With over 4000 submissions each year across its Feature, Short, TV Pilot and Horror/Thriller categories, readers for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition have quite a bit of experience in discovering the most promising writing talent. Here are some key insights from four of the competition’s most dedicated judges on what makes a screenplay stand out from the pile, and tips on working as a writer in this industry.
1. What’s the best way to open a screenplay?
While there’s no single best way to open a script, you need to find something that will get the reader’s attention. That means avoiding cliches. For instance, I can’t tell you how many horror scripts I read with cold opens in which a victim runs through a dark forest with a killer in pursuit. If I read something like that, you’ve almost lost me before I found out anything about your story.
I often see scripts where the first page or two are densely text-heavy, opening the story with long, laborious paragraphs of action lines that are hard for the reader to really latch onto.
Avoid confusing the reader on page 1 with vague, confusing descriptions of an unfamiliar setting or obscure activity that the reader is likely unfamiliar with. Especially if the story takes place in a past historical period, or sometime in the future, or in some kind of fantasy setting, or in another country or culture that might not be familiar to readers in the US, make it as easy as possible for the reader to quickly, clearly, and simply jump right into the unfamiliar world of the story with as little confusion as possible.
And again, more sparse and minimal text on the page really goes a long way in helping the reader quickly get on board.
A common piece of advice is to start your story in the middle of the action. For a film that is more internal in nature, this might translate to opening with a scene that portrays the protagonist’s immediate emotional issue or conflict.
The opening moment is the first. It not only sets the first impression, but it can catch a reader/executive’s eye — or not. How can it be bold, smart, original or gripping? No matter what the genre – engage the audience from the get go. The hard part is that the opening also has to set the stage, world, plot and characters, so there tends to be quite a bit of exposition. The best opening can tell us a lot about where we’re going, while immediately captivating us and hooking us in. Quick, clear, vivid.
2. So…to sweat or not to sweat the “small” screenplay stuff?
If “the small stuff” refers to spelling, grammar, formatting, margins and other boring technical elements of screenwriting, I wish I could reassuringly tell writers “don’t sweat the small stuff,” but the truth is — this type of “small stuff” is unfortunately quite important in ensuring a script’s success.
It is essential you put your best foot forward in terms of the screenplay’s appearance. Avoid spelling mistakes, typos, and improper screenplay syntax. Make sure your cover page follows industry conventions. I know those items may seem insignificant but they immediately convey a sense that the writer is inexperienced if these ducks are not in a neatly ordered row.
So my advice to all new writers is that while it’s absolutely important to focus on developing and honing one’s actual storytelling skills, it’s also essential to get a firm handle on proper screenplay formatting, and to also thoroughly proofread one’s script before submitting it to professionals to read — and always use an actual screenwriting program to type the script, like Final Draft (or one of the great free online programs like celtx.com or writerduet.com),
HOWEVER! Having said all that — don’t let this type of small stuff get in the way of writing that very first draft, or even that second draft, when the script is just entering the world, and is only being seen by you, and perhaps some of your closest, most trusted friends, collaborators and loved ones.
Write. Make a mess – go for it. Write the big blechy vomit draft and get it all out (after you’ve carefully outlined of course 🙂 ) Don’t worry about the small stuff – AT FIRST. However, go back and—after structure, story, logic, layer, character passes—edit. Proofread. Too many times small stuff can take the reader out and get a script discounted—despite the amazing content. Don’t give anyone a small reason to give up on your big vision.
3. Knowing what you do now as a seasoned reader, what advice would you give a writer starting out?
I would advise a new writer starting out — first, READ as many professional scripts as possible, and pick the scripts for movies you already love and admire! See how your creative heroes told the stories you so dearly cherish, and let that inspire and inform your own work. Many scripts of celebrated films can be found for free online via a Google search, or they’re often available at your local library, or they’re almost always for sale online, as well, if you don’t mind paying for them.
And also — WRITE as many of your own scripts as possible, and aim to see each of your scripts through all the way to the end! The more scripts you write and ideally finish, the stronger your skills will become – you’ll grow considerably as a writer with each new script. And completing a script is always so psychologically encouraging, and delivers a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. Even if it’s far from perfect, and you get terribly frustrated with it, I strongly urge you to finish that script. Completing the first rough draft of a script, no matter how much revision it still needs in future drafts, will give you a great boost to then move on to your next script, and/or to continue revising your script in its next draft.
When you conceive of your story, write a one or two page summary from the protagonist’s point of view- and then do the same for the antagonist. This way you get into both worlds, and see how they feel and drive it. Then plot out main A-story beats. Then internal arcs. Then B-story beats. Then flesh out the outline. Then get messy and go to town, and go back and see if things track. Make sure there’s heart. Readers will forgive a lot if they engage and identify. Emotions make up for mistakes. But of course, don’t make any. 🙂 And proofread and edit. Let a few people look at it, and take their pulse – but ultimately hold your vision. Don’t write to the market – write to your passion. Then think about how to market it.
