A Contest Judge's Report from the Front Lines: Big Break™ 2010

This year, I evaluated more than 200 scripts as one of the judges for the Big Break™ Screenwriting Contest. And I found a few really superb screenplays (and quite a few good ones), as I do every year. But I have a confession to make: What makes a script truly "great"? As the King of Siam used to say (at least he did in the classic musical movie, The King and I), "It’s a puzzlement."
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This year, I evaluated more than 200 scripts as one of the judges for the Big Break™ Screenwriting Contest. And I found a few really superb screenplays (and quite a few good ones), as I do every year. But I have a confession to make:

What makes a script truly “great”? As the King of Siam used to say (at least he did in the classic musical movie, The King and I), “It’s a puzzlement.”

Oh, I know a great script when I read one. All professional script readers do. But you want to know how to write THE contest-winning script. Not a good script, but a GREAT one. What’s the secret? What sets it apart from all the others? And the truth is…

It’s kind of a mystery.

Sure, I can tell you how to write solid dialogue, a well-structured plot, and give your characters more depth. After all, I write articles about the subject, and have evaluated thousands of scripts for film studios, contests, and writers. I can tell you what’s working in a script, what isn’t, and exactly why. I can tell you how to fix it if it’s broken. And if it’s a great script, there’s no way on Earth that this is going to escape my notice. Trust me. Whether it’s a quiet drama, an outrageous comedy, an imaginative fantasy or sci-fi adventure, or a nail-biting thriller, a great script leaps off the page, grabs you by the throat, and won’t let go till the final fadeout.

When I read a great script, I can tell you in enormous detail why it is great. After all, that’s my job.

But how to duplicate greatness in your own scripts? Everybody has a theory, and you can find lots of good and useful advice in Script. But nobody really knows the ultimate secret. The answer is elusive. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you should get the best advice in the world from experts, live your life to gain wisdom, write a lot, and learn your craft. But the rest is up to you and your talents. By the way, lest you think that there’s agreement among readers on what makes a great script simply because there’s some sort of commercial “formula” we are all looking for, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been a reader since 1981, and know other skilled and experienced professional scriptreaders. We all have different backgrounds, training, and experience. Some have gone to film school, some haven’t. We’re not looking for any particular genre or “formula”-- except a great story with great characters.

Maybe if my fellow readers and I were asked, “What makes a great script?” we’d answer the way Louis Armstrong once did when somebody asked him to define “jazz”. Said Satchmo: "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know."

So, what IS the secret of writing a great script? The truth is, nobody can tell you. Each great screenplay is at once familiar, and unique. To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All bad screenplays are alike. All great screenplays are great in their own way.” But I can certainly tell you what it feels like to read one.

A GREAT READ
If you’re a professional scriptreader, what does it feel like to read a great script? It’s a joy. It’s a breeze. Maybe you’ve laughed or cried while reading the screenplay. It felt a lot more like watching a movie than like reading words on the page. You have the feeling that if you met the writer, you’d probably like him (or her). Maybe reading that script has even made you a better person. The script makes you want to grab your boss and tell her the news about the great script and writer you’ve discovered. You want to shout out the news, so they’ll be able to hear you all the way from the Brooklyn Bridge to the “Hollywood” sign in L.A.

I was impressed by the overall quality of this year’s Big Break™ scripts. The “bar” for the winners was set so high that I had to turn down many good scripts in order to choose only the very best ones to send up the line for further consideration by the other judges. I may not be able to tell you the secret of writing a contest-winning script, but I can give you some clues, based on the best scripts I’ve read for the Big Break™ Contest this year.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A CONTEST-WINNING SCRIPT (AND PIT-FALLS TO AVOID):

NEW WORLD
The very best scripts introduce us to a new, unique world (usually, it’s one right here on Earth). They take us deep inside a world with which few people except “insiders” are familiar. The details are very few, but the ones the writer chooses are very specific, evocative, and telling. The story, the action, the visuals, the characters, are all highly precise and well-researched (or perhaps actually lived by the writer; which isn’t to say that the story is literally “about” his or her life. In fact, it’s probably not, even if some elements come from personal experience). The characters are unique, real human beings.

