Screenplay Contest underway: Professors offer advice to contestants

The Creative Writing program is hosting the Oakland University Screenplay Contest. The 2017 contest has two categories: short form and feature film.

Students and faculty can enter both categories, and the contest is open to any major.

Typically, films are split into three acts: an exciting incident at the start, rising action in the middle and resolution at the end. Experienced filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, have been known to deviate from the three-act structure, but for most, this format helps set up the basic skeleton for scripts.

“Be passionate about the topic you’re exploring — if you’re not excited about your screenplay, the reader/audience won’t be either,” suggested Athena Lebessis, a creative writing major, over email.

Lebessis received honorable mentions in both categories in last year’s contest. Being a seasoned competitor, she’s full of advice for newcomers.

“Create a character-driven script, one where the protagonist/anti-hero propels action,” she said. “Also, make sure your hero is likable — that the audience cares about your hero and her/his goal and cares that s/he achieves said goal.”

Lebessis also advised contestants to include an inciting incident within the first 10 pages of a feature-length script. This propels the character onto a journey and sets up the main conflict of the film.

“When hatching a screenplay, I tend to begin with character(s) — I construct a character checklist to determine who my story revolves around and what s/he wants,” Lebessis said. “Then, I submerge this individual into a setting that contrasts with his/her character makeup — tension is a writer’s best friend.”

Like many, she splits her scripts into three acts. She also plots the script on index cards.

Jonathan Chappell, a professor of workshops in screenwriting, also offered advice to students.

“Write something that makes your work stand out from the rest by crafting a memorable story that is fresh and interesting,” Chappell said. “Center every story in character. All screen stories begin and end with great characters. No amount of clever dialogue, amazing effects, clever plot twists, or poetic imagery can compensate for missing a character we empathize with or find compelling. ”

He emphasized the importance of page craft.

“Formatting may vary slightly from writer to writer, but there is no replacement for lean, smart text that pops,” Chappell said. “Grammar errors are verboten and scream ‘sloppy amateur.’ Anything confusing on the page removes the reader from their immersed reality. It should be fast, smooth, slick, and clear at all times. Show, don’t tell. Economize language.”

David Shaerf, an assistant professor of creative writing and cinema who is spearheading the contest, also emphasized the importance of the idea of showing, not telling.  

“I think show, don’t tell is a really good way to think about screenplay if you’re new to it,” Shaerf said over email. “I guess my biggest piece of advice for a new screenwriter will always be to always think about the visual aspect of film. When you go to see an action film, you don’t want to see people sitting around talking about all the action. You want to see the action!”

Shaerf encouraged students who haven’t written a piece yet to give it a try.

“[Creative writing and screenwriting is] a lot of fun, and it opens up new creative worlds to you by writing for a new medium like film . . . give it a shot!” Shaerf said.

Writers submitting to the contest must include their names on separate title pages. The title of the script must be placed the header of each page.

Feature length scripts are usually around 90 pages. For short films, the page count typically ranges from five to a few dozen.

Entries are due April 10, and winners will receive cash prizes.

For further questions about the contest, contact Prof. David Shaerf at [email protected].