Earlier this year, I entered a short screenplay contest.

It was my first attempt in this particular contest — and actually my first-ever public writing competition.

Here’s what I learned… including a huge life lesson I wasn’t expecting.

The Setup

The NYC Midnight Short Screenplay Challenge is an annual online contest that began in 2004.

I first heard about it in April, when it was a “suggested” page in my Facebook feed. I was curious, so I clicked through and read about how the contest works.

“Hmmm… This seems interesting,” I thought. “But is the $50 entry fee worth it?”

After some internal debate, I decided it was, for two reasons.

First, I’ve been writing for years, but I haven’t finished anything since 2011. That was the last year I wrote and produced an episode of The Baristas — which, like Something to Be Desired before it, was a show I self-produced, so I had no real perspective on whether or not the scripts were any good. Since then, I’ve written notes and outlines and scenes and concepts, but nothing is complete. There’s nothing I ever show anyone, or get feedback on, or move forward with. So paying a fee to set a deadline for myself seemed like a good change of pace, motivation-wise.

Second, the judges for the competition are working professionals in film and TV. They’re writers and producers who make their living telling stories that other people want to pay for. I’ve never had my scriptwriting professionally critiqued beyond a writer’s group setting, and I wanted to know how I measured up in the eyes of people who actually do this every day.

So I paid my fee and I entered the competition.

And so did 1000 other writers.

Here’s what happened.

The Rules

The competition is a three round affair. The best scriptwriters of round one would move on to round two, and the best of round two would move on to round three, with a chance to win cash prizes.

In the first round, the writers are divided into groups of 25 entrants. (Or they would, but due to uneven numbers, my group had 26.)

Each group is given its own set of three different prompts: a genre, a subject, and a character.

Then, each entrant has 8 days to write a short screenplay of no more than 12 pages. Their script must be in the assigned genre, and it must include the subject and the character, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be explicitly about the subject or character; they just have to be involved. (For example, the character could be the hero’s sidekick.)

For reference, a standard feature-length screenplay is usually between 90 and 120 pages, and it’s formatted in a very specific way so that a page of script is estimated to equal one minute of screen time. So the first round of the competition was basically asking us to write a short film up to 12 minutes in length.

Once the scripts were written, they’d be judged. Six weeks later, the results would be posted. From every group of 25 writers, the top 5 would move on to the next round.

That means out of 1000+ writers, only 200 would move on.

No pressure, right?

The Complication

I got my first round assignment on a Saturday. I had a few ideas for it, but I figured I’d ruminate for a few days and see which ones seemed the strongest.

And then the Baltimore Uprising happened.

Citizens were in the streets protesting the death of Freddie Gray due to injuries he sustained inside a Baltimore police department vehicle. The BPD brought out their riot gear. A few businesses were looted. The mayor issued a curfew. The governor called in the National Guard. (You know all this because you probably saw extremely selective coverage on CNN.)

I live in Baltimore, so all of this sudden reality put my imagination on hold.

So I waited… and I waited… and then I was almost out of time.

On the last day of the round, I walked to a cafe to get coffee while I brainstormed script ideas. None of them were any better than the one I had first come up with a week earlier. So I finally sat down around 12:30 in the afternoon and I started writing. I knocked out a 12 page script…

… and then I realized I’d misformatted it, and it was really 15 pages.

So I trimmed it down to 12…

… and then realized I was using the wrong version of the officially-approved font. When I made that correction, the script was over 13 pages.

So I trimmed it down again, and submitted it — at 11:30 PM, just half an hour before the deadline.

And then I waited six weeks to find out if the professionals thought it was any good.

The Twist

There’s a detail I should probably remind people about here: this wasn’t the first time I wrote a short screenplay.

Between 2003 and 2011, I wrote over 120 episodes of the two web series I created — Something to Be Desired and The Baristas — most of which clocked in around 12 pages or less. Many of those scripts were written in less than a week. In fact, most of them were literally written the same day we filmed them.