Even if we know nothing about this new world-- the world of firefighters, or astronauts, Rwandan refugees, wealthy single women over 70 in New York, people who clean up the mess after murders (Sunshine Cleaning), or whatever-- we can immediately, intuitively sense you really did your homework, and know this world inside and out. The details ring true. You take us inside that world, without being too “inside baseball.”

COMEDY
If your script is really a comedy, and not a dramedy, it better literally have your readers rolling on the floor laughing. There is no such thing as being merely “witty” in a comedy and for that to be enough to make it a great script. Even in a romantic comedy, there have to be at least a few, ROFL moments (“I’ll have what she’s having.”)

Also note that if a comedy is “just” funny and has “nothing to say”, not even something a little bit meaningful or universal, it is probably not going to fly. It’s probably not even a very good comedy, because we won’t care about the main characters. Does comedy have to be deep? No. Of course not. But if you think of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you’ll see that nowadays even the broadest of comedies have to make the audience feel something other than just a desire to laugh, and must say something, however obvious, about the human condition. And if the script doesn’t have this, there will probably be no stakes for the hero, and we won’t care whether he wins or loses in love or anything else.

By the way, every great drama has at least some comedy in it. Ask Will Shakespeare if you don’t believe me. If you can find him.

HIGH-CONCEPT?
If most of what is great about your script is that you have a sure-fire, high-concept pitch, you may sell your script. But you are unlikely to win a major screenwriting contest.

What makes a great script truly special is never just the concept. It’s really the execution that matters most. Quite often, a winning contest script is going to be far better than the pitch makes it sound. This is not to say that the pitch will sound boring and unpromising. That’s almost never the case. But almost any writer can write a great pitch that doesn’t live up to its promise. Great writers, by contrast, can lift up an ordinary story and turn it into something extraordinary. The script is even better than the pitch.

Scripts that start with an extremely commercial, slam-dunk high concept pitch -- a real “grabber” or “hook”-- are very hard to execute properly. They are often one-joke ideas, that quickly run out of gas. And even the most promising concept in the world will never work unless the execution is skillful. It’s actually harder to win a major screenwriting contest like Big Break™ than it is to sell a script. It’s possible—though the odds are remote—that you can sell a high-concept idea that’s not executed very well. A producer might love it for the idea, and replace you as the writer (though you’d be foolish to do less than your best work on your script hoping to merely “sell your idea”). But to win a good contest, competing against thousands of other screenplays, you need a solid idea and an even better execution.

For the current Big Break™ Contest, my three or four favorite scripts all had fairly high-concept ideas. They’re all great, are all very different from each other, and would make excellent movies. But my favorite script this year was is in some ways the least commercial one among them, and perhaps the hardest one to cast with big American movie stars. Of course, with the importance of the global marketplace and DVD sales, the definition of “commercial” is rapidly changing. And I happen to believe that any great script will make tons of money for its producers if the same care, talent, and professionalism goes into making it that went into writing it. But my favorite script this year may not be the one that screams most loudly, “Blockbuster." And yet I think that any film producer who reads it, would love it and want to invest in it.

Will my favorite script win? Who knows? I’m not the only judge for the contest, and each judge is also reading hundreds of scripts, too. Maybe they found a gem that’s even better than the best script I read this year. But I’m rooting for my favorite, just the same.

CHILDREN’S MOVIES
There’s really no such thing. I make a good part of my living writing for children and teens. The secret to doing this? Don’t write “for” kids. I never do, and neither does anyone else who is successful at writing material that young audiences enjoy reading or watching. For reference, see any movie that Pixar has made. It’s no accident that the toys in Pixar’s Toy Story are mostly toys that baby boomers remember from THEIR childhoods, rather than toys that their kids use today. Pixar movies are intelligent films aimed at adults. That’s why they are excellent movies for children. They don’t “talk down” to kids.

By the way, if you write a Harry Potter clone or hope to start your own movie fantasy franchise for kids or families, please know that you are probably wasting your time - unless you are already a well-known screenwriter, or you wrote a hugely successful book or graphic novel or comic book using the same characters, first. Both Twilight and Harry Potter were huge hits as books before they became movies. Hollywood hardly ever buys original fantasy scripts for kids unless they are based on an already successful book. Or unless the director you’ve got attached to it happens to be Steven Spielberg.

