This article will help you engage your readers so they can focus only on your story, without being distracted by unnecessary bumps. Paraphrasing Coco Chanel: edit sloppily, they notice the errors; edit impeccably, they notice the story.
So, you wrote a script you love so much you think everyone else will love it too. Good for you!
In fact, you’re so sure of your screenplay, you entered a contest. And not just any old competition, but one of the three top-tier screenwriting contests. You haven’t invested in any of the books, in-person classes, or online training, but you’ve downloaded a bunch of scripts and you’re pretty sure you nailed the format.
You don’t know any other screenwriters, and you’re afraid that if you were to swap scripts in a Reddit or Facebook group, someone will steal your magnificent idea and scalp your killer dialogue. So, to be safe, you just polished it yourself. And even if you missed a couple of little things or the format is a bit off, the story is so amazing you’re sure it will win the Grand Prize. Or at least make the semifinals.
Anyway, you proofed carefully before submitting it. And it’s perfect.
But is it really?
Competition is steep at AFF. At least as steep as Page and Nicholl. Every one of the thousands of writers who enter the Austin Film Festival Screenplay contest thinks they have a chance of advancing into the winner’s circle. All of them.
Just like you, they’ve done everything possible to ensure their script is bulletproof.
You are head-to-head against talented writers who have done the work to guarantee perfection. They’ve workshopped their script, swapped it at least thrice, and maybe paid for notes or a professional proofreader.
But, you still dig in your heels. After all, your story is so fantabulous and well-told that even the most jaded reader will be mesmerized.
Surely, they will see your genius and overlook a few tiny errors. Besides, only the story matters. Right? Not cosmetics. I mean, who really cares if there’s a spelling error or two?
What do you imagine happens in the real world? Think about it. This is a business where investors spend millions of dollars on a product. Why do some writers think they can slide by clutching onto mediocrity on the assumption they simply don’t need to present professionally? It’s a head-scratcher. Your script is like your resumé. Would you slap together your CV and cover letter when applying to a Fortune 500 company job that you really want, and think: “good enough”?
We AFF readers, seasoned volunteers and pros, have begun reading the 2023 hopefuls submitted to the first deadline last December. Kudos to all those organized writers for being prepped and ready so early. But, I’m already seeing things repeatedly that should not be in anyone’s script.
You might want to take a look at my article inspired by last year’s AFF reads. Confessions of an AFF Contest Reader advises more generically. Here, I’m brutally detailed about the little things that bump a reader from the story. Your goal is: ZERO distractions.
If you are planning to submit to AFF (the Early Bird Deadline is the end of March), make sure you’re ready. Transform your script from great to superb, with some tiny attention to detail.
You already know how to ‘show, not tell,’ be clever with your exposition so it’s not on-the-nose, keep your action lines to a maximum of five (but there better be a good reason to make them that long!), introduce your characters with their name in caps, followed by their age, and to write visually.
Remember, your first goal is not to win the contest. It’s to deliver a glassy smooth read to that first-level reader. No bumps. Only story.
As Coco Chanel said (requoted by Sigourney Weaver’s character in Working Girl): “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress; Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.”
The same principle applies to your script.
Don’t be shabby. Be impeccable.
Here are some specific suggestions to avoid bumping your contest reader out of the story. If you follow these, you’ll offer an unbroken journey over a newly paved superhighway, so all your reader will be able to see is your brilliant tale.
- Submit your script in spec format.
Study and understand how a spec script is different from a shooting script. Spec scripts have no scene numbers, no running heads, and no gratuitous camera directions, like CUT TO: (If you don’t know what those things are, look them up.)
Will your entry be tossed if you submitted a shooting script? Of course not. But you present a bump at first blush and plant a seed of a niggle in your reader’s mind identifying yourself as a newbie, which, like it or not, braces them unconsciously for other errors.
- Run a spellcheck before submitting.
This seems obvious, but take your time about it. In the digital age, there is zero excuse for an error like “becuase.”
Again, if you think this is nitpicking, you’re wrong. James Cameron famously stops reading the second he finds a misspelled word. Of course, a contest reader will let it slide, and maybe your fantastic script advances to the Second Round in spite of the bumps. Better to prepare for that Winner’s Circle and be 100% above reproach.
I recently had a producer send back a script he said he absolutely loved and was anxious to share with potential financiers. But he would not do so until I fixed a single spelling error and inserted five ‘missing’ commas.
Run a grammar check, while you’re at it to catch those missing commas, which often end up in dialogue. For example:
JIM: Hey Sue what do you think of Bill’s new car?
JIM: Hey, Sue. What do you think of Bill’s new car?
