Wednesday, April 26, 2006

WRITERS ON THE STORM contest update

An update from contest coordinator Portia Jefferson:

I've been impressed with the quality of entries thus far in the contest. Many of our readers have read for the top contests in town, and they have all been surprised at the quality of scripts Writers On The Storm has received. Many of the story premises are not only fresh and unique, but they have a great deal of commercial potential. The winning scripts for most contests tend to be dramas (usually period pieces) that deal with historical events, historical figures or serious issues in the world. While we too like well-written scripts in this genre, what sets us apart is that we are giving equal weight to comedies, broad comedies, romantic comedies, horror films, thrillers and other genre films. We are looking for great scripts that people will actually want to go see. We know the marketplace and we definitely are looking for a script that can, and will, sell. And we are going to do everything in our power to help our winning writer do so.

So, keep sending in comedies, thrillers, and genre scripts. We are eager to read them all.

A couple of tips from our readers to help make a good impression on them:

-- BRADS MATTER. Use three-hole-punch paper, with a white cardstock cover and backing. Use TWO brads - Acco 1 ¼ inch solid brass fasteners are the norm. You're right if you think it's a minor issue and that it shouldn't have any affect on the reader. But, unfortunately, first impressions matter, and if the writer doesn't have the script bound in the proper way, then we tend to think that they don't know much about proper structure either. It's trivial… but do it.

-- PROTAGONIST. We want to meet the protagonist by page three. AND we want to know WHO the protagonist is and what his or her goal is. This is the number one flaw with most scripts - it's either hard to identify the protagonist OR it's hard to identify the protagonist's goal. Make it crystal clear.

-- ACTION BLOCKS. Keep them short. Three to four lines at the most. If we see THICK, CHUNKY action blocks, we get bummed out. As a reader, it's awful to turn a page and see a BIG chunk of action. Break it up, make sure there's plenty of white space on the page. Make the script easy to read.

-- CONFLICT. Make sure there is conflict on every page of your script. The worst scripts have scenes with characters simply chatting to each other. If a scene does not move the story forward AND expand our understanding of the characters, then either rework it or cut it.

-- PARENTHETICALS. Don't over use these. Basically, you should only use them if you need to tell the reader whom a character is speaking to. If you have to tells us what the character is feeling, thinking or doing, then there is something wrong with the dialogue. The mood/emotions of the character should be evident by the dialogue. The first thing actors do when they get a script is to cross out the parentheticals. Let actors act!

-- DON'T DIRECT. Don't use "we see" in the script. Don't put in camera movements or credit sequences. Don't tell us what song is playing in a scene unless it is critical to the action of a scene. Don't use "cut to". Again, keep it lean, mean...

-- ENDING. Make it strong, memorable.

That's it... We are excited by the writers from across the country who have submitted scripts. Some writers outside LA have written to tell us that they feel that all contests favor writers that live in LA. NOT true. We are looking for great writing, great scripts... period. As a matter of fact, LA writers sometimes write about similar subject matter and set their scripts in... LA. So it's refreshing to get scripts/stories that have unique settings and to read writers with unique voices.

Good luck to everyone!!


by Greg D’Alessandro

I can’t take it anymore. As a reader in this town for over five years, I’m constantly asking myself the above question. A great number of scripts I read (professional and amateur) are lacking, if not devoid, of conflict. No overall dramatic tension and no dramatic tension in the scenes. When I read scene after scene of characters chatting with each other, talking about their iPods, the hot guy in the room, orange juice etc. – no matter how clever, witty or poetic – I want to hurl the script across the room. Actually, I DO hurl the script across the room. Conflict is a basic tenet of dramatic writing that goes back to Aristotle. A story without conflict is… the phonebook! Please, please… don’t write ANY scenes they are lacking strong dramatic conflict. This is what makes scenes come alive. This is what makes your story a page-turner. This is what makes the reader want to keep reading and the viewer want to keep watching. And, most importantly, this is what keeps me sane!

Let’s look at overall dramatic tension first. David Howard, the Founding Director of USC’s acclaimed Graduate Screenwriting Program, has defined ALL stories this way: “somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.” Simple, right? Wrong. You’d be surprised by the number of writers who can’t tell you WHAT the protagonist in their story wants, let alone WHY they are having difficulty getting it. The “what” can be discussed in a future article – and boy THAT’S a big topic - but with regard to conflict, answering the WHY will help the writer determine what the primary conflict is in the story. WHY is your protagonist having difficulty getting what they want? What are the OBSTACLES that are preventing them from achieving their goal?

It’s not a bad idea to list the obstacles that your protagonist faces in the story. Usually, there are at least five obstacles standing in the way of the protagonist. One of those obstacles is always the protagonist himself, because he or she has an arc. He or she is on transforming from a personality into a person, and is struggling internally with regard to the goal he or she is seeking. The other obstacles are external (mountains to climb, boyfriends to dump, aliens to eat, etc.). And, of course, you have antagonist(s) who are actively trying to stop the protagonist from getting what he or she wants (Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, Angelina Jolie, etc.) So make sure you know what the overall conflict is for your story. What does your protagonist want? What is preventing him from getting it? Make sure you can answer these questions simply and specifically.

