Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters
If you have not already, please read the Nicholl Fellowship introductory article.
The How to Win a Nicholl Fellowship is a series of articles:
Firstly, let me state for the record that placing at all in the Nicholl can open doors that would not otherwise be open.
Only five Fellowships are granted each year but the other placings include:
If you place, mention your Nicholl placement in every query letter you send out - it will open many doors.
Screenwriting, like novel writing, is very subjective - what one reader likes, may not be liked by another. However, talent and great screenwriting should shine through.
To win a Nicholl, your script will need to deeply impress a series of highly experienced readers (at the latter stages the readers will include Academy members):
Well prior to entering the Nicholl, ensure you read the contest's Rules & FAQ sections:
You've spent months writing your script. Don't sabotage your chances by doing something in breach of the Nicholl's rules.
The FAQ section meanwhile offers an excellent introduction and guide to the contest and answers many questions regarding it.
The Nicholl Fellowship team has always been incredibly supportive of the people it is trying to help: novice screenwriters striving to break into the industry. To that end, they have published a wealth of Nicholl entry and screenwriting advice on the Academy's Nicholl Fellowship website and the Nicholl Fellowship Facebook page. The contest director, Greg Beal, has also given dozens of interviews regarding the Nicholl Fellowship and screenwriting technique.
Our Nicholl advice articles attempt to bring the core Nicholl advice together (we have read many hundreds of posts and dozens of articles on your behalf).
The goal of the Nicholl Fellowships is to encourage and identify talented new screenwriters. They're basically looking for the scripts whose writers demonstrate the best screenwriting ability - irrespective of genre, budget and commercial potential.
The Nicholl website goes into further detail. E.g. it states these guidelines are handed to first round readers:
WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?
The best scripts, the best stories, the best storytelling, the best craft, the best writing, the best execution, the most intriguing characters, the sharpest dialogue, etc. You should reserve your highest scores for those scripts that you believe to be the best that you have read during the competition.
There should be no prejudice for or against any particular subject matter or any genre. It should not matter whether a script is about terrorists or the holocaust or about a talking dog or dumb teenagers. It should only matter whether the script is good -- in your opinion. Similarly, a serious drama should not score higher than a fantasy comedy simply because the former is serious and the latter is not. The quality of any script is all that should matter.
You should not hold a script's commercial potential or lack of commercial potential for or against it. If you believe that a particular script could be made tomorrow and it's good, then you should give it a high score. If you believe that a particular script could never be made because of its subject matter or approach but you love it, then you should give it a high score.
You should also not consider a script's potential budget. It should not matter whether a script, as written, would be the biggest, most expensive studio movie in history or if it's a tiny, independent film that could only be made on an iPhone by a writer-director as a personal project.
You could consider these scripts as 'writing samples.' It's as if the competition were a production company with an endless slate of open writing assignments. And that we plan to find the writers to fill all of those assignments through the competition. So, we're not seeking scripts; we will not buy any of the scripts submitted to us. Instead, we are seeking writers -- and the only means we have of identifying the talented writers is through their scripts.
The Nicholl Fellowship Facebook page published these invaluable guidelines on how to identify a great script (provided to Nicholl readers).
For the 2015 contest, the Nicholl Fellowship team published this invaluable explanation regarding Nicholl rounds, reading and scores:
LET'S TALK BRIEFLY ABOUT ROUNDS, READING AND SCORES
We just completed the First Round of the 2015 Nicholl competition. During the First Round, every script was read at least twice and every script received at least two scores.
We looked at the higher of those two scores to determine which scripts would receive a third read. This year 1016 scripts were read three times during the First Round.
To determine which scripts advanced to the Quarterfinal Round, we considered the best two of the three scores. Those scores were tallied and the top 5% plus ties advanced to the Quarterfinal round.
Here's a quick generic description of Nicholl scoring, applying over the years and not specifically to 2015. Keep in mind that scoring is based on a 100-point scale.
To receive a third read, a script might need a score of 80 or higher. This is designated a "high-score" for the purpose of selecting reader comment excerpts and also is occasionally called a strong positive score.
A positive score is considered any score from 60 through 79.
To advance to the Quarterfinal Round, a script might need two scores of 80 or better, thus a combined score of 160 or better.
To be among the Next 100 scripts, a script might receive a combined score of 158 or 159. All scripts in this group are read three times.
To be among the Top 10%, a script might receive a combined score from 153 through 157. Most scripts in this group are read three times.
To be among the Top 15%, a script might receive a combined score from 148 through 152. Some scripts in this group are read three times.
To be among the top 20%, a script might receive a combined score from 143 through 147. A few scripts in this group are read three times.
To receive two positive scores, a script might receive a combined score from 120 through 142. No scripts in this group are read three times.
To receive one strong score, a script might receive one score of 80 or higher and two scores under 60.
To receive one positive score, a script might receive one score from 60 through 79 and another score under 60.
We don't designate the other large group of scripts, those that received two scores under 60.
We also do not share exact scores with entrants, feeling that scores are necessary to conduct the competition but are not especially helpful in telling a writer anything specific about her script.
The Nicholl Fellowship team summarized scoring:
The Academy Nicholl Fellowships uses a 100-point scoring scale.
A high score that guarantees a script a third read during the first round tends to be in the low 80s.
Scripts advancing to the quarterfinals usually have at least two high scores (and so at least two scores in the low 80s).
Scripts advancing to the semifinals tend to have at least five scores averaging in the low to mid-80s.
The top 30 scripts in the competition tend to have at least eight scores averaging in the mid-80s.
The Nicholl team posted this excellent advice on their Facebook page:
After format, the next thing readers might notice is the quality of the writing on display in the screenplay.
Screenplay description need to be written in clear, efficient English, appropriate to the story, genre, characters, setting, arena, etc.
Screenplay dialogue needs to written in language appropriate to the characters and most often must resemble the way human beings actually speak. Of course, certain genres - comedy and historical scripts are obvious examples - often require funny and/or heightened speech appropriate to the characters, tone, setting, time period, etc.
When description and/or dialogue is awkward, stilted, anachronistic or inappropriate to the characters, readers and judges notice almost immediately. Unfortunately, the writing in a screenplay seldom improves from the first pages to the last, and a poorly written screenplay will not score well in the competition.
A different problem arises for some otherwise entirely capable writers in English - they overwrite their description and dialogue. Poetic and literary language has a place, but it's not typically in screenplays. Readers and judges often react negatively to florid, overwritten description that serves to slow the story rather than to propel it forward.
Well written screenplays featuring appropriate description and dialogue will be noticed by readers and judges.
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