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

And here’s the conclusion to this weekend’s post, the TOP 5 WAYS TO WIN WRITERS DIGEST‘s annual screenwriting contest…

5)  STAGE DIRECTIONS – PART II.  Do not over-write descriptions in your stage directions.  Give the reader only the bare minimum of what he/she needs to know in order to understand your story.  Elaborate scenic descriptions, character profiles, or visuals of props and costumes have no place in a screenplay… no matter how colorfully you see these things in your head.  If you enjoy writing these elements, put them in a novel or short story.

4)  DIALOGUE.  Do NOT write long chunks of dialogue.  Like with stage directions, try to keep each paragraph of dialogue under 3 lines.  Sometimes, obviously, you’ll need more… if someone is ranting or lecturing… but dialogue should be short and snappy.  (And real people rarely speak in long chucks; actual dialogue tends to be in quick exchanges.)

3)  VOICE-OVER.  If you’re going to use voice-over, use it VERY sparingly.  Many writers believe V.O. is a crutch used to avoid dramatizing story.  I don’t necessarily agree with this—there are many stories that use voice-over to great effect—but it’s often easy for it to BECOME a crutch, to use a character’s voice-over to set the stage, color the world, or give us exposition that isn’t necessary to the story.  Some entries began with two, three, or four pages of one character’s V.O., and even without reading it, seeing this is as much of a turnoff as pages of stage description.  Treat V.O. like any other piece of dialogue… it should be short and to the point.

2)  SOUNDING CONTEMPORARY.  Do NOT worry about making characters sound “cool” or “contemporary” at the risk of honesty.  In other words, don’t use slang or speech patterns if you don’t use them naturally.  There were many entries where writers seemed to be writing about foreign places, people, etc.  This is fine—the whole point of storytelling is to transport the reader (and writer!) to new places—but capturing accurate speech patterns is less important than capturing emotional honesty.  So if your story is set on the streets of Watts or in the backwoods of Georgia… but you’ve never been to those places… don’t try to recreate your version of street slang or southern drawl.  You’ll be much more convincing if you accurately convey how your characters FEEL—even if their speech is totally inaccurate—than if you throw in a bunch of misused colloquialisms.

1)  WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.  I know we all hear this a lot, but this does NOT mean you should write something autobiographical… or you shouldn’t set something in a faraway time or place.  It means “write what you know EMOTIONALLY,” and be honest about it.  If you’re writing about a medieval knight who longs to leave his home and family to see the world, tap into what you dislike about your own home.  Listen to fights you have with your family and transcribe them into your script.  Many entries were set in interesting places, but they didn’t seem to reflect any emotional reality in the writer’s life; they didn’t ring with the truth of universal emotions.  We all experience love, loss, grief, elation, melancholy, wistfulness… and while we all have our own life experiences, the experiences of these emotions are usually identical.  The more honestly you can type into your own feelings, the more strongly we connect to your writing and see it as a reflection of our own lives.

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