A screenwriter’s 5 stages of grief (contest edition)

Five minutes later, he was fine
Any contest email that includes the word “unfortunately” is probably not good

Ah, the screenwriting contest. There are so many out there, and may be the key to breaking in and starting a career.

Once you decide to take the plunge and submit, your brain fills up with visions of your script claiming first prize and all the goodies that come with it – cash and prizes, prestige, connections.

But the sad truth really is that while many will enter, only a select few will win. The odds are already against you, so you do the best you can.

Then the announcement comes, and you’re not on that list. How do you handle it?

1. DENIAL

This can’t be right. My script should be right there. Something must be wrong. Wait. Maybe I just didn’t see it. Let me look again. Are these listed by author’s first name, last name, or by title? Why am I not seeing it? Maybe they just forgot to include me. That happens, right?

2. ANGER

Aaugh! I can’t believe I didn’t make it! All that hard work shot straight to hell! How could they not like this? I’m never entering another contest again!

3. BARGAINING

Please let this be a mistake. I promise I’ll try harder and do better next time.

4. DEPRESSION

I’m the worst writer ever. I’ve got no talent. They probably read this and laughed their heads off at how bad it was. How could I even think I had a shot at this? Why did I even bother? I should just give up now.

5. ACCEPTANCE

It’s all subjective. You never know what someone going’s to like or not like. Maybe the script wasn’t as perfect as I thought. I should probably work on it some more, maybe even shell out the bucks for some professional feedback. It’s not like this is the only contest out there, and there’s always next year.

So what now?

After a little self-comforting (maybe with your preferred substance of choice), you sit yourself down and get right back to work.

*Full disclosure – This is similar to what I recently went through after the results of the Nashville Screenwriting Contest were announced. My script didn’t make it past the first round. Naturally, I was disappointed, but feel better now and am even more committed to writing kickass material. Thanks for asking.

And you want to take over the world because…?

Not just the villain, but a key part of the whole story
Not just the villain, but a key part of the whole story

So you’ve got your protagonist’s story planned all the way through. Beginning to end. You know what they want and what they need. That character arc is firmly in place.

What about your antagonist?

Have you put as much effort into developing their story? Do you explain why they’re doing this? What do they seek to gain from their actions?

A lot of the time, the bad guy is the more interesting character, so why wouldn’t you make just as much of an effort on fleshing them out?

The character we identify as the villain should see themselves as the hero of their story, with your protagonist the one standing in their way of achieving their goal.

Maybe there’s a previously-existing connection between the two, which can be gradually revealed as the story progresses.

How often has a writer explained the “why” behind the antagonist with a casual “Because they’re bad”?  Readers and audiences want a little more depth than that.

This isn’t saying you need to come up with an extensive backstory about their past and what led them down this path.  A few lines of dialogue can be just the thing to provide the reason why they’re doing this.

You’ve already spent a lot of time developing your hero’s journey. It only makes sense to do the same for the villain.

Active, not reactive – OR – C’mon, do something!

Never has a call to action been more necessary
Never has a call to action been more necessary

As you work your way through your latest draft, among the numerous questions to keep in mind is “Is my main character the one driving things forward?”

It’s a common complaint: a protagonist who is too passive. How do you make sure they aren’t?

Start with this: Do they make things happen or just react to them?

Your story is about this character going through some ordeal as they try to achieve their goal. Are they taking the steps needed and doing what they have to in order to do that?

Their normal routine has most likely been drastically altered. How are they reacting to all these changes while trying to get things back to normal?

How does the character factor into each scene? Are they having some kind of impact? Does the outcome of each scene depend on them? Does what they do here get them closer to reaching their goal?

A scene can be about them even if they’re not part of it. Maybe it’s the other characters’ reactions or the ramifications of what they’ve done.

You don’t want a main character who just sits around, waiting for things to happen. Get them out there and throw them right into the thick of it.