2020 / Alex Sutton

      

From an original field of over 2,600 writers, Alex Sutton (pictured left) took home first place in the Screenwriting Challenge 2020 after three rounds of competition.  Amazingly, this represented the second win in a row for Alex as he also won the 2019 competition!  Check out the screenplays he wrote for the 2020 competition below in addition to an interview about his experience.  Click here to check out his screenplays from 2019.

 

 

 

   

        1st Round
Day of the Bronco
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Amnesia
Character: A friendly neighbor
2nd Round
Farewell Myfanwy
Genre: Drama
Subject: Exhaustion
Character: A singer
3rd Round
JACK
Genre: Open
Subject: A disappearance
Character: A trainer
   
  12 pages
Logline: Like the Wild West itself, aging gunslinger Clint is in dire need of change. Unfortunately, that's entirely out of his hands.
8 pages
Logline: An old man makes a final venture up a local hill to honor the last wish of his late wife.
5 pages
Logline: Fitness android Jack has but one job: help people keep in shape. Problem is, with the disappearance of his regular clientele, that purpose becomes a lot harder to fulfill.
       

 

   

 

Congratulations on winning the 17th annual Screenwriting Challenge from an original field of over 2,600 writers! Amazingly, you also took home first place in the Screenwriting Challenge 2019. How does it feel to have won the competition two years in a row?

Thanks! You know, people might start to suspect I have some sort of dirt on the judges because winning this twice in a row is actually ridiculous. (I’m not blackmailing anyone, I swear...)

As those close to me know, I was flabbergasted to win in 2019 -- I hopped around in a euphoric state for hours after seeing the results. This year was no different. In fact, it was twice the shock. I genuinely couldn’t believe JACK won -- not because I didn’t think it was good, but because I was sure it wasn’t the “type” of story that wins competitions. Guess I was wrong...

But yeah, in short: it feels incredible!


Are the challenges becoming easier as you participate in more competitions? Did your approach to the challenges change at all from 2019 to 2020?

Yes and no. Since starting NYCM challenges a few years back, I’ve certainly improved as a writer -- especially regarding the short form -- and a big part of that improvement is because of this competition. Being “better,” in a way, makes things easier. But I think difficulty is relative, and the struggle to write something (even if it’s of higher quality) still remains a constant. It’s a rare occasion that I’m happy with my writing, and the hurdle of pushing forwards against my self-doubt is still something I struggle to overcome. And therein lies the neverending challenge. For me, at least.

I don’t think my approach has changed since winning in 2019. However, I do think it has changed since I started entering NYCM challenges (back in 2017, I believe). In the beginning, I worried too much about what others would think of my scripts -- about what they may or may not want to read -- and so I would cater for hypothetical judges instead of focusing on the stories I wanted to tell. These days, unshackled from the self-imposed obligation to impress others, I just write what I want to write. Plus, it’s a helluva lot more fun this way.

Your first-round screenplay, “Day of the Bronco,” implemented the assigned subject (amnesia) and character (a friendly neighbor) in such a poignant way. The dialogue, song titles, and Clint’s daily routine contributed to the tension so well and culminated in a moving revelation. When creating screenplays with unexpected developments, do these subtle details and allusions come about organically, or do you typically brainstorm them in advance?

It really depends on the day of the week. Sometimes, I’ll just jump headfirst into a script and write away, confident in my ability to tell the story. Other times, I’ll struggle to find that initial “aha!” moment and will have to take a step back to plot and plan, trying to find that ofttimes elusive spark via more technical methods. With “Day of the Bronco,” it was a mixed bag. I knew I wanted to use the opening scene (the period revelation), so I locked that in from the get-go. Then, throw in the “amnesia” and “a friendly neighbour” prompts, and everything else just kind of developed organically.

Sometimes I like to be a little cheeky with the prompts, and this was one of the times I played with the genre. The story is undoubtedly far from standard Historical Fiction: It’s set in 1995, and it’s about a man pretending to be in the 1800s, but -- as a kicker -- he thinks he’s in 1985. I had to cover three distinct periods with historical references, and that may have been a lot more trouble than it was worth.

Fun fact: Each one of the songs played on Clint’s boombox -- as well as alluding to the theme of the story -- were all popular songs during 1985 (the year he thinks he’s in). I didn’t highlight this too much in the screenplay, but it’s a subtle detail I couldn’t resist slotting in.

Your screenplay for the second round, “Farewell Myfanwy,” explored love, loss, and grief, which are universal experiences the audience can relate to. How important is it to you as a screenwriter to create stories that draw empathy from your audience? Do you find that incorporating real-life challenges makes your work all the more powerful?

Definitely! In the second round, I got Drama, and when that happens, I tend to gravitate towards more relatable narratives. With “Farewell Myfanwy,” I actually went with a story that was very close to my heart. I grew up near Llangollen, and it’s where my gran is buried (my grandad is still going strong at 92!). I have many fond childhood memories of spending time with them in that beautiful part of North Wales and -- with specific relation to the story -- of climbing up to Castell Dinas Brân (it’s been way too long!). I don’t exactly know why, but as soon as I saw the “exhaustion” prompt, I knew what story I wanted to tell.