So yeah, I had some experience in this crazy format.

And just so we’re clear, writing short screenplays is a really weird challenge. It literally has no professional corollary. It’s just a gimmick.

Hollywood screenwriters think in terms of three-act structure and two-hour narrative arcs. TV writers have to work around commercial breaks, unless they have the luxury of writing an hourloung prestige drama. But in any case, they’re all working in longer formats that allow for setups and reveals, mounting tensions, character arcs, and everything else you expect from a story that needs to hold your attention for between 30 and 180 minutes.

12 minutes is nothing by comparison. It’s the blink of a cinematic eye.

Unless you’re talking about web video, which I’d written for extensively.

It didn’t mean that I was necessarily any good at it. But at least I had experience knocking out a coherent (?) story in a matter of hours.

The question is, would it help me here?

Round One: The Results

I felt pretty good about the script I’d written for round one — especially given the circumstances.

Genre: Action / Adventure

Subject: Territoriality

Character: A thrillseeker

I don’t usually write action scripts. I’m more of a dramedy guy. But I came up with a concept I felt pretty good about. It had action, it had mystery, it had humor, and it had an arc for the two leads. Plus, it had two female leads, which I thought might help it stand out in the judges’ minds.

Then the day came to see if I was right.

Late one night in June, the competition organizer emailed all 1000+ entrants with the results from each group. I clicked my group’s link and scrolled down slowly.

I saw the #1 script name… and it wasn’t mine.

Fuck.

Okay, keep scrolling.

#2… nope.

#3… nope.

#4… yes.

Yes?

Yes!

I reread it about a dozen times to make sure.

Yes, that was me, #4 out of 26.

The top five in each group move on to round two.

So, yes, I would be moving on.

Success!

A few days later I received the feedback from the judges who’d read my script. Some of it was very flattering. Some of it was critical of specific dialogue or phrasing. None of it was terrible. All of it made me feel the one thing I’d been hoping to feel when I first entered the competition: the feeling that I actually have talent as a screenwriter, and that me pursuing this as a profession isn’t a completely insane idea.

Granted, this is all extremely subjective. But so is life itself.

The truth is, I advanced to the second round because two of the three judges who read my script really liked it. If only the third judge (who didn’t like it as much) had read it, I might not have moved on. And if that was the only feedback I got, I might feel very differently about my potential.

So no, I wouldn’t recommend basing your self-worth on the opinions of any one person. Or any one thousand people, for that matter. What I would suggest is trusting your gut while looking at the recurrences.

Compliments are nice, and criticisms may be useful. But I try not to take anything too seriously unless I hear it repeatedly. Any one person could have a positive or negative reaction to your work (or to you personally) in a single moment, but it’s the accumulated feedback you get over time that gives you a better idea of what’s working and what isn’t [at least according to the audience that’s experiencing it].

So, with that in mind, I got ready for…

The Second Round

Of the original 1000+ entrants, 200 of us moved on.

In round two, we were again divided into eight groups of 25.

Each group was given new prompts. My group’s were:

Genre: Ghost Story

Subject: A plane crash

Character: A bully

This time, we only had three days (not eight) to write a script no longer than 7 pages (not 12) that included the above criteria.

I had more trouble with these prompts than I was expecting. Not just because I rarely write ghost stories, but because the assembled prompts seemed difficult to combine in a way that didn’t feel crass or exploitative. I didn’t want to write a script that I wouldn’t want to watch myself, so I wrestled with various ideas until I found one I could roll with.

I wrote that script… and then I realized I didn’t like it.

On day two, I wrote a second script… and I didn’t like that one either.

So on the last day of the round — just like in round one — I walked to the same cafe, bought a small coffee, walked home, started from scratch, and knocked out a new script. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it met the criteria, and it did so in a way that passed my own internal “good taste” test. It could use some tightening up, but there wasn’t much time for that.

I formatted it. It was a page too long, so I kept removing dialogue until it squeezed under the seven page limit. Then I polished it as much as I could and submitted it.