There’s a saying in writing that you have to “kill your darlings” sometimes. This might mean killing off a favorite character. You can also think of it in terms of plot points or scenes. Don’t get too attached — if something doesn’t work for your screenplay, be willing to cut it. If you get stuck and outside input doesn’t help, focus on other projects or tasks and give your mind a chance to work on the issue in the background. Sometimes we need to shift our attention for a bit to come up with a solution to a problem.
In order to succeed, you should want to write screenplays more than you want to breathe. Unless you have inside connections in Hollywood, it is not uncommon to spend decades in this business without selling a script. As a result, you will need to wait tables, drive Uber, or rob banks in order to make a living until your ship finally sails in.
4. What do you think is the best way to sustain a career in writing?
Put your writing in your schedule and prioritize it the same way you would a work meeting or a doctor’s appointment. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike — this creates unnecessary pressure and makes it easier to put off. Network with other writers online and offline. Try to think of them as colleagues rather than competition. Having those connections will help you feel supported, and may even open up opportunities. An editing partner or a writing group can also help you stay accountable to your milestones, as well as provide outside input and inspiration.
Be an absolute joy to work with. And honor yourself. Stay current, but find your voice and what you want to say and don’t try to be everything to everyone.
The biggest mistake I made when I started out was writing avant-garde screenplays about esoteric subjects that no one cared about besides myself. You can do that after you become famous. Meanwhile, keep your passion projects to yourself.
That doesn’t mean I am suggesting you “sell out.” It’s actually a great deal more complex. Rather, the challenge of a great screenwriter is versatility.
Most of the projects I’ve been hired to write involve tackling a subject that may not have been something that I would have chosen myself. My job is to embrace that subject and write something compelling about it. If a hypothetical producer assigns me to write a romantic comedy, I embrace that challenge and work within those parameters to make something that will make money and please audiences. But I also make sure the end product doesn’t make me want to puke. It’s a win-win for everyone!
5. What’s an example of a screenplay that has left a strong impression on you, and why?
Recently I was analyzing “Hidden Figures,” and what I was most amazed by, was the fact that they had a great beginning, middle and end for three parallel and intertwining stories. They taught a lot by showing, not telling. Tiny runners and little devices made the most noise. It was smart, funny, moving and inspiring. And the writers put in just enough high falutin’ terminology to make it seem realistic but not overwhelming.
“Parasite” is a tightly written 141 page film with a nuanced theme. Every scene has conflict and suspense, which builds dramatic tension towards the violence that occurs in the third act, culminating in the murderous party scene. As we are introduced to the family’s desperate living situation in the opening scene, while we may not agree with what they do, we understand it. The metaphor of a parasite plays out in how the poor family scams their wealthy victims, but the reverse is true is well. Chung-Sook says, “She’s kindhearted because she’s rich. You get it? If I had all this, my heart would be overflowing with kindness! (Page 67)” The wealthy family is also a parasite because they have accumulated far more resources than they need — resources that could help other families. The abrupt way that they dispose of their employees is as cruel as how the poor family manipulates them into doing so. In the end, both families suffer the consequences of their moral transgressions.
One of my all-time favorite scripts is a 90’s horror staple – Kevin Williamson’s 1996 script for “Scream.” On a storytelling level, this horror-thriller is relentlessly taut and swift, and filled with shocking twists and turns, as well as a number of beguiling red herrings and misdirects. Thematically, it’s a cleverly subversive play on the tropes of the slasher horror-thriller genre, providing witty, tongue-in-cheek meta commentary on the various clichés that always occur in these movies. On a technical level, the script delivers its pithy dialogue and suspenseful action lines with concise precision, helping the terrifying action fly right off the page. Pair all this with a dynamic, vibrant cast of teen characters, a relatably vulnerable female protagonist who ultimately evolves to become a fierce fighter, and a devilish sense of humor throughout, this script is a pure joy to read and a genuinely scary page-turner.
“The Irishman” — Some have complained that Steven Zaillian’s literary style feels “underwritten.” I beg to differ. A good screenwriter learns to write in haikus. He or she uses a minimum of words to express a maximum of information and ideas. One should look to Hemingway or, more recently, Ellroy as a model for how to write a great screenplay.
Since 1995, the Slamdance Screenplay Competition has been dedicated to discovering and nurturing emerging screenwriters and has a track record of introducing writers to members of the entertainment industry who have gone on to produce, option, and represent submitted work. All submissions receive short feedback and Slamdance also offers more extensive coverage and one-on-one screenplay clinic services at an additional fee.
Meet the Readers:
Beverly Neufeld got an MFA in Screenwriting at UCLA and teaches Screenwriting and Script Analysis at USC, making her a Brojan.
Carolyn lives in the Pacific Northwest with her two dachshunds, where she enjoys the forested parks and creative communities.
Michael Lucid is an LA-based screenwriter and filmmaker who has screened five of his films at Slamdance, written for “Drunk History” on Comedy Central and the CBS Diversity Showcase and had his short documentary “Dirty Girls” optioned as a TV pilot for Freeform in 2019.
Noel Lawrence directs, curates, and writes about film. His debut feature “Sammy-Gate” (2020) just premiered at IFFR.
You can submit to Slamdance via Coverfly here.