’re not repeating beats. Each scene should BOTH expose character AND move the story forward.
DO write ONE new story beat per scene.
DO have continually escalating dramatic stakes.
DO set your scenes in the most interesting places.
DO be very careful when writing voice over, dream sequences, flashbacks or telephone conversations. Is it absolutely necessary to the heart of your story? Could that information be communicated in a better way?
DO use the tone to your advantage. If you’re writing a horror, make it really scary – from page one. If you’re writing a thriller, thrill me. If you’re writing a comedy, make me laugh out loud. A lot. The tone should be abundantly clear from page one and remain consistent throughout.
DO think very carefully about theme and make sure the undercurrent and subtext of every scene touches upon that theme.
DO make your characters work for it. Create real, viable, and exciting obstacles for them to overcome. Find creative ways to externally dramatize these obstacles.
DO make sure your world has its own logic that is abundantly clear to the reader. Just because your sci-fi world is clear inside your own mind doesn’t mean I’ll understand it.
DO revise and polish and older project before sending in. You might not think I can tell if something was written in 1998, but I actually can. If you wrote your script ten years ago and it’s not a period piece, then bring it up to date.