And then I waited for 30 days to see if my script passed the judges’ test.

The Truth

Let me be honest here: I was happy just getting out of the first round.

Did I want to win the whole competition? Of course.

Did I realistically think I could win the whole competition? Sort of. I certainly had a chance — at least as much as any other competitor, and given my long history of writing webisodes, maybe more.

But the truth is, I’d already achieved both of my goals for entering the competition.

First, I’d actually completed something and submitted it by a deadline.

And second, the feedback I’d gotten validated my instincts to keep pursuing a screenwriting career because professionals were responding positively to what I was writing.

Anything beyond that would be gravy.

The Gravy

One afternoon in July the 200 of us in round two received an email from NYC Midnight that linked to the round two winners.

I clicked through and scrolled down slowly.

#1? Nope.

Ah, well. Keep scrolling…

#2… nope.

#3… nope.

#4… yes.

Yes?

Yes.

There I was, #4 out of 25… again.

Weird.

Unexpected, really.

But I’ll gladly take it.

Out of 200 competitors, I was now one of 40 who would move on to the third and final round.

This is the kind of result that makes me think I might be on the right track.

A few days later I received my feedback from the judges on this script. As with my first round script, two of them liked it and one of them was less enthusiastic. This time the criticisms were more broad, and they pointed out some subjective issues (things readers had wanted to happen but didn’t) and some objective ones (places where the story logic didn’t seem to click).

Given this feedback, I knew I was lucky to have survived the second round. Yes, I was writing decent material, but it still had flaws. I also hadn’t finished in the top 3 of either group, so I wasn’t quite writing at medal caliber yet. And now I’d be going up against other writers who’d also survived two round of competition.

In fact, just going by the numbers so far, I figured I was the 25th best writer out of the top 40, give or take. That’s because at least 24 of them had made the top 3 in their groups at least once; I hadn’t done that at all.

Would I pull off a surprise upset in the final act?

Well…

The Showdown

Round three of the competition works the same as the first two did, with a couple tweaks.

Instead of multiple groups, there’s only one group of 40, so it’s do or die.

While there are new subject and character prompts, the genre is left open. This way the writers can either work in the genre they feel most comfortable with or the one that seems best suited to the prompts.

And this time, we only had 24 hours to write a new script of no more than 5 pages.

Subject: An arranged wedding

Character: A photographer

I received these prompts at 12:01 AM as I lay in bed.

I would have to submit my script by midnight.

I immediately had an idea.

I went to sleep.

In the morning, I followed the same ritual I’d used on the last day of each prior round: I walked to the same cafe, bought a small coffee, and walked home. I gave myself until noon to come up with a better idea. And when I didn’t, I sat down and started writing the only legitimate idea I had.

When it was done, it was (as usual) a bit long. The only way I could make it fit the five page limit was to remove an entire character. That also meant I’d have to remove an entire subplot. But limits are limits, so away they went.

I polished and spruced, and then I sent it off.

And then I waited for a month to find out how I stacked up against the best of the entrants.

The Climax

At 12:01 on August 27th (today, as I write this), I got an email from NYC Midnight. The results had been posted.

I clicked through and scrolled slowly.

#1… was not me.

Damn. That would have been an awesome ending, right?

Oh well. Keep scrolling…

#2… nope.

#3… nope.

#4… nope.

Wait, what? Nope?

Nope.

#5… nope.

#6… nope.

#7… nope.

#8… nope.

#9… nope.

#10… nope.

Double damn.

Huh.

Okay then.

Honorable mention?

Scroll…

Scroll…

Scroll…

Nope.

Nada.

Out of 40 finalists, my script was not a winner, not in the top 10, and not among the 5 honorable mentions… which means it finished no higher than 16th. It may even have finished dead last, 40th out of 40, but I’ll never know that for sure.

And to be honest, that seems entirely fair to me.

Really?

Yup.

After all, I wasn’t expecting to get this far.

