Big Break® Screenwriting Contest: Anonymous reader shares 5 most common mistakes to avoid
June 6, 2022
For six years I’ve been a reader for Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest. The annual competition has thousands of writers enter with the hope of launching a screenwriting career (in both film and television). Every year finalists and winners have their scripts optioned, sold or go on to secure representation as a result. Of course not every writer who submits their script to Big Break can become a finalist or winner (it wouldn’t be a contest otherwise).
In addition to reading for Big Break, I’m a professional screenwriter who has sold various screenplays and TV pilots. Working in the film industry since 2008 has given me insight into what works for a script and what doesn’t. Over the years, I’ve seen numerous reoccurring mistakes from novice writers that hurt their prospects of placing or winning.
Below are the five biggest mistakes contestants make, so you don't have to!
1. Selecting the Wrong Genre for Your Script
When you submit a feature script to Big Break, you can choose from the following categories: Action/Adventure, Comedy/Rom-Com, Drama, Family/Animated, Period/Historical/War, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Thriller/Horror. You can likewise choose Half-Hour or Hour-Long for television pilots. And Diversity is a category you can choose for either features or television. It doesn’t matter how good or potentially marketable your script is, if your reader is distracted by the question, "why was this script in this category?", you've lowered your chances for success.
A lot of writers think if there’s a murder or police detective protagonist this automatically makes their script a Thriller. This is only the case if there’s a serial killer or stalker involved and a pervasive threat to the protagonist and other characters. If it’s more of a character-driven story with little action and thrills, then it’s a crime drama and should be submitted into Drama.
If you’ve written a script that combines genres (e.g., Horror-Comedy, Action/Sci-Fi) go with the genre you think your script leans more towards. If it’s a little funnier than it is scary, go with Comedy/Rom-Com rather than Thriller/Horror (or submit it into both categories, which you’re able to do).
Another mistake writers make when submitting to the contest is entering Half-Hour comedy pilots into the Hour-Long category. Be mindful that it’s estimably one minute per page when you’re using Final Draft’s industry standard formatting and that Hour-Long is usually reserved for more serious or complex pilots.
2. Uninspired Opener
Many aspiring writers don’t take into account just how important the script’s opening is. In terms of the actual writing, this is the most reoccurring mistake I’ve come across. Most managers, agents and producers will stop reading in the first couple of pages if the script doesn’t grab them. This is something Big Break readers are aware of and it’s definitely something I consider when reading a script.
A thing I see again and again is a script that opens with the main character waking up and getting into their morning routine. Unless there’s something unusual about how they’re waking up or where they’re waking up, this is a trope to avoid. Yes, there are some films that establish a protagonist waking up and getting into their morning routine, but in most cases, there was an opening beforehand that created some intrigue to pull you into the story.
A less mundane but quite cliched opening involves a murder scene and a police detective(s) arriving on the scene. Unless there’s something particularly unusual about the murder or the characters, this is going to do little to help your script distinguish itself early on. Even if you initially write a more commonplace opener just to get the creative ball rolling, there’s nothing keeping you from giving it a more scrutinizing read after you’ve finished your script and revising it. You’ll be surprised how much your writing improves after completing a script and you should use your increased skill to come up with the most engaging opener possible.
3. Too Many Characters
One of the things aspiring writers will often do is populate their script with too many characters. The problem with doing this is it makes it harder to differentiate the supporting characters from the main ones; the reader won’t know who the focus should be on and might even have difficulty following which character is which. From my experience, this happens a lot in Comedy/Rom-Com scripts. Novice writers usually give the protagonist a lot of friends. In real life, many of us have our fair share of friends, but there’s real life and there’s real life in a movie.
There’s a reason why the “Best Friend” is a popular character in comedies. The Best Friend in a comedy takes the place of all our friends in real life. They’re the Swiss Army Knife of confidants, the sounding-board, the character our main character can continually talk to, get advice from, argue with, etc. When starting their script, a writer should look at the function of each character and ask, “What does this character bring to the overall story? Are they absolutely necessary?”
4. Overall Lack of Focus
Oftentimes the most difficult task of being a reader is simply ascertaining what a script is about. Too many characters; too many subplots; too many digressions; too many elements that pull the reader’s attention away from your protagonist and their journey (whether it be a physical or an emotional one). Complex story or not, it should always be clearly indicated what the story is and who it’s about.
This is why clear goals and emotional throughlines are vital to a screenplay. They help place emphasis on the primary story and plot points throughout your script. Most managers, agents and producers are busy people and they’re constantly bombarded with screenplays. If they start reading a spec script and they don’t know what it’s about and who the protagonist is after the first couple of pages, they’ll most likely stop reading and move to the next script. When writing a script, a writer should always ask, “What’s it about? Who are the main characters? How can I maintain focus throughout?”
5. Not Knowing the Marketplace
A fair amount of scripts entered into Big Break don’t show an awareness of the contemporary marketplace or current industry trends. From raunchy bromantic comedies to traditional crime dramas, there’s not a sense that these writers are keeping up with what Hollywood is looking for. For example, contained thrillers have been in high demand for the past few years, but I’ve actually come across very few of them when reading for Big Break.
It’s extremely important to know the marketplace and it’s easy to do so. Not only are various trade publications and industry message boards available online to the public, but also consume the type of content that’s being produced. Watch new movies and TV series. Take note of certain elements they might share. Pay attention to how these stories are being told. In most cases, this alone will illuminate certain trends.
Now, this doesn’t mean jumping on every new trend that comes along. In many ways, this can limit your chances just as much since people in the industry will become quickly tired of certain trends (especially the ones that didn’t connect with a large audience). The best thing to do is tell the story you want to tell, but think about how it can fit into the current marketplace. Are there ways to subvert the cliches? Are there ways you can come at it from a different angle or point of view? Asking these questions of yourself and your idea might lead you to write a fresher script than you had originally imagined and increase your chances of being a Big Break finalist or winner.
Written by: Final Draft
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