Like many emerging writers, you have submitted your script to a competition. Congratulations!
But you’re well aware that while you submitted the script today, the winners are only announced months from now.
So, what exactly happens in the meantime and how is your screenplay judged in a screenwriting contest?
There are seven important criteria that judges will look for: concept, characters, twists and turns, stakes, dialogue, credibility, themes and script format.
We’ll tell you all about them in this post.
The Process of a Screenwriting Competition
As you probably have noticed, screenwriting competitions have specific deadlines for writers to submit their work.
They usually have an early deadline that is much cheaper than the others, then a normal deadline and then a late deadline that is often about 20% more expensive and is meant for the last minute entries.
Most of the time, competitions require that you submit your script online and not in person.
It’s common to submit your script through one platform called Coverfly that keeps track of all your scripts, submissions and ranking. The great thing about Coverfly is that if you advance in a competition, your score improves and your script might land on the Red List just by having placed or advanced in a bunch of competitions.
The Red List keeps track of all the top rated screenplays currently being submitted to contests and is a great opportunity to get your name on the map.
Once you enter the contest, judges (if you choose your contest wisely, the judges will be big industry names) read your script and give it a score.
It’s important to note that not every competition has the same rule when it comes to reading.
Some of them will require the judges to read the entire script before giving it a rank. Others will only require the judges to read a certain amount of pages. So… make sure that all your pages are strong and captivating, especially your first act since that will most likely get a guaranteed read.
Your script might get read by one judge or by several of them and will get a score that will either disqualify you after the first round (when quarterfinalists are named) or make you go into the second round.
If you requested feedback with your submission, you will get a short coverage on your script a couple of months after you submit it to the competition. If you can afford to put extra money for this, I would advise you too since it means that even if you don’t place in the competition, you still get something valuable from it.
As you advance into the competition, more judges read your script (usually the ones who didn’t get to read it in the first round) and you will get a new score that will, hopefully, get you to advance again.
Ultimately, at the end of the process you get an award if you win (and some competitions award second and third place too). Some competitions offer cash prizes, others offer subscriptions, memberships or mentorship and so on. Make sure that you know what you get before entering a competition since there are many contests out there that are not worth the entry price, ultimately.
Feel free to read more about competitions and look for the competitions I recommend here.
How Do Contests Judge Screenplays?
Now we know what stages your script will go through once you enter that competition. But what exactly are the judges looking for? What makes a good script? How can your script rank high and separate itself from the thousands of other screenplays the judges need to read and review?
- Fresh Concept
Ultimately, a fresh concept will always play a huge role in your score. Judges will read hundreds if not thousands of screenplays for a contest, they want to see something that feels fresh, filled with twists and that’s different.
When submitting to a contest, it’s time to be bold and to be fearless because you will want to wow the judges and make sure they remember your script.
- Fascinating Characters
Make your characters memorable. I believe that it all starts with characters.
You want your audience – in this case, the judges – to be fascinated with your characters.
That doesn’t mean you need lovable or even likable characters, but you need compelling ones.
But How Do You Create Compelling Characters?
- Uniqueness. Having a character that feels unique and is filled with nuance is a great way to show a compelling characters. Humans are complicated creatures. Our characters should be too. Think of interesting ways to portray your character in a unique light.
That uniqueness can come in the form of a personality trait, a fascinating job, an interesting flaw. For example, the TV show “Homeland” made its lead, Carrie, who works for Homeland Security, struggle with being bipolar. And that was (and still is) so unique in a character that has her job description that it made her absolutely fascinating to watch.
- Sympathy/Empathy. Everyone is the hero of his or her own story. What I mean by that is that if you look at the Joker when watching the movie “Batman” and then look at him again when watching “The Joker,” you will get a very different feel for the character. Remember that even villains are the heroes of their own story. While a character can be absolutely evil, learn to give him a backstory and compelling traits that make the audience have some form of empathy for him.