I mean, yes, I would have loved to win. You don’t enter a competition unless you want to win. But I knew from the feedback and the numbers leading into round three that it was a long shot. (Remember, 24 other writers had finished ahead of me in the previous round.)

So am I disappointed? Sure.

But am I upset? No.

In fact, I’m actually surprisingly happy.

Why?

Two reasons.

For one thing, out of 1000+ entrants, I made it to the final 40.

This means I finished in the top 4% of all competitors. Or, to put it another way, I made it farther than 96% of the other entrants did. And I did it on my first try.

Not bad, newbie.

But there’s something even more useful that I learned from competing — and it applies to more than just my writing.

See, as I scrolled through the loglines of all the scripts that finished ahead of mine in the final round, I noticed a common thread among them that my own script was lacking.

For example, here are the top three finishers:

#1 ‘By The Book’ by David F.M. Vaughn – LOGLINE – Two childhood friends find themselves in court battling over a contract made over 20 years ago.

#2 ‘Tintype Molly’ by Jonathan Greene – LOGLINE – A photographer in the Arizona Territory is caught in the cross fire of two men laying claim to the same bride.

#3 ‘Shotgun Wedding’ by Sydney Mitchel – LOGLINE – A rookie cop goes undercover as a photographer at a wedding that turns out to be so fun, it’s practically criminal.

See the thread yet?

No?

Here are some more:

#5 ‘Mister Massive and the Super Squad’ by David Mair – LOGLINE – A father comes to understand his son through his son’s photos of a superhero wedding.

#8 ‘Spoils of War’ by Steele Tyler Filipek – LOGLINE – After making it across the frontier amidst the Bosnian War, a cynical photographer tries to help his blind companion find a forgotten treasure before enemy forces close in.

#9 ‘Fix You’ by John O’Neill – LOGLINE – Mistaken as gay by his parents, an everyday Indian-American bro must navigate out of an unpleasant arranged engagement.

What do each of these pitches have in common?

Conflict.

In every story, there are high stakes — either externally or emotionally — and those stakes are (presumably) resolved by the actions that occur in the story. At least one of the characters’ lives is definitively changed by the actions they take.

Meanwhile, this was my logline for the round:

‘Night Light’ – A wedding photographer’s mysterious camera shows him more than meets the eye.

Sounds a little vague, right?

That’s because it’s a story about a photographer realizing something.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, yes and no.

Is it interesting? Possibly. To some people.

Is it compelling? Perhaps not. At least, not compared to the obvious conflicts promised by the other scripts it’s competing against.

The thing about film is that, unlike TV or comic books or any other medium, a film is expected to be the story of a defining moment in a character’s life. As such, the stakes have to be high enough — and obvious enough — to get people into a theater.

And stakes come from conflict.

In his book Story, screenwriting coach Robert McKee describes the three types of narrative conflict:

  • internal
  • interpersonal
  • external

He also explains why each one is best suited to a specific storytelling format.

  • internal = novels (because the novel allows for omniscient narrators, multiple points of view, and other storytelling constructs that allow us to see and hear what characters are actually thinking and feeling — which isn’t as natural in other formats)
  • interpersonal = plays (because most person vs. person conflict is expressed through dialogue, and since the reality of a play is that of human actors on a stage in real time, most plays revolve around exposition and conflict resolution through dialogue)
  • external = films / TV / graphic novels (because the format allows for the visualization of larger-than-life imagery, but is less effective at conveying internal emotion or interpersonal conflict)

Now, we can debate McKee’s classifications, but what we can’t argue with are their business implications. If you look at the top-grossing films of all time — or of any given year — those films all revolve around a clear and massive conflict. In most cases, there’s an external conflict that drives (or is driven by) the interpersonal and internal conflicts of the characters involved.

The same goes for TV, where police procedurals, soap operas, game shows, reality TV, and sports all command the audience’s attention. Each of those entertainment formats is built around one simple question: who will win the race / quest / contest / battle for power and respect? This is why people tune in, week after week.

