10 Screenwriting Contest Strategies to Improve Your Chances Of Winning
As a professional script analyst, I’ve been reading scripts for over a decade. I read between 200 and 500 scripts a year, and sometimes more – so that’s a lot of screenplays! Many of those are for contests, and many are for companies.
And – I also work as a screenwriter. I’ve had 3 scripts sold through contests, and others that have been optioned along the way. One was produced and distributed by PlayStation in 2018, so I have pretty good familiarity with contests on all sides – winning, placing, losing, and judging.
I wanted to put this guide together to help writers who are looking for a leg up on their next contest entry. If you’re struggling to place in contests, check out these tips for the best screenwriting contest strategies to improve your chances of winning or placing.
This seems super obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it! Even if you’re trying to figure out how to win screenplay competitions – the basics don’t occur to everyone.
I have told this story before, but one time I had a really bad script – awful story, the characters were flat, the idea wasn’t working. I decided to send it into a contest anyway, knowing that the winners tend to be as much about what they’re up against. So, I spent a while proofreading and formatting it perfectly.
Once that was done, I sent it in…
And landed in the top 15%.
That script never went anywhere else, but it did land in the top 15% of a major contest, without any real story work done on my part.
As a reader, I’ve seen hundreds of scripts that clearly have never been proofread one time. Errors like breathe/breath or loose/lose are common, fluorescent is an often-misspelled word, and let’s not talk about all the scripts typed in Microsoft Word (if you need tips on what to write your screenplay in, check out this article on the best screenwriting software).
Proofread. It improves your chances.
2. Do a Table Read / Read Out Loud
If you have friends who can join you in person or over Zoom, have your script read out loud (or read it out loud to yourself).
This is a good way to catch inconsistencies, atonal beats, and anything that you might not see just by reading it.
Listening to it back can help you see what’s working and what isn’t.
3. Swap with a Friend
If you have a writer friend, swap with them and get their thoughts.
If you don’t have a writer friend, make some! The internet is filled with screenwriters looking for notes, and it’s a good idea to get a second pair of eyes. Don’t let the contest reader be the first person to read your script besides you.
4. Join a Writer’s Group
This is good advice anyway. It can help you build relationships that will last long into your screenwriting career. Join a writing group and get to know other writers (ideally screenwriters) who can give you their thoughts.
Be careful with this; if the group is toxic, not working, or not at your level, join a new one.
5. Get Personal
I talk about this in my free template on pitching a project.
If there’s no emotional component, the reader is going to check out. Write something that feels personal.
I had a writer friend who was quite good, but he wasn’t getting any traction with managers. He wrote a really personal story about a family member, and suddenly he had multiple offers. Did his writing improve? A little.
What improved more was his personal connection to the story, and it could be felt on the page. Don’t discount your own personal connection to your story.
6. Read a Ton of Other Material
Ideally in the genre you’re writing in.
Why? Because you want to understand the genre’s tropes. What’s commonly done and overdone? How can you surprise or subvert? How do other writers keep audiences interested?
I remember in 2006 when the movie Stick It came out. At the time, we were supposed to be surprised by the opening, though I think even then it was obvious. Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool on the page. The writer, Jessica Bendinger, does a good job of not revealing what’s going on too soon, and that helps set up the rest of the story.
7. Watch a Ton of Material
…again, ideally in the genre you’re writing.
Because you need to understand how it plays on the screen. Screenwriting is a visual medium, but I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a writer just ignore that entirely to focus on dialogue.
Great dialogue matters. But we still need to see the story in our head while we’re reading it, and two people just talking without any action for 3 pages isn’t as exciting as two people talking while running away from a bad guy, flying on a dragon, or breaking into a vault.
Your script doesn’t have to have giant, earth-shattering setpieces, but you should have an understanding of visuals and why they play such an important role. The more you watch, the more familiar you’ll become with things like transitions and the dialogue/visual balance.
8. Read the Rules
One of my favorite contest reads was for a feature film screenwriting contest.
I received a 1 page pitch (not a full screenplay, just a brief idea), typed in Times New Roman/MS Word… for a reality TV show.
Not only was this not the right format or length, it wasn’t even the right type of project. I believe the contest refunded the writer, but it was embarassing for them.
I know everyone is looking for their way in and trying to find the perfect screenwriting contest strategies – and some people are told to just submit everywhere. But… that’s not how it works.
