Every few weeks, Craig and I look at three or four entries to the Three Page Challenge for the podcast. But my assistant, Stuart Friedel, has read more than 500.
I asked him to write up a post discussing the patterns, problems and common themes among what he’s read.1
First I want to say thank you to everyone who entered the Three Page Challenge. I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading your work, and the bite-sized, three-pages-at-a-time format is perfect for someone with my generation’s attention span.
With more than 500 submissions, it’s difficult to comment on the content in any general group sense. There were no oft-repeated themes, no heavily skewed genre distributions, nothing to be gleaned about the zeitgeist as perceived by aspiring screenwriters. Vampire and zombie submissions numbers were exactly where you’d expect.
But there’s plenty to talk about regarding presentation.
Aside from the Three Page Challenge, I don’t read submissions for John. But I have been a reader in the past, mostly reading newly represented writers looking to get hired for assignments, often their first.
So that’s the basis of comparison here: not established writers’ screenplays, but other young writers’.
In general, these all looked fine. But there were a few issues common enough that they are worth pointing out.
Floweriness. It’s good when your writing is interesting, but it’s too much when flowery description obscures the intent of the sentence.
JIM, 23, floats along the sidewalk, effortless.
Wait — is he literally floating? Better might be:
JIM, 23, jogs along the sidewalk effortlessly, as if floating.
Remember: your goal is not to write pretty words; it’s to write words that clearly express a pretty scene. Colorfulness should clarify your intent, not confuse the reader.
Clumping. Pages need room to breathe. Break up long description into multiple paragraphs. Break up long runs of dialogue with short description. Use sluglines.
Write your screenplay in a way that encourages it to be read at the same pace as the movie that’s playing in your head. If the words on the page are shoved together, or if paragraphs run on too long, that’s how the reader will read the scene.
Characters’ names should be written in UPPERCASE the first time we meet them, and only the first time we meet them.2 Most of you got the first-time-we-meet-them part of this correct, but a lot of the samples continued to put characters’ names in all caps, sometimes inconsistently.
Important sounds should also be in UPPERCASE. When sneakers crunch gravel, “CRUNCH” should be in caps, not “sneakers.”3 Uppercase should be used whenever something deserves special attention, from the reader and/or from a specific department4: an important sound, detail, or effect, a vital prop, a newly introduced character that will need to be cast, a noteworthy piece of wardrobe, etc.
Presenting characters and content
When we meet a named character, his or her age should be mentioned. This can be done naturally in the character description, or can simply be put in parentheses after the character’s name. It’s fine to say (late-20s) rather than (28).
Even a seemingly-detailed description can create an ambiguous picture if there is no mention of age. When your salt-and-pepper haired businessman flirts with the girl at the bar as he’s done at a million other bars with a million other girls, is the reader seeing a prematurely graying recent college grad who is no stranger to a night out? Or a single fifty-something who is still going through the motions but is wishing he had someone waiting for him at home?
Vary character names. As much as possible, don’t use the same first letter for multiple characters. Readers don’t sound out every word, especially words that repeat often, like character names. You can’t casually breeze past “Alvin” and “Arwyn;” every time either of them is mentioned you have to pause, interrupt your flow, and take special note of which one is speaking. Don’t make readers do this.
Give minor characters descriptive names. “Lanky Cop” and “Stuttering Cop” are more interesting, more visual and easier to differentiate than “Cop #1” and “Cop #2.” You want me to be imagining the scene as I’m reading; make it easy for me.
If something is held back from the audience, hold it back from the reader. Don’t spoil your big reveal by clueing us in early. And similarly, don’t falsely convince yourself you’ve given your audience information just because you’ve given it to the reader.
A note on the selection process
We’re getting submissions at a rate of about 15 – 50 per week. I have an email filter set up with the leagalese — if you’ve got it, you get through; if not, it’s an instant delete.
Yes, it’s called the Three Page Challenge, but I do not delete submissions for having a title page, or a blank fourth page. I do delete it if you try to cheat the system by shrinking your font, majorly fudging your margins or spacing, or anything of that sort. If you send in a second, better/corrected/proofread/etc. draft and ask me to use that one, I use that one. But please don’t send the same submission a second time just to send it; if you’re in the folder, you’re in the folder.
Once there’s a healthy backlog, I drag the files one at a time to my desktop, and change the file name to whatever name you indicated you want to be called.5 I appreciate the kind notes, but it doesn’t help you get picked; by the time I read the submission, it’s far removed from your email. Similarly, as stated on the submission process page, I’m not reading loglines or synopses or explanations of where we are in the story. Ideally the pages can stand on their own.
John and Craig allow for you to submit any three pages of your screenplay for consideration, not just the first three. And while I don’t favor first-three-pages submissions, by their very nature they usually make more sense than out of context middle-of-the-script submissions. The first pages are written with the intent of introducing readers to the world.
I also don’t judge you negatively if your submission is fewer than three pages, but why give us less to work off of? I’m looking for competently written submissions with a clear intention, where something happens, and there’s something to talk about.
So keep ‘em coming.
- One of Stuart’s early observations was The Mystery of the Js; there seemed to be a disproportionate number of entries from writers whose names begin with J. I think it’s less mysterious than it appears. Once you account for our demographics — a lot of men born in the 80s and 90s — it’s within the range of coincidence. ↩
- You’ll find exceptions to this rule, particularly in some TV formats that use uppercase every time. But for screenplays, the first-time-rule is almost gospel. ↩
- Although, to be fair, there are instances where “SNEAKERS” should be in caps, too. Like if those specific sneakers later turn out to be the detail that gets the bad guy caught. ↩
- It’s almost always both. If something’s important enough that you want to call the reader’s attention to it, it’s important enough that it will be someone’s job to make sure it makes it into the film. ↩
- Pro tip: It helps if you just name your file this in the first place. ↩