Think of the TV show “You.” Joe is a serial killer. A terrible person. But… we get enough about his backstory (the abuse he’s had to face as a kid) and the use of Voice Over that puts us right in his mind that in some ways, we sympathize with him or at least, are fascinated by him and want to see more because he is a compelling character who isn’t evil just because he is. He’s evil because his childhood has destroyed him and he’s never gone to therapy for it (which he most likely should’ve).
- Their deepest Desire. Your main character drives the story. It’s crucial to give them a strong want/need. A goal. Something that the audience can identify, understand and follow. This will give your movie stakes because when the character will fail, the audience will feel for him or for her, since you have established the importance of your main character’s mission.
- Twists and Turns
You want to surprise the audience. When you submit your script to a contest, every page should push the story forward and make the reader want more.
- Powerful conflict with high stakes
The judges will want to care for the characters, care for the story. Make sure that your main conflict is powerful and escalates throughout the story. You want the readers to be engaged in the story and understand the stakes.
- Well-crafted Dialogue
Don’t tell anyone I said this but many readers will only read dialogue. That’s no excuse to write terrible action lines, but know that your dialogue lines are super super important too.
While your action lines will show how well you write visually (that’s a must have as a screenwriter), your dialogue will really elevate the story.
You want your dialogue to be compelling, smart and with plenty of subtext. Subtext basically means what a character doesn’t say directly but means. The character is not being direct, which is something that most humans aren’t. We don’t directly say everything we mean, we use subtext all the time.
Subtext can be described as a less obvious way to say something.
An example of subtext would be in the movie “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011) when Emily speaks on the phone with Call and tells him “I don’t want you to blow up the house”, what she really means is “I don’t want you to leave and our family to break apart because I can’t see my life without you.”
This is a form of subtext. She doesn’t say what she truly wants to say because she’s afraid, or maybe because of ego, so she uses subtext.
Next time you watch a movie try to identify moments where the characters say something different than what they truly feel or want to say in the moment, but are too fearful to say. Also pay close attention to how you speak, and realize how often you use subtext as well when speaking to others.
It doesn’t have to be true, it has to be believable.
Everything that happens in your script doesn’t have to be true, but the audience – here, the judges – need to believe it could happen.
There’s nothing worse than to read a script and think every few minutes “that’s impossible.” Anything that’s unbelievable will take the reader out and turn your script into something funny and ridiculous almost. So, no, your script does not have to be 100% true, but we need to be able to believe that what’s going on would actually be possible.
Now, obviously, there are many movies where what happens simply is unbelievable such as a bunch of hungry sharks falling from a tornado. That’s okay, as long as you clearly define the rules of your world early on and don’t break them.
If you set up a set of rules early in your script (for example: in your script, dragons are considered pets), fair enough. As a reader, the audience now knows that’s a rule of this world and they can believe it.
The problem appears if you don’t clearly state the rules and suddenly, your seemingly normal script that has to do with accounting takes a turn on page 89 when a dragon lands on the roof of the accounting office and kills the love interest of our main character… when dragons were never even mentioned in your world building/set up.
Be clear with the rules and create stories that are believable (within that set of rules).
In competitions specifically, the themes that your story explore will matter.
If you look at competitions such as the career-changing Nicholl Fellowship, the scripts that tend to win are quite heavy politically or have to do with themes that show underrepresented voices or shocking investigation stories.
Is your screenplay in the Zeitgeist? Does your script deal with something that people talk about a lot… or never talk about and should talk about. The themes you are exploring in your story will certainly have an impact on the judges as they should.
Unfortunately, format does matter. A script that has a terrible format will most likely not go far in a contest because it won’t get a chance to. Make sure that your script is formatted the right way and use a screenwriting software to facilitate the process.
Advice on screenwriting software can be found here.
This wraps up the list of the most important criteria judges will look at when judging your script.
Ultimately, everyone’s tastes are different and some people might love your Romcom Script while others highly prefer Sci-Fi and might simply be less engaged with your story.
But judges are trained to spot great writing.
Respect this set of rules when writing (or rewriting) your script and you have a great chance to rank high in your next contest!