As religious lore has it, God took 6 days to build the world… You have 10 pages.
You’ve all heard the horror stories of producers who only read the first 10 or 20 pages, and if they’re not hooked, intrigued and impressed, they toss the script. And unfortunately, those stories are true. So you need to make sure your first pages accomplish all the things necessary to keep a reader’s interests.
You need to paint a picture in your first few pages that make it clear your story is visual and your writing is interesting. We need a great opening image, a clear tone and genre, engaging characters, emotion, compelling dialogue and voice, high stakes, conflict, a relatable theme, and a world that intrigues us from the start.
You are the God of your script’s world. You add, you destroy, you create, you inspire, you manipulate. Your first pages need to give us a taste of the world we’re going to be plunged into and show us what makes it special. Before you ever write word one, you need to know everything about your world, so that you know the parts to highlight that will make the reader fall as in love with it, as you are. And this is even truer for those who write sci-fi, fantasy or period pieces.
When designing a world or setting that is outside the present day norm or heightens what we know as normal (and all stories should somehow heighten what’s thought of as normal), you need to think of everything; the location, the time period, the landscape, the color scheme, the style of homes, the state of technology, communication, transportation, religion, legal systems, law enforcement, how people dress, speak, eat, date, have sex. If you haven’t at least thought of all these things and more, then you haven’t created a world. You’re just writing a scene.
These details are not only what’s going to suck us in and make us believe that this world actually exists, but it’s also what’s going to show off your voice, creativity and originality. You may not even include much of it in your story, as you don’t want your writing to be too novelistic, but you should know it. Your first pages should give us just enough detail to your world to make us realize it’s something special, visual, and most all – cinematic.
Always set up the most implausible and outlandish part of your world first. It will be much easier to believe an alien world or fantastical parallel universe exists when we experience a taste of THAT world first. Whereas if you start your script on plain old Earth 2013 and then out of nowhere on page 8 we’re suddenly on Planet Gorgon, it will not seem as believable or natural because it’s such a different world than was previously introduced. Set up the unfamiliar thing the audience will have to swallow and accept first, as it will put us in the right mindset for what’s to come.
No matter what genre or type of story you’re writing, every world has rules that must be set up. Whether it’s a futuristic sci-fi story, a low budget supernatural horror, or an over the top comedy, rules are important. It’s what prevents what I call “HUH?” moments later on in the script. If you don’t set up the rules of your world or your character, then certain actions or developments later on in the story may feel random or out of the blue and may cause a “HUH?” moment.
For instance, if you are writing a superhero story and on page 83 your superhero suddenly has brand new powers he’s never shown us or mentioned before, that would tell me you’re filling a plot hole or making it up as you go along to make the scenes work instead of staying true to your set up.
Just as important as not changing your character’s set up mid-story, if your characters feel like they were born on page 1, there won’t be enough depth for us to feel invested and engaged. We need hints of personalities, fears, conflicts, backstory, loves, relationships, quirks, etc., from the get go. We need to feel like your character’s lives have been going on forever, we just happened to join them already in progress on page 1. And whatever emotion your protagonist is feeling when we meet them, is how we the reader should feel as this will get us into their head and make us connect with their situation and position in this world. In other words, your characters need to feel like fully fleshed out, three-dimensional people immediately.
You need to know exactly how your character fits into this world – what their place is and how their existence affects that world (and vice versa) throughout the story. Is your character the savior, the hero, the villain, the cog, the catalyst, the conformist, the rebel, the fighter, the lover, the victim? Know your character’s role within the world, why they must play that role, and how their role changes over the course of the story.
A major part of the first few pages is introducing us to your characters in interesting ways, whether it’s your protagonist or antagonist. There are many ways to open your script and introduce us to your story, but one popular way is by giving us a taste of what your protagonists are going to be experiencing later. For instance, many horror films open with unimportant characters finding themselves victim of the killer that your protagonists will fight with later. Doing this sets up the tone, genre, stakes, the antagonist, conflict, and gives us a glimpse of what your big climax might bring. It sets up the world in which this type of evil exists and helps grab us immediately.
There are a large number of things your first pages need to accomplish – far too many to cover in one article. But the more of these things you can bring out, the better the chance that a reader, exec or rep will get from page 10 to page 110.
Don’t miss Danny’s webinar on Wednesday, March 13th at 1:00 PM PST – Make Your First 10 Pages Shine!
- Meet the Reader: The Dark Side
- The Bitter Script Reader: 12-Step Screenwriting: Week 2 – Three-Act Structure
- Ask the Expert: How Do I Get My Material Seen?