by Ruth Witteried
As the Willamette Writers kick off their second Script to Screen short screenplay competition, several writers have requested tips for creating successful entries, or at the very least that we share the ‘trips’ of previous submissions; the avoidable errors that we ran into most often when judging.
Use professional script formatting. If you don’t have screenwriting software, such as Final Draft, or Movie Magic, you can usually go to their website and get a free, two week trial. Your printed script may have a watermark across it (Final Draft Trial Copy), but is perfectly acceptable for our purposes, and will insure the proper formatting.
Read the submission guidelines carefully and follow them. You can find them on our website athttp://www.willamettewriters.com/wwc/3/inf-filmcontest.php. Pay your fee electronically when you can, or far enough in advance that it has cleared the bank by the time the first round judges get your script (usually within two days of the deadline). If there is no record of your payment being processed your script will not be read. Likewise, if the page length is set at 7 and you turn in 14, it will be judged only on the first 7 pages.
Be creative in your use of theme. This year’s theme for the conference is Fresh Brewed. What does that mean to you? How is it unique to our part of the world? Does it conjure images of coffee, microbrews or Distillery Row? Does it leave you thinking of metaphors, synonyms or wild nights with your Muse? The tighter the constraints the more we are forced to innovate. Run with it, explore it, and layer it into your script.
Study one or two short films. Read short stories. Be mindful of the point of view in each. Typically, there is only one perspective represented; one set of eyes through which we experience the story. If you have more than one POV you may want to have a friend look at it and see if it reads as well to them as it does to you. Similarly, there isn’t room for subplots to fully develop, so limit yours to one, if any.
Maximize the use of subtext to amplify your message. Is your character lonely? Is that reflected in the space they occupy (a room with minimal furnishings), the car they drive (an enormous old station wagon), their patterns of speech? There are many ways to include subtext in your script that will elevate it from routine to extraordinary.
Even a short story must have a beginning, middle and end. Every scene you write should have a beginning, middle and end, so there’s really no excuse not to close with a proper ending. That was the number one mistake we saw during last year’s judging: scripts that just stopped on page 7; the story didn’t end, it just stopped. If it takes you ten pages to tell your story, write ten pages as your first draft; write nine as your second draft and seven as your final draft. Be brutal in your editing. If it’s not essential—cut it.
If the contest guidelines indicate no more than four characters and you have a scene with a packed courtroom, the odds are not in your favor. Focus on what is most important about that scene. Is it the reaction of the crowd, or the testimony of the witness? Rewrite the scene to take place in the Judge’s Chambers or in an elevator and focus on the message.
Keep it simple. There were some very promising stories in last year’s submissions that tried to say too much. Unless you are an expert in this medium, seven pages will not allow you to fully express multiple, meaningful messages. Stick to the most important theme and give it all your energy.
Dialogue cannot save you. Overuse of dialogue will be seen for what it is: an attempt to mask a poorly executed story. Film is visual. Give your characters something to do while they talk (or better yet, instead of talking), and your audience something to look at.
Not submitting a script because you’re afraid to fail. You’re a writer—of course, you’re going to fail! You will fail more often than you will succeed, but you keep writing. Take a risk and put something out in the world; declare your intentions and as Captain Picard says, “Make it so.”
Ruth Witteried is Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference and Executive Producer of last year’s winning short, “Alis Volat Proprils”. She teaches Introduction to Screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, with her next ten week class beginning this April. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown, or on Twitter @sityourassdown1.