Top 10 Ways To Win Writers Digest's Annual Screenwriting Contest – Part I

Writers Digest’s annual writing contest is in full swing… fiction, poetry, non-fiction… and, of course, screenwriting.  I’ve been judging the screenwriting division for the past few years, and I always love it—it’s a blast reading and discovering new talent.  And this year is no different, so I’ve been poring over hundreds of scripts, many of which are really good.

Unfortunately, not all scripts can be terrific, and I often notice that the not-so-terrific ones are not-so-terrific for the exact same reasons.  In fact, many of these scripts COULD be terrific, but they fall into certain traps that keep them from being as good as they could/should be.

So I wanted to dedicate a couple blog posts to the WD writers contest… and how to give yourself the best possible chance of winning.  So here’s Part One of…


10)  YOUR SYNOPSIS.  Writers Digest asks you to submit a synopsis along with your script.  Do NOT write a full-page, single-spaced, tiny-font synopsis.  The purpose of the synopsis is to give a QUICK overview of the story; not detail every plot turn.  Thus, your synopsis should be one tight paragraph.  When I see more than that, I rarely read it… and it tells me the writer doesn’t know how to tell his/her story quickly and succinctly.

9)  FORMAT.  Make sure your screenplay is in PROPER SCREENPLAY FORMAT.  I’m always stunned at how many entries aren’t written in standard script format; some are written as plays, some are single-spaced without tabs, others just make up their own format.  Here’s the thing: if your screenplay is NOT in standard format, it’ll be glanced at, but its chances of winning are greatly diminished.  And in a real-life situation, an exec or producer probably won’t read it at all; it’ll just go in the trash.  I know this seems nitpicky and harsh, but in an age where everyone is only moments away from the Internet, a library, or a bookstore, there’s no excuse for not having proper formatting.  (And with software like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, the computer formats the script for you.)

8)  YOUR FIRST PAGE – PART I.  Even before I actually begin reading your first page, I’m judging your script.  If your first page consists entirely of stage directions, it looks dense, daunting, and uninviting.  To be honest, I probably won’t even read the whole thing or make it to page two.  This is true in the real world as well; execs and producers are looking for any reason to not turn the page, and a big paragraphs of stage directions are a great one.

7)  YOUR FIRST PAGE – PART II.  Jump into major conflict on your first page.  Do NOT take time to “set the stage.”  Jump into action, dialogue, and conflict at the top of page one.  It’s a gross misnomer that stories need a few pages to establish the main characters or setting.  Not only do we rarely need this info in order to start a story, but it’s more effectively conveyed if it comes through as we watch the action/conflict unfold.  If you begin by “setting the stage,” I promise you: your reader will be bored by page two.

6)  STAGE DIRECTIONS – PART I. Do NOT write huge paragraphs of stage description.  I try to never write stage directions over 3 lines long.  If I need more, I’ll OCCASIONALLY go to 4 lines… but never more.  If you still need more, break it up into different paragraphs.  But few things turn readers off more than seeing massive chunks of stage direction.  (And the truth is: you DON’T need more than 3 lines.  The job of stage directions is to give us only info and action we MUST know to follow the story; don’t waste your readers’ time with detailed descriptions of people, places, clothing, etc.)

Stay tuned for the next five tips… have a good weekend!


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3 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways To Win Writers Digest's Annual Screenwriting Contest – Part I

  1. Tanya

    Yeah, it’s really interesting how people don’t pay any attention to format with all the resources available today. I’ve pretty much taught myself via the Internet and free script-writing programs (and practicing of course). I also always double-check my sources. I’m finding that a lot of writers don’t follow format even in non-script formatted writings, like essays and short stories and such.

    Thanks for this, it was really helpful. It’s always good to know what the professionals are looking for.

  2. robbin

    It amazes me that people still make these mistakes. It doesn’t take much to find a good blog, book, whatever that will give you these basics. Why don’t people do that? Oh, well. It narrows the field for me.

    I haven’t sold anything yet but I know I have these basics down. That leaves me to concentrate on crafting the best story I can.

    I go on those sites where folks can post their scripts for crtique. Oh, my. I see the exact things you’re talking about. I’m not even a pro and I skip anyone’s script that doesn’t follow basic format and structure.