LB: What Everyone Can Learn From the 2013 People’s Pilot & Spec Scriptacular Competitions

ppsslogosby Larry Brody

How About Some Quick General Remarks for a Start?

Now that the Winners of the People’s Pilot and Spec Scriptacular Competitions have been announced, I’ve had a little time to reflect on both contests. Not a lot of time (because I’m working like mad to deliver all that Feedback I promised ASAP), but enough to notice a few things that made me – and I think will make you – smile.

  • The People’s Pilot had the largest number of entries in its 15 year history.
  • The Spec Scriptacular had the largest number of entries in its 13 year history.
  • Taken as a totality, the entries in both contests were better than ever. In all categories, the judges considered at least 2/3 of what they read to be of professional caliber. (And considering that none of the entrants was a professional TV or film writer that strikes me as, well, amazing.)
  • I’ve had good experiences with every entrant with whom I’ve corresponded this year. Everyone’s been upbeat and positive, expressing the kind of joy in the very act of writing that those already in the biz want to work with, and which fills me with an equal amount of delight.

Thanks, everyone, for all this good stuff. You make everything I try to do more than worthwhile.

What TVWriter™ Contest Entrants (and other writers) Should Know About These Contests

My purpose in holding the PP and SS all these years has always been to give new writers a chance to get their work out into the world and become better writers by seeing how other people – professionals, in the biz – react to it.

For me, it’s all about educating aspirants so that not only can they become better writers, they can also become better salespeople for their writing. And, I admit, I’m in this to learn something too. As in how to hold better contests that enable more writers to get ahead by being better able to entertain the audience.

Today I’d like to present a few things I learned from this year’s running of both contests that I think will be very helpful to all of you who visit this site. So:

 What TVWriter™ Contest Entrants (and other writers) Should Know About Your Writing

The PP and SS are judged by professionals who apply professional standards to what they read. Very few allowances are made for your amateur standing. (And those that are have come out accidentally.)

The reason for that is that the very instant you sit down to write a TV script you’re in competition with thousands of professional TV writers, whether you intend to be or not. And every one of those writers has a better chance of getting a TV writing gig or making a TV sale than you do, simply because they’ve got history/reputation/credits/an IMDB listing.

The fact that a writer has done TV before, even if s/he did it badly, is still a plus to TV execs. It means the writer knows the rules of the game. The unspoken ones as well as those in the Writers Guild of America handbook.

It means the execs can talk to previous employers and learn about the writer’s strengths and weaknesses and as a result have a pretty good idea of what to expect when the writer delivers. More to the point, they know the writer probably will deliver something, and maybe even on time, and in a schedule-oriented business that’s a huge necessity. And that’s more than they can count on with someone new.

And what this last bit means is that because you’re new, you almost always have to demonstrate that you can write better than 90% of the pros. Because that’s the only way an exec can feel justified in taking a chance on you.

So our contests judge you the way the Biz would. (Which is why, this time around, everyone was so excited about seeing so many scripts of professional quality.) That being the case, it’s the flaws in an entry that often stand out more than the good points.

And that being the case, here are a couple of lists of the most common flaws in the scripts we received. This is the stuff to avoid.

The most common flaws in People’s Pilot entries this time around were:

  • The script had a good concept but wasn’t written as well as it needed to be.
  • The script had good writing but an all too familiar concept.
  • The script started too slowly. These days there are no first acts in TV, not even in pilots.
  • The script failed to create a problem for the protagonist to solve or a need to be met – i.e. it lacked a story. (Even pilots need stories.)
  • The characters spoke with stilted or otherwise unrealistic sounding dialog.
  • The characters spoke in long speeches instead of conversationally.
  • The script had long voiceovers that would take up too much screen time to match what the audience is actually seeing.
  • The script failed to describe the settings/locations/characters with the result that the reader couldn’t picture what was happening or how.
  • The script contained many scenes that were too long relative to their importance in the story, or just plain so long they stopped being interesting/put the reader to sleep.
  • The script was far too long in terms of page count for the amount of time called for in the category. (A 70 page script ain’t gonna play as a half-hour pilot…and probably not as an hour pilot either, especially when you consider that half-hour shows are really only 22 minutes and hour shows only 44 minutes these days.)

The most common flaws in Spec Scriptacular entries this time around were:

  • The script failed to capture the all-round tone of the series for which it was written.
  • The script failed to duplicate the speech patterns used by the regular characters.
  • The dialog in general was stilted or otherwise unrealistic.
  • The script started too slowly. These days there are no first acts in TV, not even in pilots.
  • The characters spoke in long speeches instead of conversationally. (More common in the Screenplay/TV Movie/Special category.)
  • The script had long voiceovers that would take up too much screen time to match what the audience is actually seeing. (More common in the Screenplay/TV Movie/Special category.)
  • In the Screenplay/TV Movie/Special category the script failed to describe the settings/locations/characters with the result that the reader couldn’t picture what was happening or how.
  • The script contained many scenes that were too long relative to their importance in the story, or just plain so long they stopped being interesting/put the reader to sleep.
  • The script contained events that just seemed to happen with no build-up, missing opportunities to create tension and suspense.
  • The script contained many scenes that didn’t further the plot. (This was most common in sitcoms. Even in comedy things have to keep happening to propel the story further and give a framework on which to hang the laughs.)

And the most common flaw in both contests was:

  • The writing was adequate/serviceable/professional – but not special. (You’ve got to put your heart and soul into every sentence you write. Fill it with emotion and energy. That’s what takes over the reader and makes him/her go, “Wow!”

This last thing is really a big deal, as those of you who’ve already received your Feedback (well, my Feedback regarding your work) already know. You don’t win a contest (or shouldn’t anyway) and you definitely don’t establish a professional career, without your stuff just plain knocking out everyone who reads it.

A typical episode of any show or a screenplay typical of its genre isn’t going to get you what you want. Your episode or screenplay has to be right up there among the best ever written. At the top of anyone’s list of the best they’ve ever seen.

What’s that you’re thinking? Many of the shows and films you see strike you as mediocre at best? So isn’t that the true standard of the industry?

Nope. Sorry. Un-uh. You’re only seeing the revised/over-thought/money-saving/dumbed-down versions of what’s been written for most television series and films. At some point there almost always was a version that made readers’ heads explode because it was so good. And just about everybody who’s anybody in the writing trade is capable of writing that awesome script. You have to prove you’re capable of it too.

By doing it.

Whew, I’m tired and have to go back to writing the Feedback. More about all this next week.

LYMI

LB

About LB

Larry Brody has been profiled in such national magazines and websites as Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Starlog, People, Electronic Media, IndieSlate, TechTV, io9, and of course TV Guide.

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world, with a career going back to the late ’60s, Brody has written and produced literally thousands of hours of network and syndicated television.

Brody has also been active in the TV animation world, writing, creating, consulting, and/or supervising the cult favorite STAR TREK animated TV series, the SILVER SURFER, SPAWN, SUPERMAN, SPIDERMAN, and SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED animated series, and was showrunner of the French animated series, DIABOLIK, as well as part of the team that developed and wrote the live-action/cgi animation sci-fi series Ace Lightning for the BBC.

Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including – yes, it’s true – Emmys.