Whether you’re entering a contest or you’ve gotten some overworked, underpaid executive somewhere to read your script, the fact of the matter is you’ve got just ten pages to get their attention. If they aren’t drawn into the story by then, they either won’t read the rest at all or will breeze through it just to get to the last ten pages so they can pretend to know what happened in the end. Think about it – can you blame them? Any executive will tell you it’s not just about what’s good but what they can sell. Sorry folks, it’s the entertainment business, not the entertainment arts. Save the artsy fartsy stuff for your second script and stick to good basic storytelling for your first script sale.
Make sure that your first ten pages accomplish three major goals in an interesting and concise way. They need to establish the tone/genre of the script, the time and place of the story takes, and who the lead character is if not his or her goal.
The very first words on the page should set the tone of the entire script. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? A thriller? Make it clear to the reader ASAP. Nothing is worse than reading a script and not being sure if you’re supposed to be laughing or crying at a story point. The more time it takes for the reader to figure out just what sort of animal this script is, the more time he or she will spend removed from the script and therefore not engaged with your characters or storyline.
COMMON MISTAKE #1: You don’t want to stand outside the script with the reader looking in. Saying things like, “we hear the pounding of a heartbeat, the woman is terrified,” may set it up as a thriller but it also keeps the reader at arm’s length. “We” don’t hear anything; the description could read something like, “Jolene’s heart pounds in her chest, her eyes dart everywhere, looking for an escape.” You’d get the same idea – this is a thriller – and yet be drawn into the story rather than solidly set outside of it.
You also need to establish the time and place that the story takes place. Sure you could just super, “Virginia, 1863”. However, if instead your description was something like, “An angry crowd gathers while an effigy of President Lincoln is burned in the small town square,” you establish the same general feel for time and place without being boring or stiff. If your next sentence is something like, “The sheriff nervously reached for his phaser, ready to stun the crowd at the first sign of trouble,” you’ve added another level of intrigue. You’ve set up the time, place and tone as being completely unexpected. The story could be futuristic, it could be about an alternate reality, the audience isn’t sure but hopefully they’ll be intrigued enough to read on. That’s your job in a nutshell; set up the time, place and genre in a way that the reader MUST keep reading.
COMMON MISTAKE #2: Don’t over describe the situation with mundane details that have no direct bearing on the story. I don’t need to know what color the character’s parka is, I just need to know that it’s cold. Remember also that this is a script, not a book, so dialog is king. The sooner you get to characters making some comment on their surroundings, time, place and/or current ordeal the better.
Finally, you need to set up the main character in the first ten pages. It could be like the classic movie, “Casablanca” where we hear a lot about Rick before meeting him. Or like the film version of “Lord of the Rings” where we hear a lot of back-story directly related to the main characters’ quest before we meet them. Or possibly like “Gladiator,” where we meet the character straight away and immediately know what he wants – to be with his family. The only thing we don’t know is that he’ll accomplish this goal in a non-traditional way – by joining them in Paradise. However you choose to do it, make it organic to the story and INTERESTING. You could, for instance, just say something like, “Hank pulls his ship into the Nabu spaceport, stirring up unrest in his Tyrolean crew.” Unfortunately, since most of your readers will never have been to Nabu or Tyro, the reference will be lost on them. It’s boring and disengaging.
What if instead you wrote something like, “Hank edges his beater of ship past the luxury liners around the restricted Nabu spaceport, dwarfed both in size and class. Fred, his first mate, leans down. “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Has he turned pale? Hank could never read his friend even after all these years, the striking blue Tyrolean skin that all of his crew shares make them too hard to read especially at a time like this.” Granted, it takes a little longer but, lame example that it might be, still draws us into the story faster than the previous option.
COMMON MISTAKE #3: Don’t ever assume that the reader has as much interest or knowledge of your lead character as you. For instance, I once read a script where much of the opening pages where written in Celtic. Hey, I love Ireland as much as the next guy but I’m not slogging through old Celtic to read a script. Why? Because it’s off-putting and I know it’s unlikely I’ll be able to sell it up the ladder. Yes, I’m sure someone out there reading this will know of an exception to the rule but do you want to count on being the million to one exception or the more traditional rule? By the way, the rest of the script may have been written in Celtic as well, I never went past page 10.
You don’t have to formulaically spell out whose story this is, what they want and what’s in their way if you don’t want to. For instance, in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” you got to know Indy first, warts and all, before you found out the story that drives the movie. It worked in that case because the character was so appealing that you were too hooked to stop watching. You can hold surprises until later, make the audience THINK they know what the script is about only to spin it around 180 degrees down the road but they have to at least think they know what the script is about to keep reading. Mystery is one thing; complete and baffling confusion is something else.
Use the first ten pages to set the stage for the story and characters, and then end it with something exciting or intriguing enough to change the course of the story or character and pull us along with it. Otherwise, all your beautiful prose that you labored over in the middle of the script will be lost to the ethos, never read or appreciated by anyone who doesn’t have a direct connection to you the writer.