9. Come Up with a Good Title
I can’t emphasize this enough. When you become a fancy-schmancy writer, you’ll be able to just write “Untitled [Your Name] Project,” and totally get away with it.
When you’re sending something into a contest, you want to hook the reader right away.
Look at other titles in the genre. Play with puns and language. Play with thesaurus.com (make sure you know what the words actually mean).
Try to make sure your title feels thematically relevant. Sometimes I read really flat titles that are just the name of a place (it works in Fargo, but it doesn’t always work). Other times, I’ll read a title that sounds like a modern comedy, and ends up being a WWII drama. Make sure your title fits your tone.
I will also note: there’s more crossover in comedy and horror than you might think, so don’t be afraid to look at horror titles for inspiration, if you’re writing a comedy (or vice versa).
10. Make Sure Your Script Has a Logline
You should ideally be able to summarize your script in 1-2 sentences. Yes, that will absolutely leave out worldbuilding and subplots.
But, it’s important to be able to connect with a reader quickly and in a compelling way. I get sent a lot of scripts that are overloaded with subplots. That can be ok – but usually it’s confusing. It sometimes feels like the writer wanted to write 3 different scripts, and shoved them all into 1 draft.
Part of my work involves writing a summary of each script I read. I usually do my first summary draft while I’m reading the script, and then polish it before sending it to my clients. I’ve started to notice – if it’s easy for me to write a 1-2 page summary of the script, it’s more likely that the screenplay is in a good place than if my first summary is 3-5 pages. Once it starts going on and on, there may be too many subplots or too much on the page.
That is not to say you should dumb down your script, or cut needed elements. If you need to do worldbuilding, do it. But keep in mind that, even just for marketing purposes, your script ultimately will be summarized in 1 page, and having a solid logline can help you do a test run to make sure your idea can be pitched easily.
Though I love films like Magnolia and Mulholland Dr, I still think those are films that have great 1-sentence loglines. You don’t have to make your film not-complex. But you do need to think about a cohesive story.
If your goal is to make something super avant-garde, and that’s the kind of contest you’re writing for, go wild. But if you’re looking to win some of the more popular narrative contests, try to write a story that’s understandable. If your story is too confusing, you’ll lose the reader, and it’s hard to get a reader back.
And some bonus tips:
11. Try to Avoid Unneeded Flourishes
These might be: metatext (asides to the reader), excessive camera direction, music and sound cues, or other areas that bump the reader out of the script and into the real world. Sometimes these things work well. I happen to think a lot of writers can deliver on these in excellent and creative ways.
But… be careful. If the reader is distracted and taken out of the script by something on the page, it might be worth reconsidering. Maybe it means revising the scene or the situation, or maybe it means dropping the excess stylistic elements.
One time, I read a script once that had a cover page with a really cheap-looking graphic design that was filled with pasted-in images (some pixelated) of the awards the script had already won. This made me nervous, and I was right to be: it was bad. It looked cheap.
And it didn’t follow screenplay guidelines. While you can get away with some visual images, you need to be sparse and careful, and make sure they fit the story – this was all about the writer bragging. Pointing to all the awards it won – at low-level/unpopular festivals – ended up looking desperate.
The script should be good enough to speak for itself. And keep in mind: many contests remove the cover page before giving the script to the reader, so it wouldn’t even help your chances in those instances (I didn’t mention the cover in the notes, but it was a huge turnoff).
12. Keep to a Standard Page Count
A 145 page script might feel necessary to tell your story. But for a contest, you’re functioning in a different space – where readers may not make more than $5-15 an hour (sometimes less!) and have a huge stack of projects.
That doesn’t mean you need to cut your pages to satisfy a contest reader, but it does mean to keep in mind standards and practices. Right now, screenplays run 90-125 pages. 125 usually is at the outside. While Peter Jackson can get away with writing 200 page projects, a screenplay contest entry is (usually) not by an A-lister (though, incidentally, I have read screenplays for contests by A-list actors).
13. Keep a Cohesive Tone
I remember reading a period piece that compared a fight sequence to something from The Terminator. Ok – maybe they really wanted that kind of action. But… in a period piece, the tone of the comparison didn’t work.
And spending too much time comparing your work to other films makes the reader think more about those films than your own. You can come up with more creative character introductions than “like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.” And your reader will love you for that creativity.
Most importantly, whatever you do – keep writing. If at first you don’t succeed, write more. That’s the best way to get better, and a great script is the most important element of a contest win.
What other tips have helped you win screenwriting contests? Share them in the comments!