How do the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting readers judge a script?

The criteria they use provides a good list of questions for screenwriters to assess their own writing.

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The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition is the most important of all screenplay contests. Founded in 1986, it is administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and previous winners have included Allison Anders, Susannah Grant, Ehren Kruger, Michael A. Rich, and many others who have gone on to careers in the film and television business.

Nicholl readers use the following guidelines to judge and score screenplays during the competition.

Does the story have an original premise?

Does that story idea start the movie forward?

Does the story itself have a strong beginning, middle & end? How about two out of three? If the story is non-linear, does it make sense?

Does this script make you feel that the writer is taking you on a journey?

Does the story connect with you emotionally, whether it’s a comedy or drama or another genre?

Does the script have a distinctive and original voice? (Or do you feel that you’ve read or seen this movie before?)

Are the premise, story and characters new or fresh for you?

Does reading the script make you think, “This person genuinely has the potential to develop into a professional writer”?

Does this script have vivid characters who each speak in their own voice?

Do you want to know what happens to them?

Does the central character change over the course of the story? If it’s an ensemble film, does more than one character change?

Do the dialogue and tone seem consistent from scene to scene?

Does the way the people speak fit the tone and setting of the story?

Does this writer know how to use description and dialogue to create suspense, tension, drama, comedy and conflict? Does the conflict propel the story forward?

Do the main characters take actions that move the story along?

Are these actions in keeping with who these people are? Or do they happen “conveniently”?

Does this script genuinely make you want to keep reading? Are the themes of the story thought-provoking, across genres? Is the story “about something” that might spark discussion among friends?

When you finish reading the script, even if it has flaws, do you still feel that there’s something special about it? Is there an indescribable “something” that elevates this script above the ordinary?

I thought I’d pick one from each category and expand on it:

Story: Does that story idea start the movie forward?

This gets at one of the keys in assessing an original story concept: Can you SEE the story in the concept itself? A story idea which immediately conveys the movie to the listener or reader is almost invariably a strong one.

My movie K-9 is not a great work of art, but one big thing it had going for it was when people heard the concept… they GOT it.

Loner cop gets a new partner: A police dog.

A story idea doesn’t have to be a high concept to be a strong one, but if it can “start the movie forward” in and of itself, that is a major plus.

Voice: Does reading the script make you think, “This person genuinely has the potential to develop into a professional writer”?

When someone who works in the Hollywood acquisition and development side of things reads a script, they’re not just thinking about your story… they’re thinking about YOU as a WRITER.

Check out this quote from Scott Frank, one of the top screenwriters around:

“The first paragraph of a screenplay can tell you if they can write. The first five pages can tell you if they have a voice.”

First paragraph. First five pages.

This is a reflection of what I mean when I say “Learn the craft”. The more you immerse yourself in the worlds of cinema and writing, the more likely you will innately KNOW how to write, how to get in touch with your VOICE and have the skills to TRANSLATE your voice onto the printed page.

Characters: Do you want to know what happens to them?

In Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton’s excellent TED Talk, the bottom line point he made was this: “Make me care.”

If I’m reading your script, your most fundamental goal is to make me care about your story. And the most direct way to do that is to make me care about your CHARACTERS. It’s their story. Their emotional life. Their conflicts.

How to make me care about the characters’ lives?

Tap into what they have going on in their psychological journey so that we, the reader, IDENTIFY with it.

Grief. Regret. Revenge. Lust. Redemption. Whatever lies at the core of their psyche, their Need… if it reflects something of the universal human experience, something I can relate to, then in effect you shrink the distance between me and your script. You give me a rooting interest in your story.

You make me care about your characters.

Craft: Does the conflict propel the story forward?

We’ve all heard the old adage: “You can’t have drama without conflict.” So we pretty much know conflict is important.

But not just generic conflict. It has to be specific to the characters. Characters who have goals. Goals which stand in opposition to each other.

Now you have conflict which has a PSYCHOLOGICAL CONNECTION between the characters. It is unique to THESE characters in THIS situation.

And because the characters are pursuing a specific set of goals, you will have naturally set up conflict which propels the story forward.

Meaning and Magic: Do you still feel that there’s something special about it?

I have a saying about the process of writing a script: It’s akin to wrangling magic.

Think about it. We start with nothing. Then we have something. Magic.

We live in this world. We connect with characters in their world. Magic.

We sit down to write. We look up… it’s 4 hours later. Magic.

The trick is to imbue our script pages with that “something special,” a sense of magic so that a reader get sucked into your story universe and they reach FADE OUT… that special feeling lingers.

How to do that?

Lean into your characters. They are living, breathing entities. If you immerse yourself in their lives and ‘transport’ that from their world to ours… onto the printed page… the words there can magically lift up off the page and directly into a reader’s imagination because the characters are ALIVE.

They see and experience YOUR movie… in their own mind.

Look, you and I know NONE of this is easy. As T.C. Boyle says, “First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart, you have something.”

That ‘ripping out your brain and your heart’ part is tough.

But that’s pretty much what’s required to write a script which hits the mark on all those criteria listed above.

For inspiration, you can read my interviews with 30 Nicholl winners. Because as challenging as it is to write a special script… to create magic… the fact is…

It’s possible.

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