4 Screenwriting Tips to Help You Win the Four Stories Filmmaking Competition

By  · Published on August 24th, 2012

You’ve only got 7 more days to enter the Four Stories Filmmaking Competition, which means you’ve either got to hustle or you’re still polishing and perfecting. Either way, we’ve decided to help out with a few free pieces of advice that might come in handy.

The contest – sponsored by W Hotels, Intel, The Directors Bureau and Roman Coppola – is unique in that its prompt involves two strict rules about where the story must be set (inside a W Hotel) and what has to be at the heart of the story (an Ultrabook laptop). Think of it as a grown-up version of creative writing class where the chance to have your script made by a Coppola is at stake along with two cool trips and a bit of spending money. I don’t remember my creative writing teacher ever being able to offer that (sorry, Mr. Boyd!).

So if everyone is shackled by these challenges, how do you stand out? The creativity is up to you, but hopefully these 4 tips will get you that extra push you need for that 20th revision to really sing.

Listen to the Sciptnotes Podcast

Each episode of the show hosted by John August (Big Fish, Frankenweenie) and Craig Mazin (Superhero Movie, The Hangover Part II) is bursting with information, so this tip is more like a tip on where to find more tips.

And not just more, but the best quality tips.

From structural minutiae to big picture conceptualization, this podcast is peerless. Mazin and August also regularly give feedback to writers who submit to their Three Page Challenge, and since they post the pages for all to read, the advice almost always resonates beyond that specific writer. There’s not enough time left for you to get them to appraise your work personally, but there is plenty of time left to check out 10–20 episodes and take notes on what hits home. The show is invaluable in terms of both its common and its uncommon sense, and its the rare masterclass where two career screenwriters share what they’ve learned along the way.

Plus, you might just find a new podcast addiction. If you’re not into audio, August’s blog boasts “a ton of useful information about screenwriting” for a reason.

Take the Story Minute By Minute

One of the most refreshing takes on screenwriting from the past decade comes from Todd Klick, the author of “Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Should Know.” If you can’t have the book overnighted to your place, here’s a quick primer. The underlying concept is that all successful movies follow a minute-by-minute formula where something startling happens at minute 8. Klick came to the conclusion after noticing a pattern in his favorite movies and then spent an absurdly long time watching the greats with a stopwatch in one hand and a notepad in the other. What he found, was an incredible pattern.

He claims that it can also be used for short films (which should help considering the Four Stories contest is limited to a max of 10 pages), but even if it doesn’t fit exactly, it can certainly be truncated and molded to work with your story. In the first ten minutes, the stakes should be introduced, raised, and something startling should happen. If you’re creating something plot-driven, do you have those elements? If not, you might want to rethink how you’re going about telling your story.

Be Brutal or Have Someone You Know Do It

The people judging your screenplay don’t know you from Adam or Eve, and they’re going to be digging through so many submissions that if you bore them or come off as a poor writer, they’ll have no moral qualms about tossing your script into the dumpster. In fact, they’ll probably attach a basketball hoop to it just for fun.

They are going to be brutal, and so should you. If you can’t read your own work with a harsh critical eye, you should find someone who can – someone who can deliver their opinion in a constructive way which will allow you to trim all the terrible and let the excellent shine. The second element of that is in trusting them to be merciless and in trusting yourself to handle their appraisal with thick skin.

If it helps, send the script to your mom as well so you have someone telling you how amazing you are. Then shake that off and get to down to the next edit.

Your Third Idea Is Usually Going to Be The Best

This is a piece of advice that comes directly from my ten years of professional writing and editing. After many a late night of pitching editorial ideas around a bottle-cluttered table (or on couches or floors), it started to become clear that all of us would be too obvious with our first concept, get too bizarre with our second and then reign it in for something unexpected but sensible on our third try. That went for ideas, headlines and revisions alike (although there’s nothing wrong with taking more than 3 passes on a piece of writing).

It’s as if we were too cautious at first and then too creatively free. Scratching out the first idea got rid of the easy joke, but the second idea needed the level-headed editing that brought a wacky concept back down to earth.

In a competition where everyone’s story is going to be set in the same place, featuring the same main prop, finding a unique take that’s not too Left Field is going to be the key in laying down the concrete for a memorable script. How do you make a hotel a character without being like everyone else? Get that initial idea out of the way, play What If with no restrictions and then swing the pendulum back toward the middle to tighten everything up.

Now Go Do It

There’s nothing keeping you from getting to the grindstone and finishing this script except excuses. At even an hour a day, you should be able to churn out something worthy of your talent, and it doesn’t cost anything except time to submit, so why not go for it?

Best of luck.

Submit your script here.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.