“You should never treat ‘non-selection’ as being ‘rejection’, only as a kind of feedback about how your script currently compares and competes against its rivals (on balance of risk, for producers)…” Ian’s tips and feedback on six months of scripts submitted to WriteMovies. (Originally published on WriteMovies website – click here!)
I’d already read nearly 150 scripts for WriteMovies in years gone by, but this has been my first spell keeping an overview of all the submissions across a six-month spell. As a result of everything I’ve read and noted, here are my thoughts and tips for writers based on what’s been submitted recently. If your script doesn’t go as far in the contests as you’d like, it’s quite possible that there’s a tip in here to help your scripts appeal more to us in the future.
Of course, any selection of scripts is based on a very large number of subjective considerations, as well as whatever we’ve learned from our experience, training, reading and insight down the years, and our feelings about the audience and commercial potential of the scripts. To give every script the best possible chance, we make sure every script has been read by core staff and several trained readers here, but there’s always a chance we’ll miss out on something or someone with future potential, because we can only compare the ‘here and now’ script we’re given, with the other scripts that have been submitted, across dozens of aspects. So you should never treat ‘non-selection’ as being ‘rejection’, only as a kind of feedback about how your script currently compares and competes against its rivals – on balance of risk, for prospective producers, and under the considerations that we make at WriteMovies when we’re considering promoting our winners to industry.
So I’ll start with something I’ve really liked in many of your scripts that I’ve read this year so far…
- It’s been lovely and heartening to see how many writers – often male writers – have given charismatic leading parts to young girls. That said, implausibly over-intelligent children (especially girls) have also been used to excess in several scripts this year!
Now here are the things that I noticed several – or many – writers are currently doing that are damaging their chances of success with us, often unnecessarily. Note that I haven’t included general writing tips here, as those are equally valid at any time and we’re starting to compile those separately for another article. These are my notes specifically related to the scripts you’ve been submitting in this six-month period.
- The most obvious distinction I noticed between the scripts that succeeded, and those that didn’t, was that nearly all of the successful scripts began with a strong image (or series of images), and nearly all of the less successful ones didn’t. If you don’t start with a strong image, you’re liable to begin instead with an exposition-heavy dialogue scene – which is likely to draw attention to a number of minus points against you in the mind of your reader.
- You should try and implicitly prove the genre of your script early on (I suggest within the first two pages): draw our attention to something that sets the tone and the pace. So many of these scripts led our analysts to make completely different conclusions about what genre they really belonged to – which doesn’t help the script’s chances at all, because at least some of these analysts will be judging the script against expectations that the writer didn’t intend them to have.
- The successful scripts took us into a world that somehow felt distinctive, even if it was (on the surface) a very familiar one. The less successful scripts didn’t, and had to rely on the originality of their storytelling – which is tough to do in such a story-saturated world. It’s hard to be original with your plot and characters, premise and style – so tone and images are the best opportunity for you to mark yourself out. Perhaps it’s how you tell your story that matters most – so tell it in an interesting way.
- Avoid unmotivated voiceovers – the ones which don’t in any way emerge from either the story world or things that the character might realistically say to someone. Find some other story-related device to communicate whatever it is you need us to know – or just trust to your storytelling to make these features implicit within your story. Very few ‘storytelling’ voiceovers add any genuine value to the storytelling on screen, and most distance us from the story they’re supposed to be drawing us into.
- On the same note, I might have to create a new script note for my script annotations, “TCO” – Total Caption Overload. Don’t put more than 50 words on screen at any point, and no more than three captions in a row. This was especially predictable at the end of fact-based dramas. Being faithful is no excuse for being tedious; some might say that people go to the cinema to avoid reading things, and many millions of people aren’t as literate as writers might like to assume.
- There is at least one honorable exception among the scripts we’ve been assessing – and classic examples like ROMEO AND JULIET and WUTHERING HEIGHTS – but on the whole it is rarely viable to write a romantic drama. There’s a reason writers usually have to turn those stories to romantic comedies in order to find an audience – love stories generally just aren’t dramatic enough, are often flat and predictable, and are the stuff of TV movies and soap operas, not internationally successful movies. Those classics I mentioned earlier are both dramatic, emotionally rich, and epic in their scope. Also, if you’ve got a love story to tell, introduce the love interest character subtly, or we may all recognize the whole future story arc in seconds.
- Many current aspiring comedy writers have been going to extremes by showing unpleasant behavior and bodily functions and distasteful remarks. Every time you take a risk of alienating a potential audience member, you’re putting a red flag against your script from a producer’s point of view. Don’t forget that successful gross-out comedies like THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY are as notable for their warmth and empathy as for the playground gags.
- The same goes for violence and sex scenes. Without any warmth or empathy, we just don’t care, and are more likely to just switch off. My least favorite are probably the ugly or sudden sex scenes involving characters who we don’t care about, in the first ten pages. It’s the emotional context of these kinds of scenes that will make them matter to us.
- In fact, a number of scripts just lacked any kind of subtlety to engage our hearts and minds. Trust your audience – let us make up our own minds about what’s happening and what it means and how we should feel about it.
- I’ve noticed a lot of subtle misogyny in many scripts so far this year – sadly often coming from the mouths of female characters and female writers too. Sadly perhaps a reflection of the times we’re living in – the internet (through trolling and porn) has created new challenges for ensuring that everyone grows up with an understanding and respect for real women, and writers should not succumb to this. All great writing teaches us something important about how an aspect of the world can work.
- I’d thought it was mainly the UK that’s been swept up with horror stories about child abuse at the moment, but from the number of international scripts exploring those themes, it’s clearly a much wider concern. If you feel you do have to go there, please try to help us understand how and why these things can happen… it’s all too easy to dismiss real-world evil using fictional bogeymen, or to drop these themes into a story just to add some cheap shock value or topicality, which is unfair on the real victims of these crimes.
- Don’t mix up mother tongue use with English unless that’s what your character would actually be doing in that context.
- Don’t use headlines and media coverage to help tell or show your story, unless your writing can genuinely create the style with which the news media really would cover this story (and the amount of prominence – or not – it would realistically get).
You might not like or agree with all of these points but hopefully you will agree that they’re worth thinking about! Hope they help some of you. Good luck with your next scripts – we look forward to seeing your progress!