Following up on yesterday’s post about a script’s opening sequence, it makes sense to chase it up with a few words on the first ten pages. Those familiar with screenwriting gurus & the books & tired readers/execs will know that they proclaim ‘make sure something happens in the first ten pages of your script’. This is true but I think it is a much misunderstood notion. Most take it to mean that you should put in a car crash, an explosion, a scary chase or whatever. You may hear phrases mentioned like the ‘inciting incident’ or the ‘obligatory scene’. But I don’t necessarily follow these guidelines.
As a script reader, what I’m looking for, first and foremost, is evidence that the writer can write and that he (or she) is in full command of his story. It will come as no surprise to learn that most scripts are poorly written. A reader/exec will automatically know from the script’s first 10 pages if it’s good or bad, regardless of what happens. But this will be evident from the first page, never mind trawling through ten of them. Again, most are tempted to start with a bang to show that they can dazzle with their visual flair and visceral action but generally, their basic command of English is poor and they will offer a general lack of basic storytelling techniques.
Let’s say, for example, that the first ten pages of your script contain three scenes. A man and wife at breakfast. The man driving to work. And the man at his office desk. Not exactly scintillating, inviting or dramatic right? But it’s how the writer dramatically conveys these scenes in the first ten pages that snags the reader’s interest, or emotionally attaches himself to the characters, or knows from the writing that the author is building up to something that I’ll want to stick around for. The tone may be gloomy as hell or comically light but if the writer displays a discerning touch to his description and dramatic exposition, then I know I’m going to be still interested by page 110.
The three scene scenario above doesn’t sound very appealing but it could fall into any genre depending on the writer’s talent and intentions. It could be a domestic drama where a marriage is falling apart. Or a thriller where the wife is going to be kidnapped and the husband will go to great lengths to save her. Or a comedy where the husband falls in love with his cleaner, or whatever.
Now I’m not dismissing a riveting first 10 pages for any second. One of the best opening sequences that I can remember off the top of my head is the original Scream where Drew Barrymore is tormented and murdered on the phone. Terrific. But it was a horror. It set the tone, made you scared as hell and grabbed your attention. Some horrors are slow burners (or supernatural thrillers) so they will labour on mood and intent for a good half hour before anything really startling happens.
So it all depends on the genre of your script and the style of your story. I think, at the very least, the first ten pages should set the tone so the reader recognises what territory he’s in (again, this will usually be evident in the very first page). It should not contain any typos or spelling mistakes of any description. And all possessive apostrophes should be used correctly. That’s being anal I know but I swear, in every excellent script I read, there’s not a spelling blemish amongst them. Clean, polished, professional.
I’ll stop now as I don’t want the rant to go on and on so I’ll probably come back to the subject in subsequent posts or in responding to any questions that may pop up.
How To Jump-Start Your Script
My First Ten Pages
The first 10 pages is the biggest buggabo screenwriters face and, from what I've seen, many writers focus on action and conflict but don't plant the questions that will make someone want to keep reading to find the answers.
Nice article, Danny.
Hey Danny, interesting blog. It'd be interesting to hear just what you've learnt from your years as a reader that you can take from it to influence your writing - how to excite the script reader who has to read two other scripts today. When you're reading scripts what turns you off, what turns you on? Cheers!
That just so happens to be the subject of my next post! Which I'll put up later today.
Would you read my first 10 pages? I'm new to screewriting. If I'm awful, it's best to find out now, right?
hmmmm....having just read the blog about the first ten pages of a script, I am slightly unnerved by the biased overtones towards the more educated writers. The words "polished", "professional" and "masters degree" chilled my soul.
You can have a perfectly structured script, well written, perfect punctuation but would it be something that people want to spend their time watching?
I read the winning entry for a sitcom script competition on the BBC Writersroom the other week and although it was technically well written, it seemed unoriginal and stale, a re-hash from a by-gone era. Who am I to judge? A mere viewer - someone who like a lot of people would love to see funny, thought provoking, moving and above all interesting programmes on TV.
I love John Sullivan, I wish we could develop a few more like him in this country instead of an abundance of pseudo-elite homogeonised technical experts. Imagination and humour are innate.
i agree with beth comments on 24/11/07 concerning the first ten pages.i have been banging my head against the wall for years, concerning; structure, style, theme, genre, subplot, character arc.blah kin blah. So much so i'm convinced i have suffocated my unborn creative talent, reluctant to finish a project and send it in:< I must agree there seems to be biased overtones towards " educated " I also sense there is a poncy up your own ass attitude within the B.B.C.,I watched the Jon Pullman interview and although it keeps bloody freezing, [ poxy real player ] you can sense the pompous attitude. he came across to me as though he didn't have a Danny concerning comedy.Character, character, character. yeah, yeah, yeah, anyone can write coarse and vulgar crap like little Britain.The fast show pisses all over it.I guess the writing profession is comparable to any other industry, its not what you know...it's who you know. do i sound bitter? nope just blooming frustrated!! lol
Love your blog! Interesting and insightful. I always struggle with the first 10 pages. Good to hear I'm not the only one!
I'd like to have some opinions on screenwriting software. Been using Final Draft for the past years but I'm thinking of giving Movie Magic a go. Any thoughts on past experiences with Movie Magic?
I've only used Final Draft so don't know much about Movie Magic or any of the others, but I hear they're all fine, pretty much.
Hey Danny - a question. I've long held the 'MUST introduce lead character ASAP within the first few pages' argument at arm's length. I've seen too many movies that work really well - you gave the example of 'Scream' - that don't do this.
Take, for example, something like 'The Fifth Element' that takes its time setting up essential backstory for quite a few pages before we are even introduced to the lead character.
What's your take on this? Is it the case that an exciting first ten pages that drives the story forward is going to retain the reader anyway, irrespective of whether it introduces the lead?
Hi Rob - I think, ultimately, a story has to start where YOU think it has to start. Forget about any so-called 'rules & regulations' (which should be viewed as useful tips, not 'YOU MUST DO IT THIS WAY').
So, think of the story's needs, and more importantly, think of what you want the audience to understand, or to feel, and how you want to grab their attention or draw them in, and start your story from there. If it's a prologue, or a sequence that doesn't involve the protagonist, then so be it. It's YOUR story. And if you've done it well in the first ten pages, then a reader's going to be interested, irrespective of inciting incidents, protagonist introduced or whatever.
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