And I believe it’s also why my final script didn’t excel, and why my second round script didn’t quite click.

I’ll get my official feedback on my final script in a few days, but I can already predict what it says:

“No conflict. No stakes. No character arc. No one changes as a result of their actions.”

In short: nothing happens.

Yes, there’s a mystery, and yes, there’s a reveal. It’s cute. It may even be touching. But it’s fairly abstract.

It’s also, in many ways, emblematic of my writing as a whole.

Every episode of Something to Be Desired or The Baristas is really just a series of arguments about behavior. The characters’ actions rarely affect anything or create any lasting change. Whether they have successes or failures, they remain essentially the same from episode to episode. This is a standard sitcom trope, but even in sitcoms there are stakes within the boundaries of each episode. On my shows? Not so much.

Why is that?

Well, I think it has to do with what interests me.

When I consider my favorite films, books, or TV shows, I notice a trend.

What do Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, Lost in Translation, Swingers, Ida, Festen, and La Dolce Vita all have in common?

By and large, these are all films about concepts, not actions.

Yes, each movie is about a massive turning point in the characters’ lives.

Yes, there are minor incidents and even a few scenes with potentially far-reaching stakes and consequences.

But generally speaking, the conflicts in these films are primarily internal or interpersonal. Nearly all of them are better defined by their theme than by their plot — and some barely even have a plot.

In Casablanca, Rick spends the whole movie not doing anything until he must.

In Lost in Translation, two characters spend most of the film in emotional isolation, hoping to find someone else they can form a bond with — and then they spend the rest of the film risking, losing, and regaining that bond.

Swingers is basically a discourse on modern masculinity, where the most obvious conflict is whether or not Mikey will ever get over his ex and move on.

In other words, the films I’m traditionally drawn to are more centered on abstractions and observations, as told through symbols and conversations — not on wins and losses or battles of life and death.

And that makes me realize three things.

First, if I want a career in film or TV — or in storytelling in general — I either need to get better at incorporating larger (external) conflicts into my areas of interest or I need to double down on my more abstract (internal, interpersonal) interests and find ways to make them even more compelling.

Second, this explains why I haven’t finished writing anything for years.

Conflict-driven stories have obvious beginnings and endings, but the stories I’m drawn to are more serialized and open-ended. They’re about what happens to characters over time, rather than specific incidents with defined results. That makes it hard to know where they begin — and knowing how they end is even harder. No wonder I’ve been toying with some ideas for years, or even decades; I keep focusing on themes, nuances, and observations, but I’m reluctant to define my characters through their reactions to external conflicts.

Whoa.

That’s kind of a therapeutic breakthrough there, right?

Yup. In fact, that’s my lesson number three.

How we create, and the world we create in our work, is an extension of who we are and how we process reality.

My personality is naturally conflict-avoidant. In fact, you could say my whole life has been the result of avoiding conflict whenever possible. (I imagine each of my ex-girlfriends nodding emphatically as they read this.)

As a survival mechanism, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But as a means of thriving — of creating, of taking risks, of accomplishing things in life — this is a less sound strategy.

By avoiding external and interpersonal conflicts, I fail to resolve my own internal conflicts. This holds me back. (And I’m not alone in doing this, either.)

So, ironically, what would make my scripts more compelling is also what would make my life more compelling.

As unexpected feedback goes, that’s a pretty valuable tip.

The Epilogue

So, here we are.

Four months, three rounds, and fifty dollars after I first signed up for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge, I’m a proud finalist (but non-winner) in my first screenwriting competition.

Along the way, I confirmed that I really do have screenwriting talent. (I thought I did, but getting external validation — even though that’s always subjective — is a helpful motivation.)

I also learned that I frequently perform well under pressure. (Again, I knew this from past experience, but I hadn’t proved it to myself in awhile.)

Perhaps most importantly, I realized what’s lacking in my writing — and, by extension, in my personal behavior — and this opens me up to a few new opportunities… and questions.

