By Julia Morizawa.
What makes a great script? More specifically, what makes a script stand out to contests, fellowships, and similar opportunities that will help me land meetings with agents, managers, and production companies? This is a question that we get asked all the time.
Although there isn’t a single, straightforward answer that encompasses all formats and genres, there are absolutely elements in the screenplays we are lucky enough to read through our contests, Film Fund, and coverage services that stand out as must-haves in a contest-winning script.
In this article, we’re going to break down one of our own winning TV Pilot scripts, specifically from the perspective of a contest reader. Many of our readers also have experience reading for studios, production companies, and agencies, making their perspectives largely universal for industry standards today.
The Big O, written by Kate Shenton, was our Grand Prize Winner for our 2019 TV Pilot Contest in the half-hour category. The comedy focuses on an awkward millennial who has never had an orgasm. When her boyfriend unexpectedly proposes, she launches into a messy journey of sex therapy to face her demons and achieve “the big O”.
Kate is a London-based comedy, drama, and horror writer. Her comedy web series, Netflix & Kill, was nominated for Best British Web Series at the Pilot Light TV Festival. She won First Place at the Starlight Residency for her web series script, Dead In Love, and her script, Savage, won the Filmmatic Horror/Thriller Screenplay Awards. Kate’s produced films have screened at over one hundred festivals including Raindance, Slamdance, Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, and Fright Fest.
As our Grand Prize winner, Kate was awarded $1,500 cash, a copy of Final Draft, distribution of her script to our Industry Roster, and more. After The Big O took 1st Place in the Shore Scripts TV Pilot contest, she signed with Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, a leading UK agency that also represents Steve McQueen, Kayleigh Llewellyn, and Jack Thorne, and has clients known for projects including The Worst Person in the World, The Witcher, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, Wheel of Time, Halo, and more. Kate shared that finally owning a copy of Final Draft was hugely beneficial and the prize money helped pay off her credit card.
“Since winning, I achieved representation and I’m now pitching my projects to some of the biggest production companies in the UK. I feel the whole experience has really evolved me as a writer, and if it wasn’t for Shore Scripts I would not be on my current career path.” –Kate Shenton
So, let’s take a deeper look into why The Big O became a Shore Scripts contest winner.
PREMISE: Establishing a clear, simple premise early in the script is a sure way of grabbing a reader’s attention and keeping them invested in the story. In the case of a pilot, this premise needs to set up what we can expect for the episode as well as what we can expect for the series. In simplest terms, the premise tells us the protagonist of the story, their goal, and the stakes if they fail to achieve that goal. Sometimes including the inciting incident and the antagonist serve the concept as well. The premise is usually summed up in the script’s logline.
For the protagonist in The Big O, Josie’s inciting incident occurs during the teaser on page 2 – her boyfriend, Martin, proposes. In a panic, Josie admits that she’s never had an orgasm, and we soon learn she believes that a complete and satisfying sexual experience goes hand-in-hand with love and marriage. This kicks off Josie’s journey for the episode – to decide whether to accept Martin’s proposal. It also kicks off her series’ journey – to achieve an orgasm. Every scene for the remainder of the episode is in direct pursuit of these goals.
CONFLICT: Despite a simple premise, Josie’s journey is, in fact, complex, which is what keeps us emotionally invested long-term. In pursuit of her goal, Josie soon realizes there may be much deeper issues preventing her from achieving The Big O, such as a lack of sufficient guidance, low self-esteem, and growing up witness to a loveless marriage between her parents.
As she attempts a variety of tactics to achieve her goal from a bag of sex toys provided by her best friend, to cheating with a stranger who claims he’s never failed at giving a woman an orgasm, to eventually getting into therapy, Josie is progressively faced with more problems than solutions. Over and over, she comes up against obstacles and hard truths that fill every scene with conflict. This further contributes to the strong pacing of the script because every scene builds on a previous scene and serves to either help or hinder Josie in achieving her goals. Maintaining constant plot progression, throwing as much fuel into the fire as possible, and ensuring that every scene serves the story will keep a reader engaged to the end.
TONE: Immediately establishing the tone of the script is necessary to put the reader into the right mindset for the story. This can help prevent any logic issues or difficulties with the suspension of disbelief arising, as well as avoid unintentional obstacles with believability. And tone extends far beyond the borders of genre.
The Big O is clearly intended to be a half-hour comedy. But comedy is a relatively generic term with many facets. There are broad, dark, satire, parody, absurd, slapstick, surreal, and many more branches within the genre. From the first two paragraphs of the scene description, which includes the protagonist’s introduction, we know that this pilot embraces a heightened comedic tone with a focus on over-the-top characters that fulfill traditional comedy archetypes. Although the script is formatted for single-cam, it checks the boxes of a classic sitcom. The tone is reminiscent of Arrested Development meets Coupling, and could easily conform to either single-cam or multi-cam television. And with a punchline occurring just about every three lines of dialogue or more (a formulaic standard for sitcoms), The Big O remains true to this tone, and our expectations of the genre and medium, beautifully.