What would you give to know more about your screenplay contest reader? Knowing their favorite films and TV Shows is a rare opportunity. But even more compelling is why certain films and TV Shows strike such a chord with them.
We asked our screenplay contest readers to name their favorites and tell us more about why these scripts spark their admiration.
Below we reveal what our readers love about their favorite scripts. Giving you unique insights into how the various elements of some top-ranking screenplays come together to produce exciting and engaging professional reads.
Blaise Hesselgren | Arrival – Eric Heisserer, 2016.
“I loved what it did with time and the nonlinearity of the storytelling, essentially showing flash-forwards but implying they were flashbacks until the end when it revealed the truth – and in doing so added a much greater meaning to the film.”
Scripts that cleverly play with structure and foreshadowing are always interesting. The ability to confound our professional expectations most always results not only in a fantastic reveal at the close but also demonstrates a writer’s deep mastery of the craft. Only someone who knows what is expected can innovate so comprehensively.
Tip: Consider how you are telling your story. How does the narrative progress? Are there ways to play with the structure and timeline of your script to improve the story?
Sarah Johnson | HER – Spike Jonze, 2013.
“There had never been a film that I have watched in the past where the dialogue felt so personal and emotional.”
Dialogue, or more precisely communication, is an essential element of a screenplay. Most commonly the advice one hears is the need to create fresh and distinctive voices for your characters. And not to be “on-the-nose”; that cardinal sin of having characters reveal their goals and motivations by bland statements without nuance or subtext. In contrast, Sarah highlights something fundamental in Jonze’s writing – the ability of the character and dialogue to mesh entirely such that they become real on the page.
Tip: Try having a conversation with your characters as if they were in the room. How do they sound? Does what they say reflect their backstory? Now get that down on the page.
Listen to our Bafta-winning Feature Judge, Tony Grisoni as he reveals some exclusive tips on creating real characters https://youtu.be/gP2ufgdhD04.
Tristan Wold | Mr. Robot S01EP01 – Sam Esmail, 2015.
“From just the first page, we have a very clear idea of exactly who our protagonist is and the tone of not only the pilot but also the series…We know what he knows, and we see what he sees. There are a lot of intricacies in the series but Esmail does such a satisfying job starting that trail of hints in the pilot.”
The reader’s expectations when reading a series pilot are very different from those when reading a feature or short script. Each format has “rules” that are meant to be acknowledged even if they are then happily broken. This is how the craft of screenwriting progresses. But a key factor of any series pilot is setting up the audience’s understanding and appetite for the story to come. You have probably felt it yourself. That moment in the series finale when a major plot point is revealed and you smile as you realize you had been told about this right at the very beginning, but just didn’t know how it would play out.
Tip: Use your series pilot to introduce the world your characters inhabit and their goals and flaws – albeit with a light touch. If a significant conflict is going to provide the cliff-hanger for your series finale, foreshadow that as a minor conflict in the first episode so the audience is left wanting more.
Salaama Barboza | Some Like It Hot – Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, 1959.
“[The] characters enter the story replete with past disappointments and unhealthy patterns. These are people who’ve been burned before but in spite of it all they still have heart and throw themselves into the fray anyway…These characters are relatable and watchable because they remind us that we are all just pilgrims fleeing our pasts.”
It might seem overly simple to say it, but in general, we all like the sound of our own voice. Watching characters go through trials and tribulations is all the more compelling when we can recognize reactions that might be our own. This goes beyond creating a protagonist with the common touch or a villain with likable traits – it is about relatability.
Tip: When creating your characters try to incorporate into their behavior things you’ve seen or experienced in real life. Making your characters engaging will keep your reader’s attention glued to the page.
Alex Moran | Aliens – James Cameron, 1986.
“Getting sequels right is a difficult, niche craft. Audiences want ‘more of the same, but different.’ James Cameron cleverly responded to this need with Aliens by switching genres. In changing the genre, there is the risk of stepping too far away from the source material and alienating your audience. But when you read the Aliens screenplay or watch the film, you feel like you are in the same universe. The opening page immediately immerses you into the setting of deep space.”
Playing with genre expectations is a great way to freshen your story. Why does a story about murder have to be a thriller or a horror? What it if is a black rom-com instead? It is a great skill to learn but getting stuck into your writing to create the perfect balance of expected tropes and fresh-twists can elevate your story into something your reader has never read before.
Tip: Consider the experience you want your audience to have as well as the message of your story when choosing a genre or genre combination for your story. And only honor those conventions that serve your story well.
Alessandro Ricconda | Parasite – Bong Joon Ho & Jin-won Han, 2019.
“I loved how the stakes become gradually higher each time a new member of the family starts working in the house. And when all of them are in, the writer manages to bring the stakes to a whole new level by bringing a stunning surprise on the table: someone is living in a secret area of the basement. It is very difficult to use surprise effectively in a script. You usually want to choose suspense over surprise, but in the case of Parasite the turning point feels totally appropriate for the plot and it complicates the story even more.”
The continual and increasing escalation of conflict is one of the most powerful engines of narrative development. Each scene building to the next, increasing the audience engagement as the plot unfolds. Most commonly this is achieved by introducing a structural device like the “ticking clock.” But here Alessandro points to how the very structure of the story can affect the raising of the stakes in a more subtle yet equally compelling way.
Tip: Never deviate from telling your story. Even sub-plots, which may give an opportunity to release the tension for a time, should still contribute to the overall arc of your story, and hold the audience’s attention to the tale.
Tara Yarlagadda | Once Upon A Time – Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis, 2011.
“When a writer enjoys writing their script, the reader will inevitably enjoy reading it, too.”
Never forget your voice as the writer. Like telemarketers are told to “smile” when they make phone calls, we can hear it when a writer loves their story. That mood transfers to the reader and creates an elevated experience.
Tip: You don’t have to be happy, but when you believe in your story, other people will too.
That’s all the advice we have time for now. Why not head over to our Reader’s Favorites Screenplay Collection and download some amazing stories for free. And don’t forget – our readers are waiting to read your story in our Short Film Fund, Feature Screenplay, and TV Pilot Contest this year. Find out more.