Does my interest in more abstract concepts mean I’m better suited to write novels, plays, or serialized TV than I am to writing traditional three-act feature screenplays with definitive beginnings and endings? Potentially… and that means I need to figure out what stories I want to tell, and how.

Would my writing benefit from incorporating conflicts with clear stakes? Almost definitely. Even if I were to stick with my traditional talky, introspective style of storytelling, I can’t build my ideas into stories if I don’t know how they begin or how they can reasonably conclude.

Will I enter another screenwriting competition? Probably. I’ve long aspired to enter the annual Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition, and my performance in the NYC Midnight contest gives me the confidence to think I might do well in the Nicholl… if I can sharpen my skills, raise my stakes, and deliver even greater emotional impact.

That goes for my life on the page and off.

So, was that $50 entry fee worth it?

Absolutely. Cheapest therapy ever.

If You Like This Post

… then you may also like this post about how Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are basically the exact same show, or this post about 8 ways to hook your audience at the beginning of your story.

8 Tips to Hook Your Audience

Categories: Storytelling

8 Comments

Mark Dykeman · September 1, 2015 at 11:18 am

Revealing and entertaining post. Really quite good, actually. I haven’t written as much as you have but I probably have the same blind spot towards conflict that you discovered and for somewhat similar reasons. I first heard about McKee’s Story a few years ago and I’m glad I purchased it and I’ve read it – even if I haven’t used it very much – because it helped me to better understand the importance of conflict to story.

I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning up and throwing away unnecessary paper during the past few days and I’ve rediscovered a number of unfinished writing projects that suffer from similar problems, although I think I got better at recognizing the value of conflict. But the writing projects are all stalled and adding more conflict would have helped those projects, I think, because my motivation would peter out because I’d spend time getting to point A and, without a known conflict, I’d be lost as to what to do next.

Keep on writing, let us know about the next screenwriting competition!

    Justin Kownacki · September 1, 2015 at 11:25 am

    I hear you. As reductive as some of the three-act structure and other traditional storytelling tips can seem, I do think there’s value in building around some kind of conflict or problem that demands an emotional resolution. I think I reject a lot of those teachings because, like The Hero’s Journey, they’ve been boiled down to formulas or tropes and their more coherent advice and meaning has been largely lost.

      Mark Dykeman · September 1, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      On the other hand, there’s emotional (or perhaps intellectual) satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle vs. resolving a conflict. But maybe solving puzzles is a form of conflict, I don’t know. Maybe your characters have had life in the past from trying to solve small puzzles and learning from them as opposed to the big catharsis that you’d see in a full length movie or play. But in serialized storytelling, if characters learn too much or grow too much, maybe they’re harder to write for and eventually they have to move on. Or else they need to fail desperately at something and start again.

Abedrossian · August 31, 2015 at 9:55 am

Congrats on your competition showing.
Keep writing your style, and let the director worry about presenting it!
A great example of internal conflict being presented compellingly is Fight Club. See if you can get a Fincher to help you out on your future full-length movie screenplay. I know you’re going to do one. You must.

Alias Kate · August 30, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Thanks for sharing your journey. I found it actually compelling, albeit, I think, in the talky, introspective way you already know is your strength. As a writer, I am grateful for the gravy, and am going to chew on this: “how we create, and the world we create in our work, is an extension of who we are and how we process reality.” A big part of my writing work is in the corporate world where we are doing more and more video, and where conflict is usually avoided. ZZZZZZZZZZ… You’ve given me a new way to think about it. Gonna bring it.

    Justin Kownacki · August 30, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks, Kate. (Or “Kate,” as your handle implies.)

    Corporations are usually conflict-avoidant by design, since they need to be brand-friendly to all potential customers, investors, etc. But if you’re making business videos, you can still find ways to frame the narrative in terms of the problem that the corporation is solving. Less touchy-feely rah-rah, and more “this is why X matters, and why we’re doing it.” At the very least, you can help color in a brand’s identity by loudly proclaiming what the company WON’T do. Good luck.

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