Almost everyone who aspires to write for children totally misunderstands what writing for this audience is really all about. Your “original fantasy” script is probably never going to sell in Hollywood. Especially if it is in any way, shape or form similar to Twilight or Harry Potter. If you want to write a great movie “for” children or teens, have a child or teen as your main character, but aim the movie at adults.

SCI-FI AND FANTASY FOR ADULTS
If you write a fantasy or Sci-Fi film, come up with a completely new story that isn’t anything like Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Aliens, Star Wars, or anything else. Expand your imagination. Stop copying films and filmmakers you admire. I read too many sci-fi and fantasy scripts that seem derivative. The truly great sci-fi and fantasy scripts are thoroughly original. It’s fine to be inspired by other classic movies in this genre. Just don’t copy them.

BE BETTER
If you read as many scripts as I do, you would see just how great a screenplay must be in order to win a major screenwriting contest. Try harder. I know it sounds simplistic, but it’s true. If you can do better and you’re being lazy, do better. Send only your best work. Don’t try to get away with writing something mediocre, thinking there are so many bad movies and scripts out there that all you need to do is come up with a slick idea to win a contest. That’s a cynical notion. You can’t win a major contest with a merely so-so or even a ‘good’ script.

ACTION LINES
Strangely enough, the quickest tip-off for readers about whether a screenwriter “gets” how to write a script or not is not the quality of his or her dialogue - nor even his plot structure. The first telltale sign of a writer who was born to write screenplays is in what we see in the script’s action lines, starting on the very first page. There’s a beautiful, barebones simplicity to a great writer’s action lines. Every word counts, and there aren’t a lot of words on the page. Every detail is highly specific, relevant, and evocative. We sense immediately that we are in good, confident hands. There are no problems of format. The script takes advantage of the fact that film is a visual medium. There is nothing in the action lines that shouldn’t be there, such as backstory for the characters, irrelevant descriptions of scenery, or cute “asides” to the reader. There are rarely any establishing shots, few if any flashbacks (unless flashbacks are the whole point of the movie), and no “credits sequence."

If the writer has truly done his homework and is a great craftsman, this will be apparent in every aspect of his work, even the small details-- starting from the very first line. And it’ll be very obvious that he’s read lots of professional, produced screenplays. I would guess that many aspiring screenwriters have never read an entire screenplay. Sure, they’ve seen lots of movies. They may even have read screenwriting books that give them examples of screenplay format. Maybe they took a screenwriting class or two and use Final Draft software, which are good things to do. But many have never read a real, produced, Hollywood script. If they did, they weren’t paying attention.

How else to explain the fact that nearly every poorly-written script I have read is incredibly similar to other less-then-stellar scripts in its errors of format, and in the types of rookie mistakes it contains in the action lines? No screenwriting teacher teaches these errors—at least none that I know of. You can only make these kinds of mistakes if you haven’t read enough real, successful, produced scripts.

ME LIKEE YOU
If we’re going to spend two hours with your main character, we better like him or her. He may be a serial killer, but we’ve still got to find him appealing in some way and fascinating. I read a lot of scripts that leave me with a, “Who cares?” feeling about the hero or antihero. We need to be rooting for your main character to succeed.

AGE
No, I’m not speaking here of the age of the characters. I’m speaking of the age of the writer. I don’t care whether you’re l6 or 90. I’ve read scripts by great writers of all ages. What I care about is whether, when I read your script, I can TELL how old you are. I shouldn’t be able to tell. Too often, I can.

When I read scripts by very young writers, it’s not always their lack of writing experience that shows. In fact, sometimes, young writers are superb - right out of the gate. They are born screenwriters.

But, more often, their youth is all-too-obvious in their perspective on life. Don’t get me wrong. It can sometimes be very, very valuable to be a young screenwriter - it can give you lots of energy, and a good perspective on the interests of young people (who, after all, are most of the movie-going audience). But too frequently, very young writers just don’t have enough perspective on life to be great screenwriters - at least not yet. There’s a kind of insular thinking, which assumes that what’s interesting to them will be interesting to everyone else (of course, I’ve seen this same problem in older writers too, sometimes). All the teen characters tend to talk exactly a like, which is common among young people because they sometimes want to “fit in."