Scenes. This is where the biggest problems are. Writers don’t “build” scenes like they should. Instead they write scenes that are “entertaining” or “clever” or “cool.” Yeah they’re cool, but they’re also… boring! Why? Because there’s no conflict! Writers sometimes balk at the suggestion of adding conflict to a scene because they think that conflict means two or more characters have to physically attack each other or they need to be screaming at each other. No, no, no. Conflict merely means that there are two (or more) characters in the scene that have opposing wants or intentions. Writers need to look at scenes from an actor’s perspective. Actors need to have an “intention” in a scene or else there’s nothing for them to play – they become part of the scenery. A dramatic scene is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it has a character who “wants something badly but is having difficulty getting it.” Sound familiar? The protagonist in the scene has an overall goal for the story, yes, but in the scene at hand, he or she is taking one step on their journey to that goal and is encountering an obstacle that is preventing him or her from advancing. So, as Hal Ackerman the co-chair of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting Program suggests, when writing a scene ask yourself this question: “what does my character want, and what is he doing NOW to get it?” Also ask yourself, “WHO is opposing the character in this scene”? If you identify what EACH character in a scene wants BEFORE you write the scene, it will make writing that scene much easier and it will ensure that you have a dynamic, dramatic scene.

Here’s an insider tip. After reading a script, I usually flip through it, stopping randomly at ten different pages. If there’s no conflict on five or more of those pages I IMMEDIATELY give the script a PASS. If there’s conflict on all ten pages, then I know the writer knows what he or she is doing and assume the story must be good as well. And guess what? I’m always right. Great writers write great scenes. And great scenes ALWAYS have strong conflict.

So, where’s the conflict? On EVERY single page of a script. No exceptions!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I Hate Contests


Never liked 'em much, never trusted 'em.

Okay, sure, there are some contests that will unquestionably help you if you win. I went to an awards dinner about five years ago and sat at the same table with three Nicholl Fellowship top ten folks. The room was rife was industry types. Gale Anne Hurd was also seated at the our table. Producer Sid Ganis came over to say hello. And I asked the three winners about how things were going for them, and all of them said they were getting tons of meetings and offers to sign with big agencies and management companies.

Me, I entered a script into Nicholl 11 years ago. I only made the quarterfinals, but I actually got a manager off it. Out of the blue, I got a call from this start-up management company (a pair of former UTA agents) who were hustling for new clients. They read my action script and signed me.

Okay, that's a good contest.

Then there are the others.

I've entered quite a few of them over the years, and in general, disappointment and a depleted bank account were the only results. Of course, that's to be expected, right? Not everyone can win. But it wasn't that long ago that I had a script make the top ten of a contest that I shall not name here. I only found out I'd placed 6th through a friend's chance web search, and he called me up and said, "Dude!" The contest management did not even bother to notify me. No prizes, not even postcard. Nothing.

Okay, that's a bad contest.

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. And so over the years I've entered several others. In a few of them I was eliminated in the first round; in others I made the top ten. One I even won (along with five others). But there was one thing all those non-Nicholl contests had in common:

Nothing ever happened because of them.

Okay, the one I won, I did get a few meetings with some low-level agents, and none of those guys seemed all that interested, frankly, in doing any actual work. But the others, nothing.

And so it was with these hesitations that Greg D'Alessandro--himself a multi-contest winner--and I sat down to brainstorm our own "nontest" which would eventually become Writers on the Storm. We agreed that never hearing anything back from a contest is hugely annoying. Contests like American Accolades and Slamdance give you feedback or coverage. So we decided to do the same--only cheaper. That's the second thing that bugged us about contests--the cost. That's one expensive lottery ticket.

But the single biggest thing is that: our contest had to mean something to the winner(s)' careers. And that's where we figured we could make a real difference. Because first off, we know some guys. So when we send the winners out with our recommendations, it will actually mean something to those folks. And second, since we're Coverage, Ink, we can use our team of pros to help the winning writer polish up that diamond to a blinding gleam before submitting it to the industry. Because if this thing does not pluck some writer from obscurity and launch their career, then what the hell is the point?

I still hate contests... but with any luck, after your winning script sells for $500K against a million, we'll raise the bar for all the other contests. That's what this is all about.

--Jim Cirile

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Hi folks! Well, we went and did it. The deadline for Writers on the Storm has been extended from 4/15/06 to 5/6/06. That is our FINAL DEADLINE, and we will not accept any scripts submitted after that time.

Now it seems like every contest in the world extends at the very end. They generally wait until the last day and then spring it on everyone--and then they tack on an additional fee for the privilege of allowing you to submit after their deadline. Well, not us. When we decided to extend, we realized we'd better give people some notice. So we're announcing the extension a week ahead of our original deadline. Further, we are NOT tacking on any extra fee--entry is STILL a flat $35.

The reasons we decided to extend are twofold. First, we have heard from a LOT of folks that tax day (4/15) is a bad day to end a contest. A lot of folks are scrambling to get their taxes done (I'm one of them) and simply can't work on their scripts last minute like writers love to do. The other reason has to do with coinciding with the end of the semester for universities. There are a lot of folks taking classes who are finishing up their scripts over the next few weeks, and we want to make sure we're seeing the best, tightest, most polished scripts out there. We've already seen quite a few very good ones by the way.

So if you've already submitted, fear not--we're reading those scripts right now. If you haven't submitted yet, this gives you an extra 3 weeks to get that script polished.

And don't forget--if you submit your script to Coverage, Ink for analysis, it's automatically entered into the contest for FREE. If you get a Consider with Reservations or better for script, you're automatically a quarterfinalist. And if you do not, you still have time to make changes based on the analysis and resubmit--if you hurry!

Yep, Writers on the Storm is the ONLY contest that gives you a second chance--take advantage of it! And of course, may the best scripts win!