Spelling and grammar aren’t scored separately at AFF. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Sloppy language lowers the professional level of your IP. Take the time to get them right.
- Check your pdf before you submit.
This is especially true if you did not use Final Draft or another screenwriting program. No one cares if you used a regular word processing program (yes, we can tell). But Word is notorious for messing things up in the conversion to pdf.
This can result in orphaned text or dialogue splits where you didn’t intend it. There are plenty of free screenwriting programs available. Consider using one of them.
If you’re stubborn about using Word, make sure your pdf has translated acceptably on every page before you click “Submit.”
- Swap your script at least three times before your final polish.
Read every note with wonder and objectivity. Respond to those that make sense when you look at the whole. See my article on The Art of Receiving Notes.
- Search and remove unnecessary “glue words” from your action blocks.
Especially pay attention to: and, as, when, where then, because, since, of, and before.
These words can falsely string shots together or create confusion as to timing. Think of every line in ‘the black’ as a camera shot. Keep sentences simple. Remember your only time frame is NOW.
- Search for boring verbs. Replace them with vivid action words.
Especially: looks, walks, sits. Swap them for something more visual: e.g. glances, tramps, perches. But don’t rely completely on the thesaurus. Make sure you use the replacement words properly.
- Avoid cliches like the plague.
Seriously. Unless it’s in dialogue and suits the character.
- Edit for widows.
Sometimes called ‘danglers,’ these are the single word at the end of an action block that spills onto the next line and sits alone at the beginning of a line. It’s an inefficient use of space and viewed by some industry readers as lazy writing. Once you know, you’ll become allergic to these and expert at getting rid of them. In the process, your script becomes nice and tight.
(Note: some folks refer to these loner words as ‘orphans’ or ‘runts.’ It doesn’t matter what name you give them, they don’t belong in your screenplay.)
- Edit for orphans/runts.
An orphan is either a bare scene heading at the bottom of a page or a scene heading with a single action line in the same position. Or it’s a lone line of action or dialogue at the top of a page, followed by a new scene heading.
Learn to edit and manipulate text like a pro to adjust the spacing so your pages present properly.
- Practice getting in late and out early.
Most scenes are too long. Most dialogue is overwritten. Trim, trim, trim. Start in the middle of a conversation, instead of when the phone rings. Consider cutting an argument at its peak, instead of when it has dissipated enough for one character to leave the room and slam the door.
If it’s too much on the page, it will be interminable on screen. If you can, organize a table read with some actor friends to help identify and catch any scenes that drag.
- Except in character intros, write only what the camera can see.
You should probably switch to novels if you insist on including unfilmables, such as what the character is thinking, remembering, or wondering. Or describing what isn’t there…’where a year ago stood a bookstore…’ or …’it would have made a pretty garden, if someone had lovingly tended it.’
- Check that your script looks like a script.
It may seem strange, but the reason screenplay formatting is so exact is that it makes it easier to assess a script when everything but the story is equal. When a script doesn’t look ‘right,’ it’s as uncomfortable to read as listening to a favorite song butchered at a karaoke bar.
One easy way to check your pdf is by zooming out to make your pages 25% of normal size. Are there any “I” pages (pages without any action lines), or too many “black” pages (nothing but densely packed action)?
“I” pages (only dialogue) make readers wonder what’s happening on the screen. Use your action lines to punctuate and paint some interesting visuals. (i.e. please not of the ilk: “He looks at her.”)
Are any of your action blocks more than five lines? If they are five lines, can they be split into two? Or even three?
Does any of your ‘ordinary’ dialogue look too long compared with the rest, when you view it from a distance? I don’t mean the, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ climax type of monologue. But long sections of talky-talk where a character goes on and on, usually for the purpose of on-the-nose exposition. Find those, and hop in with your sharpest pencil to fix them.
- Limit caps to character names on intro.
That’s all. Readers don’t care that a car horn BLARES. Or, worse, that your character is holding a CRYSTAL glass full of bourbon when both horn and glass have nothing to do with the plot. Occasionally, you can break this ‘rule’ when you need to demonstrate a shock. Liberally sprinkled caps are certain bumps. Like exclamation marks, their overuse makes all of them inert.
- Limit exclamation points.
I follow an old English prof who called them ‘shriek’ marks. But don’t remove them completely. Some dialogue would look flat, even uninteresting without them. They exist for a reason. It’s overuse that kills their power.
DO NOT List
- Don’t submit at the 11th hour.
You will invariably be disappointed with the version you sent. Plan to submit at least 24 hours before the deadline, giving yourself lots of time for a final proofread to find the little things the gremlins have inserted.
If you can, try to submit a full week ahead, or even two. You will avoid the clumping that happens at deadlines, pushing readers to manage more scripts than usual in a shorter period.