But in a screenplay, if you want us to care about your concerns, you have to force us to care, by writing compelling drama with universal appeal (even if your main audience is other young people). And your characters must each be distinctive individuals, who all talk differently from one another. Think: Juno. Or watch the old movie, True Grit, which is now being remade starring Jeff Bridges in the role John Wayne once played, which won Wayne a well-deserved Oscar.

In True Grit, a Western released in 1969, Kim Darby played a determined young woman on a quest to find her father’s killer and bring him to justice, with the help of an aging, grizzled, hard-drinking Marshall. Few people who saw that movie will forget the oddly stilted, demanding, precocious, insistent way Kim Darby’s character spoke. It was rather annoying, actually. It annoyed the heck out of Rooster Cogburn (the Wayne character), too, which was the point. But it was distinctive, and memorable. True Grit was a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on the great book by Charles Portis. The film was directed by Henry Hathaway, who by 1969 was already a legend in Hollywood.

If you’re young, make sure you don’t write a movie in which the characters all talk and act like a bunch of your friends (unless your friends are utterly fascinating, each in his own way), and their concerns in life are limited to their own narrow sphere. If you want us to like these people, you have to give us a better reason than the fact that you’ve known them forever, are used to their faults, and YOU like them. And if you want us to care about your world, MAKE us. Give us great characters doing fascinating things. Give us a great story. People pay a lot of money to go to the movies. Give them their money’s worth.

Equally potentially problematic is writers who are my age and older and write with too “old-fashioned” a style or sensibility, or with dated cultural references. If you’re a middle-aged or “senior” screenwriter, it’s important to work very hard to keep abreast of things, stay involved, and not live entirely in nostalgia. Even if you’re writing about the past, you can’t write a script that’s more like a “costume picture” from the l940s than any contemporary historical screenplay. It still has to reflect modern values and the tastes of a present-day audience. Don’t try to write about teens unless you truly, vividly remember what it was like to be a teen, are around young people, today, or are writing a movie set in the past. Don’t try to be “hip” if you are not hip. And do be aware that nobody under 40 knows what you watched on TV when you were young, unless it’s on Nick at Nite now. References to My Mother the Car or Uncle Miltie are going to go right over young people’s heads.

When I read your script, I should not be able to guess how old you are, no matter how old your characters are. When reading a great screenplay, I can’t.

Readers don’t care who you are, how old you are, what race or ethnicity, nationality, sex, or sexual orientation you are, or whether you’re famous or have any “credits” or not. Ideally, we should be able to tell something about you by reading your script - but not your “demographics." All we want is to discover a great script, by a great writer.

IRRELEVANT DETAILS
If you’re a woman, don’t write about what your characters are eating or wearing, unless they are eating scorpions or wearing a lampshade on their head. If you’re a man, don’t write about what make or model of car your character is driving unless your hero is racing in the Indy 500.

DON’T PREACH
Period. If you are writing a script to promote a cause, draw attention to a social problem or disease, or push a political point of view or an ethical issue, it had better be, first and foremost, a gripping drama. To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how to write a great drama that also has something important to say. Most great scripts do have “something important to say.” In fact, a script doesn’t have to change the world, but it probably should add something of value to the human experience - even if it’s just making us laugh.

I’VE GOT A FEELING…
Great scripts make the reader -- and the film-goer, once the movie is made -- feel strong emotions. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride, but you probably don’t feel sick at the end of it.

SCREENWRITERS WHO DON’T READ SCRIPTS?
My best advice to you if you want to write a great script? Read and study lots and lots of produced, successful Hollywood screenplays. Buy them in paperback, or visit a library of screenplays if you can (the Writers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences both have libraries open to the public. Public, college, and university libraries—especially universities that have film schools—may also have a good collection of scripts). You can also buy screenplays, or find unpublished, free screenplays online. But beware of “free” scripts that are not actually in their proper “spec script” format. They may actually be shooting scripts or simply transcripts of movies. And keep in mind as well that “free” screenplays or ones sold on the black market do steal royalties from their authors.

After you read a screenplay from a successful, produced movie, then compare it to the movie that was made based on it. Do this with several scripts and movies. It’ll make you a better screenwriter. And maybe you’ll write that truly great script that will win the Big Break™ contest, next year.