Everywhere we look, screenwriters are advised to make their ten pages absolutely rock. And this is good advice, since if you write a “good” ten pages, chances are your draft will get a full read at that agent’s, prodco, initiative or contest.
But knowing what “good” means in terms of the first ten pages is half the battle. However, I noticed a complete lack of advice for writers wanting to assess their OWN ten pages. As regular Bang2writers know, I always encourage peer review via the FB page or Twitter “shout outs”, but I think it’s really important writers have the tools to assess their own work properly as well – otherwise we’re shouting into the wind.
So here are my thoughts on how to judge your own work from a script reader’s POV:
1. WHO are the characters? Whether TV script or feature, by page 10, we need to know who the main characters are – and by “main characters” I mean protagonist and antagonist. Regardless of genre, that is non-negotiable*. Yes, yes, in years gone by we had more leeway and John Book arrived 15 minutes into WITNESS, yadayadayadawhydon’tyoucryaboutit. C’MON, it’s 2013! Audiences wanna know who is who and they wanna know it NOW: I’m not in charge of all the audiences in the world! If you want to challenge this viewpoint, make your own damn film and kidnap a few hundred people and make them watch it CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style why don’t you? Or just put the protagonist and antagonist upfront in your spec. Whatevs. Thanks. (*Except when it is, because you knock the reader out the park for some other reason and they completely don’t notice your protagonist is late. What?? It is possible.)
2. WHAT do the characters need/want? We don’t watch television or movies simply about characters who do nothing all day for hours and hours. We want to watch stories of characters who DO STUFF. But they don’t do stuff randomly either; they do stuff for particular reasons cos they want or need something else. Sometimes that reason will change or they end up doing something else. But whatever happens, the reader needs to know what your characters want and why within the first ten pages. Now this really is non-negotiable and you can’t opt out via arm wrestling agents and producers over it. Though you could try. In fact, please do. We’ll film it for London Screenwriters Festival 2013. Who’s in?
3. WHERE are we? Start as you mean to go on. Don’t forget that all important opening IMAGE. Remember that genre, tone, convention, theme – all are part of the story world we are in. But don’t go ticking boxes on us either, else readers will go postal. We may like “the same, but different” – but emphasis is on the DIFFERENT. We don’t want endless rehashes of the same story. Mmmmm hash. What? Hash browns, obviously! What did *you* think I thinking about? FFS.
4. WHEN are we? This is “start as you mean to go on” part 2. NEWSFLASH – we don’t need acres of backstory to “get” your characters and we don’t need aeons of time to set up either. Audiences are smart and media literate: they can decode stuff instantly and hate being talked down to. So forget the “here and now” at your peril; do not make your story “backwards looking”, especially in the first instance. In the case of linear stories (and regardless of genre), foreshadow the conflict that’s coming for your characters; in the case of non-linear stories, start at the worst possible point for your characters. And never, ever make us “wait” – characters and stories should be introduced hand in hand, not one and then the other.
5. How’s the format, grammar, punctuation & spelling? As it says on the tin. Reader-proof wherever possible and ensure you are up to speed on your punctuation and spelling. Dudes, we’re writers. This is basic. If you don’t want such little things to be a big deal, then don’t drop the ball on this. Simples.
6. Is it dialogue-led? Most screenplays have too much dialogue – and too often, the first ten pages is littered with it. I would bet real money yours has too much before I even see it! REALLY. So get cutting!
7. Does it have too little dialogue in the first instance? The reverse. Doh! This often happens when writers are too busy “setting up”, as per Q4. The Dialogue section of The B2W Required Reading List.
8. Is it a Zeitgeist story? “It’s the execution that counts”? As the great philosopher DMX says: BITCH PLEASE. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NO it is NOT the execution that counts, not if the central concept is the same as everybody else’s!! So repackage and find the hook that’s DIFFERENT to all the others in the spec pile. You can do it. GO GO GO.
9. Is it vanilla? You’ve spent so long trying to do all the above you’ve lost your voice. YARGH. Hey no one said this was gonna be easy did they?? If they did, spank ’em. Forthwith. Showcasing Your Voice.
10. WHY this story? You may get asked this in meetings by producers or agents, but even before you get through the door, it will be asked of your pages and roughly translates as:
“What is “the same … but different” about it? Who will it appeal to and why?”
In other words, then: know your audience. Know WHO they are and WHY they would like your story – and WHAT they liked before yours, that was *like* yours. Know what the unique selling point of your story is in comparison.
If you do not know the above BEFORE you start, you will not answer the number one question of ALL agents, producers or anyone involved in The Industry, which is essentially:
“Why should I invest my time/money in this story?”
Never forget: agents and producers need to make money. That’s their JOB. Your job? To write a great script, with a great story, about great characters that enables them to do that job, otherwise you are irrelevant.
So, what are you waiting for? Go get those ten pages. And bring me some hash browns when you’re done.
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