The truth is, writing is writing, and contests are contests. How a writer wins a screenplay contest is the same as how a writer wins any other contest. You apply the three variables of attention, skill and luck.
You can’t do much about luck. The Vikings believed a person was born with lucky or unlucky, and that a person’s luck could desert him. On the other hand, Samuel Goldwyn said,
“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
He also said:
Believe in the first if you must, chuckle at the third, but apply the second, and always keep your fingers crossed, except when typing.
Attention and skill, however, are well within your control.
If I were to give a person only two words to live by, they would be, “Pay attention”, possibly with an exclamation mark afterwards. Attention is more important than skill, because skill can’t be acquired without attention.
Skill is more important than talent. Talent is the flash that starts the fire – skill is what feeds it and keeps it from going out. Skill, like attention, requires work. Skill can tell a simple story in a compelling, page-turning way, and tell a complex one without requiring that the viewer have a program in order to keep the plot lines untangled.
Here’s how you apply attention and skill to make a winning entry.
1 – Research your contest.
Make sure you and your work fit the parameters of the contest. I’m pretty sure that you won’t put a comedy screenplay into a horror contest, or vice-versa. But look at the requirements for length, number of characters, location, themes (like “uplifting”). If you are one character over the limit, or can’t move your story from Toronto to Spongecake Falls, then don’t squander time, energy and postage on the contest. It may be a very good contest, with excellent prizes, and you’re absolutely not going to win it.
There may also be age limitations, or residency, experience or estrogen requirements. Read everything. Be sure. Pay attention.
What do you do after you’ve read everything you can find about the contest and determined that it’s absolutely for you and your screenplay? You can (and should) contact other winners. If they won, they may have some tips for you.
2– Polish, polish, polish
Read your screenplay again. More than that, get feedback. Every writer should have a writers’ group, either online or in real life. Learn to give good, solid, constructive feedback and seek out those who will give you the same.
When you’re entering a contest, it’s no time for a feel-good, warm-fuzzy-fest. You need to know if the opening scene kicks or sucks, if the humour is falling completely flat, if the characters will need to be shot in 3-D to be well-rounded. Find people who will tell you the honest truth about your screenplay. If they’ll tell you when something isn’t working, then you can believe them when they say it’s great.
You don’t have to make all, or any, of the changes suggested. Neil Gaiman says that when people tell you something isn’t working, they’re usually right; when they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. Do what you believe is the best for your screenplay. Run it by your readers again.
3 – Persist
Are there people who win the big prize the first time out? You betcha. Are there people who win only after entering multiple contests? Lots more of those. If you don’t win the first one, try again. You might or might not get feedback about why you didn’t win – chances are you won’t. Maybe you came in fifty-eighth, but maybe you came in eleventh, or sixth.
Don’t be discouraged – try again. If you give up, you’re guaranteed never to win. Maybe there’ll be another judge next year and you can put the same screenplay in again. Maybe you need to narrow your field, choose another contest, try another screenplay. Just be persistent. There are more good writers out there than there is funding for them, and that cuts across all the disciplines of writing, screenplays included.
Get out the lucky rabbit’s foot, nail that horseshoe up over the office door and keep your fingers crossed – except, of course, when typing.