By Lee Hamilton.
No matter what intentions you have for your script, it’s pivotal to keep the recipient in mind when writing. Whether that’s the viewers in the future watching the film or TV series, a contest reader assessing your script, or even an agent or manager assessing your writing abilities.
For writers just starting out, placing in a well-known contest is an excellent way to break in, especially for those with a small or limited network of filmmakers around them. Plus, why spend all that time seeking out agents and managers when winning an award means that they’ll come to you, right?
So, if you’ve ever wondered what makes an award-winning screenplay, we are going to break down one of our own winning short scripts talking specifically from the point of view of a contest reader.
‘A Young Man’s Game’ (recently released as Champ) was written by the brilliant James Gould-Bourn who won the 2019 Short Film Fund. Champ focuses on a father’s misguided attempts to do what he thinks is best for his son. It’s a darkly comic story about family, trust, and the dangers of good intentions. The Short Film Fund offers an opportunity for screenwriters and filmmakers to get their short scripts made, with the funding and development support from Shore Scripts and free production equipment rental from ARRI Rental. The fund actively looks for producible short film projects that are suitable for the available budget and that can be shot within 18 months of the award being made. The fund also takes applications for finishing funds for projects already in production.
James originally entered our contest in 2018, placing as a Finalist. A year of rewriting alongside Emmy-winning Ben Tricklebank from our Directors Roster brought forth a new winning draft. So let’s examine why Champ became a Shore Scripts Winner
BUDGET: Not every contest is going to assess a script on the budget required, but if that’s part of the prize, you better believe that it plays a factor. A contest wants the best script possible to win, and the definition of “best” will depend on the goals and mission of the contest. A script that goes on to be a successful film helps to bring success to the contest that championed it, so an SFX-heavy script with tons of locations or characters can still absolutely win, but it may mean that it needs to secure additional funding if the cash prize isn’t going to cover everything. Champ does well to limit the budget here, with a small cast, a contained location, and no big expenses other than using a child actor, and that makes the piece feel really achievable to shoot.
LENGTH: While technically, a short film can be anything from 1-45 minutes long, ideally, shorter is often better. Film festivals like short shorts. They can cram more films into a program when they’re shorter, and shorter shorts means greater flexibility to devise programs that combine several projects around a given theme. Of course, a story should be as long or short as it needs to be. But if there were a preferred page length, Champ’s 10-pages would probably be it and this script hits that right on the mark.
PRESENTATION: The Short Film Fund is looking for scripts that are ready to go into pre-production so a professional presentation is a must. The script must do its job as a tool to take a project from the script to the screen. Professional layout, short scene headings, short character names, and no large blocks of text on the page all instantly create a positive impression. When a script is in a competition, small errors can make the difference between a first prize and a second prize, so always make sure your script is as polished as possible.
HOOK: Lean writing, by which we mean a short but effective sentence structure, also helps to highlight the writer’s professionalism and experience. Even if a script is not 100% perfect, i.e. there is some slight rewording to help the clarity, a strong hook helps a reader to see past that. In Champ, the hook is right there in the opener. We are tightly focused on the two main characters and there’s an excellent use of subtext to allow our imagination to flood in and fill the story with emotion. The father is impatiently checking his watch. Jake flinching at a rough tackle on the football pitch. The conflict that’s gradually building in the dialogue. We’ve got a slightly pushy father egging his reluctant son into doing something he doesn’t really want. It’s low-key conflict, but who can’t relate to that, right?
CONFLICT: In Champ, James displayed a mastery of interweaving conflict and character to drive the narrative development. Conflict exists on all levels of the drama. There’s a real back and forth conversation in this contained story with a power struggle battle of wills almost being fought between the two characters. Every page reveals new information and there are plenty of turns and reversals that keep the plot moving forward. However, there are tiny flecks of humor sprinkled in amongst an uncomfortable talk between father and son, helping to diffuse the tension when needed. Plus, even within the tight demands of ten pages, there’s a change in tempo in the third act as Jake’s father begins to deliver his poignant monologues, creating the build-up to the punchline, his is heart-filled confession works wonderfully as a distraction, making it hard for the reader to figure out exactly where this story is going, which works a treat when the surprise reveal comes at the end.
MEMORABLE TWIST: Bit it’s the ending that really makes Champ stand out. The end “reveal” places new meaning on just about everything we’ve learned previously creating a strong “I need to read this again!” feeling for the reader as well as an “I didn’t see that coming” moment too. While you don’t always need to have a twist, a successful short film absolutely needs to have a memorable ending, and this script certainly achieved that. In essence, it was the excellently executed ending that secured this script’s place as the winner.
Champ was ready to go into production at the beginning of 2020. The project had been developed faithfully to its original location in the UK. Then Covid hit, and the team had to make a decision – get the project filmed elsewhere or perhaps not get it filmed at all. Eventually, the shoot was transferred to the US, and James and director Ben Tricklebank rewrote the script once more. There were some stark differences between the original script and what ended up on the screen, but it is important to remember that a screenplay is simply the blueprint from which to build, meaning nothing is set in stone until the final post-production edit. Being proud of your filmed project is what is most important.
Most screenwriters set out to write a producible script that will be seen and loved by audiences. The Short Film Fund offers an opportunity to make that goal a reality. When entering a contest, screenwriters should carefully consider whether their goals align with the opportunities that a contest offers. The basic tenets of what makes a good script hasn’t changed for some considerable time; a tight, engaging story that is relatable and producible on the budget available.
We hope this breakdown of a winning script will encourage you to keep writing and write the best draft you can.
James Gould-Bourn currently lives in Bristol, England, and has recently published his first novel, Bear Necessity, with Simon & Schuster.
Ben Tricklebank, is a celebrated multi-disciplinary artist and director who is currently working with the global production company, Furlined.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses. Find her on Instagram @thescriptreader
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