The First Ten Pages
Readers will very often read the first ten pages of a script to judge whether a script is “worth” a full read. In some ways, reading the first ten pages is in essence a beauty contest; sometimes your script will fail to get a full read because of something small (ie. format) or because of personal taste (ie. that particular reader doesn’t like the genre your script is or the story idea, so will find it difficult to get excited about your script pages no matter how good they are).
Sometimes however, writers CAN ensure their script gets a full read and that’s by “nailing down” these four elements:
- Who is the protagonist? Why is this their story? What is important about NOW – why is this playing out at this time and not say, last week, two years ago, ten years in the future in this character’s life?
- Who is the antagonist, why do they want to stop the protagonist in their mission/journey/etc?
- What is the function of the peripheral and secondary characters?
- What is the “seed” of this story – not the plot – but if story is the pip in the middle of an apple, what is at its core?
Every writer knows their first ten pages are the most important pages of the whole script, but very few writers “know” how to sell themselves effectively in these pages. Here are a few common errors from a script reading point of view to avoid:
- No synopsis/one pager. Readers feel a certain sense of dread in opening a script “cold”. Give them an indication of what the script and story is MEANT to be and they feel better able to judge the work in front of them. This is why a synopsis should ALWAYS be sent with a script! Whilst it’s certainly true many readers merely skim synopses (they don’t get paid extra for them), a well-written, well-conceived synopsis can act as your “selling document”; it is an added opportunity to get the reader on board with you. NEVER send out half-assed synopses however; always ensure they are polished to perfection. Most synopses doing the rounds are streams of consciousness that only serve to confuse the reader. Avoid this and you will be in a very small minority (always a good thing)!
- Introducing Character THEN story. Many writers believe we must have an introduction to our protagonist BEFORE the meat of the story. This is a big mistake, because not only will the reader be wondering what they’re dealing with in the SCRIPT, the story will probably be missed off your first ten pages. If a reader cannot “nail” what a script is about story-wise by page ten, there is a good chance they won’t give the script a full read. Character and story should go hand in hand – from page one wherever possible. Keep in mind not only WHO we’re watching, but WHY we’re watching them… Don’t make readers wait for the story to start.
- Black on the page. You want your reader to visualise your script’s story, but many writers want to paint the ENTIRE picture when “summing it up” is far preferable. Ask yourself whether ALL your description is necessary. One of the best pieces of advice re: description I’ve ever been given was this: “When you want to use ten words, use five. When you want to use five, use one. When you want to use one, use none.” Force yourself to use as few words as possible. Ironically, the more description a script has, the more confusing it is for the reader because they don’t know which the “important” bits are. Scriptwriting is all about economy; less really is more.
- Look of the scene. Closely related to black on the page, very often a writer (particularly writer/directors) will think more about the LOOK of a scene than TELLING THE STORY. Never forget a script is all about story, first and foremost. Sometimes a particular device does work in a particular, popular movie, so this means the reader will be subjected to many Edgar Wright-style “cutaway shots” of toilets flushing, tea making, alarm bells going off etc, in order to break scenes up or create something that will pay off later in another scene. Whilst this works well in the likes of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, this is one of the most imitated devices I see as a reader and I’m sure other readers see it a lot too. Whilst I would never advocate NOT using particular “look” devices, even in the first ten pages (though risky) – it worked for Wright, right? – come up with your own. Don’t copy.
- Expositional dialogue. One thing sure to kill off any interest in a script’s first ten pages is expositional dialogue. Readers believe scripts start as they mean to go on (regardless of whether they actually do or not), so if you have characters “telling it” all over the shop in your first ten pages, then it’ll go back in the envelope. WARNING: this may (or may not) include voiceover… A tricky one, since harsher (read less experienced) readers may think of voiceover as entirely expositional McKee-style, forgetting the likes of AMERICAN BEAUTY. Starting a spec with voiceover is a considered risk, unfortunately.
- Starting with Flashback. Before you get ants in your pants, I love flashback. I use it in my own specs and think people who think it’s “lazy” are nuts. One thing that really puzzles me however is a script STARTING with flashback – what are we “flashbacking” from? It’s the start of the story! What’s more, the first ten pages often do little to answer this question. Don’t confuse flashbacks with prologues – and don’t think it’s an easy option either; prologues need lots of development to make sense. Very often a spec will start with a so-called “flashback” that does nothing to establish the time of the piece or what the story is supposed to be, sometimes I’m not even sure who the protagonist is. Instead, it seems a completely “out of sync” scene. NOTE: ditto with “Flash Forwards”.
- Starting with montage. Again, nothing wrong with montage as a device, but do you really need to start with it? 9/10 I find it’s used to show a character waking up and getting ready for work. YAWN. It’s dull! Montages are great, I love them, but they need a DRAMATIC FUNCTION and that’s rarely a character introduction. As for using them to signify time passing in the first ten pages… ARE YOU CRAZY? That’s just madness, especially combined with waiting for the story to start (which often happens in the specs I read)!
- Being boring. The biggest crime of all. Be dull and/or confusing in the first ten pages and the reader is never going to give the script a full read. Whilst what constitutes “dull” is obviously up to personal interpretation, there are certain things one can do to ensure there’s “enough” going on to pique a reader’s interest. That doesn’t mean you have to start with a car crash, big explosion, alien invasion or whatever either. You CAN craft a decent hook into your script, regardless of genre. Something excited YOU enough about this story, otherwise you wouldn’t want to sit down and devote hundreds of hours to it. Make the reader feel excited about it too. You can do it!