Over the last 3 years since She NYC Arts was founded in 2015, we’ve gotten over a thousand script submissions from all over the world. While we have a whole team of script readers that score and take notes on them, I make it my goal to read every single script that gets sent to us myself. (No, I don’t always finish them all by the deadline. But eventually, I read them all!)
Needless to say, after all of that reading, we’ve got quite a comprehensive list of common mistakes and pet peeves when it comes to script submissions. I’ll break them all down here, so your next script submission can stand out from the crowd.
First, some logistical tips.
- Send your script in PDF format. Don’t send Word docs, Final Draft files, or anything else. PDFs look far more professional, and they can be read anywhere without compatibility issues!
- Let your script speak for itself. If your story requires lots of explanation in your application, a 3-page Author’s Note, or more stage directions than you have dialogue, then either (A) your script isn’t strong enough or (B) it is strong enough, and you’re overthinking things. The audience won’t be able to read your application; they’re just seeing the show. Make sure your dialogue stands on its own two feet.
- Make sure your writing is easy on the eyes, out of respect for script readers who have to read a dozen scripts in a row. That means not using any crazy fonts or colors, making sure it’s formatted uniformly and is free of grammatical mistakes. (HINT: A lot of people think their script has no grammatical mistakes, but it really does. Have a grammar-nerd friend proofread it for you!)
- Related to the last point: if your characters speak in a specific dialect, it’s cool to write out some of the basic figures of speech of that dialect, but don’t write out the accent phonetically in every single line of dialogue. It becomes impossible to read! Just say in the character description what type of accent that person should have.
Next, we see a lot of common storytelling issues that emerge in our script submissions. We come across these issues in our big hash-out-who-gets-in-to-the-festival meeting, where we argue over which shows have the most potential. Inevitably, there’s always a big ol’ pile of shows where we all agree…if only they had this one thing, or made this one choice, they’d be a much stronger contender. Here are a few of those common culprits.
- It’s straight out of your fifth grade English class: every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It seems simple, but the deeper question is: why did you decide to begin and end the story when you did? Why did your first scene incite this story, and how does your last scene make the story feel complete? There’s nothing better than an ending that makes you have a real “aha” moment.
- Don’t say things in ten words when you can say them in two.
- Put yourself in someone else’s body when reading your script or watching rehearsal. (This is a trick I swear by!) When you’re watching a run through, pretend your mom (or your best friend, or your 8th grade English teacher, or your mentor) is sitting next to you. What would she be thinking? How would he be reacting? Is there anything that makes you cringe at the thought of them watching it? Edit that before you submit your script to a stranger!
- Make sure your story is inherently theatrical. We say it about scripts all the time: This story is great, but it reads more like a TV show or an indie film. Why does your story need to be told onstage, specifically? Stephen Sondheim sums it up best in one of his cardinal rules: Content Dictates Form. The content of your show — the story, the characters, the style — must dictate that the form of theater is the absolute best way to display this content or tell this story.
- Similarly, make sure there’s a reason for any audience member to care about your characters. I’ve had so many people say, “Of course an audience cares about my characters, because how could you possibly not care about [insert description of your character: a woman with a deadly disease, a character discovering its sexuality, a baker who accidentally poisons his hometown with a disastrous new cinnamon bun recipe]?!” People don’t care about characters just because of what category they fit into. They care about characters because those characters, or their journeys throughout a show, end up relating to themselves in some way, even if that “way” is simply that they’re clearly a deeply-layered human being like you or me.
If you’ve got all of that covered, you’re ready to submit your script! She NYC Arts has its opens submissions in September, so you’ve got a few months to perfect your show before then. In the meantime, check out our 2018 She NYC Summer Theater Festival (running at The Connelly Theatre July 5-15), or our LA Festival (running at The Zephyr Theater July 23-29) to see what made the cut this year!
Danielle DeMatteo is a writer and producer who has worked with Jujamcyn Theaters, Disney Theatrical Group, Opus Book Publishers, and was on the core organizing team of the NYC Chapter of the Women’s March on Washington, New York State Chapter. She founded She NYC Arts in 2015 to help fix the gender gap in the theater industry, and is incredibly grateful to all the women who have helped build it into a bi-coastal nonprofit organization. She’s also on the board of Forward March NY, a grassroots organization focused on getting women involved in local politics, and is a co-host of their podcast, Women Who Pod. Importantly, she can name all the Presidents in order and has three roommates, two of whom are cats.