Looking back at all the stories I’ve written -- especially in this competition -- it’s clear that mortality and the fleetingness of life are themes I tend to gravitate towards. I probably have some sort of deep-seated complex when it comes to growing old, and it seeps into my writing a lot. Regardless, ageing is a universal rite of passage and something most of us go through -- if we’re lucky enough -- so I can see why this story would resonate with many. Same reason “Nula” (from the 2019 challenge) was also well-received, I guess.

You were assigned the Historical Fiction genre in the first round, Drama in the second, and chose to write a blend of Sci-fi and Dark Comedy for the final round. Which was your favorite genre to write during the competition, and which was the most challenging? Do you have genres that you prefer to write in for your personal projects?

Historical Fiction used to terrify me. I avoided getting that prompt for so long, and I was dreading it. But then I got it three times in the space of four rounds, and as it happens, it’s now one of my favourite genres to write in. I’ve learned so much about random historical events thanks to researching and writing HisFic -- or reading someone else’s -- and I will happily continue to work with the genre.

Overall, my favourite genre has to be Dark Comedy. I’m a big fan, and I actually specialised in that particular genre during my MA in Scriptwriting. Funnily enough, since graduating (about 8 years ago), I haven’t written much Dark Comedy at all -- practically none. With the open-genre nature of the final, I decided I wanted to go back to my roots and inject some dark humour into the narrative. There wasn’t too much of it, but I think the comedic edge really helped elevate the script. There’s a “gag” in the story -- regarding a dying man -- that practically everyone has highlighted as their favourite part. I’m almost ashamed to admit that that joke was the sole reason I decided to write JACK. Until I thought of it, I was going to write a completely different story. Funny how things pan out.

Your winning screenplay for the final round, “JACK,” took place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world, with an android protagonist. The setting was portrayed thoroughly through striking imagery and paved the way for the main conflict to unfold. Do you find it more challenging to build imaginary worlds, as opposed to more realistic, existing settings? Similarly, are there any challenges that come with developing nonhuman characters?

I’m not sure I’m that good at building imaginary (or sci-fi-y worlds) in general. But, with specific regards to “JACK,” I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic narratives, so I had a lot of source material to pull from. One of my favourite novels is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and one of my favourite video games is Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us (Part 1 and 2). Those bleak worlds (along with many others) were already embedded in my mind, so developing a post-apocalyptic story -- at least, from a visual perspective -- was second nature.

I think JACK, as a character, was fairly easy to write. By his very nature, he was one-dimensional -- that was the point. He was ignorant of the horrors around him; compelled to complete his pre-programmed task and nothing more. Of course, he’s a likeable character because of his inherent innocence, so I didn’t have to try too hard on that front (it almost felt like cheating). Obviously, this all changed at the end of the story. But to fully explore JACK’s “actual” character, the script would have to be expanded, and we’d have to see what JACK does with his new-found sentience. That will be the real story of JACK and one I definitely want to tell.

Do you have plans for the screenplays you created during this competition? Do you have any other upcoming projects?

As you’ve probably guessed, I’d love to expand JACK. The 5-page story I submitted for the final could easily be seen as an opener to a much larger narrative, and I think I’d very much like to see JACK’s story through to its conclusion, whatever that may be.

I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to personal projects, and I’m always desperately trying to find the time and motivation to develop and finish my own stuff. That being said, I tend to work much, much better when collaborating, or when I’ve got a deadline looming. Give me 24 hours, and I’ll give you a script in 24 hours, but give me a lifetime...

Regardless, I want to finish and polish at least one feature-length script of mine by the end of 2021, and I’m determined to make that happen.

Having won the Screenwriting Challenge two years in a row, what advice would you have for someone who is new to the craft or the competition?

Watch movies and read scripts -- both short- and feature-length, good and bad and everything between. Consume as much as you can, as often as you can. The source material will help you as a screenwriter far more than any “how-to” book on writing. However, reading those as well is probably good practice. Off the top of my head, a personal recommendation would be John Yorke’s Into the Woods, which is a fascinating delve into story. Amid a sea of books focusing on the “how,” Into the Woods -- quite refreshingly -- concerns more the “why” of storytelling, which I found very insightful.

Regarding NYCM challenges: if you’re looking to get the most out of the competition, I would highly recommend using the forums. Of course, you don’t have to, but I’d say the real value of NYCM lies within the active community and peer review on offer. If you’re taking part in the challenge to better yourself as a storyteller, engaging with, learning from, and helping other writers is an indispensable part of it.

Are you going for the three-peat in 2021?

Well, wouldn’t that be something? I’d actually probably have a heart attack.

The truth is, I love NYCM screenwriting challenges, and I participate because they help me develop as a writer. They’re the exact kick up the arse I often need to get back to writing, and I use them as a kind of gym for my creativity. So, yeah, I’ll be in the 2021 Screenwriting Challenge, and probably many more to come. For me, winning isn’t a motivator. Not the prime one, anyhow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful feeling to win (especially twice!). But, I feel that going into these challenges with a competitive mindset is somewhat missing the point of the unique experience they provide, which leads me to my parting sentiment…



… With NYCM, the real victories are the scripts we finish along the way. (Cue vomiting.)

  

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Alex is a writer, editor, and storyteller. He has worked in theatre, film, radio, and video game format, and helped craft traditional, interactive, and immersive narratives. Learn more about Alex and his work at alexdsutton.com.

 

 

 


 

 

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