- Don’t let your characters ‘try,’ ‘start,’ or ‘begin’ to do something.
Think about it. Try to pick up the pen on your desk. No. You picked it up. That’s not what I asked you to do. Try again. See? Now, start to pick it up. Get it? Screenwriting is simple. Describe what the camera sees.
- Don’t use CUT TO:
Or any other camera direction (with occasional exceptions.) Your job is to tell a great story. Stay in your lane.
Will you be docked? Not directly, but just like sending a shooting script format, you set off a whole lot of little bells ringing. Readers are not looking for lapses. But we cannot help but register them. Camera directions take up page real estate and remove the reader from the story for a nanosecond.
- Don’t assume that what you wrote is what you think you wrote.
We see what we expect to see. The brain fills in the gaps. Do a final swap with favorite readers to catch each other’s unseen plot and logic holes and identify confusing construction.
As Malcolm Forbes (yes, the billionaire from the eponymous magazine) once said about writing: The chances of having said what you meant are only fair.
- Don’t spend five lines to introduce your primary characters when all you’re going to tell me is what they’re wearing.
Unless they’re a dominatrix or an alien, I want to know some snappy attitude in three words, not that their blue shirt matched their eyes. Especially when the eye color is not story-related.
Your character intro is the only place you get to stretch your imagination a little and do more telling than showing. Have fun with it!
Don’t waste it on a boring fashion commentary. Or worse, a cast-limited detailed physical description. Tell me who your protagonist is. Not OTT details about their clothing. A ‘leather cowboy hat and everything else to match, down to his elaborate pointy-toed boots’ gives me everything I need to imagine without any details about the quality of cotton or buttons in the shirt.
- Don’t be stubborn about length.
So, the max number of pages is 120. But here’s the thing, if I see a page count of 120 (or worse, 121-125, which is more common than you’d think) I immediately know the writer is both green and stubborn. That doesn’t mean the story won’t be good. It might be terrific. But it will mean it’s overwritten. Why? Because the writer hasn’t learned how to revise.
Screenwriting is lean. If you can’t keep your feature within 110 pages, you risk automatic pre-judgment, despite all efforts by readers to remain neutral. The best, most enjoyable reads are those that tell the story vividly with the fewest words. Think Hemingway.
- Show you’re a real pro by adding a single line of action to close each scene.
Is this necessary? Absolutely not. This definitely falls square into the ‘nice, but not required’ pile of suggestions. But you’ll make your reader smile at your tidy mind. After a while, it will become second nature, like closing a door or turning off the lights behind you when you leave a room.
- Think twice about using ‘we see.’
It’s true what you’ve heard, that ‘no one who matters’ gives a stuff about ‘we see’ if the script is fabulous. But why take a risk? Readers may assume you’re either an old fart or a greenhorn and immediately make associated assumptions. This appraisal happens without anyone thinking about it. It’s truly unconscious on the reader’s part. But, probably as much because of all the chatter around it in the forums over the past several years (use it, no one cares; don’t use it, shows you’re a newbie) it automatically bumps the reader from the story just by noticing it.
For example, if I see a writer use ‘we see’ on page 1, I automatically wonder ‘Oh, is she a new writer?’ or ‘Has he been writing screenplays for decades?’ or ‘Is s/he a rebel?’ – all that takes a nanosecond, but it happens every time I read ‘we see.’
I can’t unsee it. Any more than you can not visualize a pink elephant when I tell you not to see it. Don’t look at him, but he’s right there in the corner by the drapes, staring at you, waving his pink trunk.
- Write in present tense, active voice, avoid all forms of ‘to be.’
Search for and eliminate every *ing, every is/are, was, has been, by.
Emma isn’t sleeping. Emma sleeps.
Jim ‘has finished packing,’ becomes Jim snaps the suitcase closed.
Please don’t think you can cheat about this by using apostrophes. Andrew’s angry. Show me: Andrew scowls, bangs his fist so hard the table shudders.
- Triple-check your homophones
- Get help.
You don’t need to hire a professional proofreader (by all means do, if you can afford it), but do avail of the generosity of your screenwriters’ group, who will be happy to give your script a once-over before you submit.
What?! You don’t have a writers’ group? You’d better get started assembling a trusted group of friends with whom you can regularly swap scripts. People who know your style can help identify your blind spots, and yes, both proofread and encourage you.
It might seem daunting at first, but if you do your best to address all of these, your script will be better than ready for Austin. Or Page, or Nicholl. In fact, it will be ready for you to submit to producers when they respond to your query with a read request. And you’ll become a better screenwriter in the process.
Can’t wait to read your awesome script.