Thursday, April 19, 2012

Screenwriting Article - The Secret to a Great First 10 Pages

Talk about a great opening 10 pages!

Okay guys, Twit-Pitch is alive and well. And if you were following my Twitter feed every night, you’d be seeing me analyze the first ten pages of these entries in REAL-TIME. That’s right. I actually tweet what I’m thinking AS I’M THINKING IT. What other contest does that!? This is unprecedented stuff here so if you’re not following me on Twitter yet, you best remedy that right away!

Now, I bring up Twit-Pitch because when you read ONLY the first 10 pages of a bunch of scripts in a short span of time, you REALLY start paying attention to what makes those pages work or not work. And while it’s nothing new to say “Make sure your first 10 pages are awesome,” it really hit me how important that piece of advice is during this exercise. I realized how quickly that feeling of going one way or the other comes for the reader.

The thing is, when writers hear this advice, they get the wrong idea. They believe “make your first 10 pages great” means immediately assaulting the reader with a huge car chase or a big action set-piece. I’m not saying those won’t capture the readers’ attention if done well, but a generic action scene is just as boring as a generic dialogue scene.

So I sat back and thought about all the openings I liked (both with these pages and with other scripts I’ve read) and while I can’t say I’ve come up with a definitive formula for roping in the reader, I can tell you that when comparing the first ten pages of all these scripts, I found a few go-to approaches that give you the best shot at grabbing the reader’s attention.

One of the best ways to open a script is to introduce a problem. When you introduce a problem, the reader will want to stick around to see if that problem is solved. So in The Sixth Sense, the movie starts with husband and wife having a quiet moment in their bedroom, when, all of a sudden, an old patient breaks in and starts threatening them. This patient is the *problem.* He’s threatening our hero and his wife. I don’t know any readers who would not want to find out how this scene ends.

But you don't have to be telling a ghost story or writing an action film to start with a problem. You can inject a problem into anything. Maybe you open with a teenage girl on the subway with two menacing hoodlums staring at her from across the car. Maybe you start with a woman finding out she’s pregnant. Maybe you start with a lawyer losing his job. Just introduce a problem and you’ve got us.

The next thing you can start with is a mystery. A reader is always going to be roped in if there's some sort of mystery presented to them. You need look no further than Inception to see how to open your script with a good mystery. We see our main character washing up on shore. We see our main character asleep in an apartment with a mob approaching. We see our main character asleep on a train. If I'm a reader, I want to find out how this is happening. I want to keep reading.

The third thing you can start with is a good old-fashioned Scriptshadow staple - a GOAL. Just give your character a goal and we’ll want to see if he gets it or not. The prototypical example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones’ goal is to get the gold monkey in the cave and get out. Throw a few obstacles in the way and you have yourself a great opening sequence.

Another solid opening move is a surprise. I like this one because it actually allows you to start slow. You can introduce your characters. Establish a little bit of setup along the way. And then at some point in the scene, throw in a shocking surprise that jolts the reader. It's been a while since I've seen Iron Man, but if I remember correctly, we start with Tony Stark in a Humvee with some other soldiers chatting away, then out of nowhere – BOOM! - his vehicle is attacked.

If none of these openings float your script’s boat, then AT LEAST start us off with some conflict. Give us an imbalance that projects a feeling of instability. If something's unstable, we intrinsically want to stick around until it stabilizes. So in Fargo, a man walks into a bar to discuss the kidnapping of his wife with a couple of contract men. Immediately, the two parties are not on the same page. They point out how our protagonist is late. Our protagonist counters by insisting he’s on time. This conflict seeps its way into their conversation, making a somewhat straightforward dialogue scene interesting!

Now you don’t have to use any of these approaches if you don’t want. There are plenty of other ways to open a screenplay and I encourage you guys to list them in the comments. But from my experience, if you want to hook a reader right away, these are extremely solid bets. Now if all this stuff intimidates you or confuses you, or you’re convinced there’s no way to use any of these methods in the kind of script you’re writing, then there’s one failsafe rule to fall back on: Make sure something interesting is happening. That's all. Don't bore us with two people talking about something that’s ultimately irrelevant. Give us a scene where something interesting is happening and we’ll be intrigued.

So now that you have a good idea of how to rope a reader in with your first 10, I thought it would be the perfect time to look over the first 14 entrants I’ve read in the Twit-Pitch contest. Of these 14, 8 of them did not make it to the next round. 5 of them received “maybe” votes, meaning I’ll revisit them after I’ve read everything, and 1 received the coveted “definite” vote (“The Tradition - 1867 After losing her father, a woman unwittingly takes a job as a maid at a countryhouse of aristocratic cannibals”). Below, I’m including all the scripts the writers let me post. Check out what you can and study the first ten pages. Determine why you liked some and disliked others. Share your observations in the comments section. And if you know of any other tricks to pull the reader in in the first 10, share those too!


The ghost of a legendary movie star gets tangled up in his own biopic when he needs the help of the heartthrob cast to play him.

Untitled Hoarder
A hoarder finds the girl of his dreams only to lose her in his apartment.

After running away from home, an eight foot tall teenager stumbles upon a retirement town for sideshow performers.

Nuts & Rats
An ex-cop awakes in an alternative reality where normal people are locked up in mental institutions and society is run by lunatics.

Open House
Desperate to divorce but cash-strapped, ornery newlyweds must put their feuding aside to sell their house, much less agree on a price.

Two guys have one weekend to battle for the coveted 'Godfather' title to their best friend's new daughter.

Local .357
Ex-CIA assassin unionizes an eclectic group of freelance hitmen to "negotiate" with their mob employers. Norma Rae meets RED

The Lipschitz Affair
When an art heist interrupts a wedding at the Guggenheim, everyone's a suspect -- even the bride and groom


The Last Rough Rider
It's 1901. Terrorists have just taken over the White House. And only Theodore Roosevelt can stop them.

A hacker for hire finds himself in a deadly web of corporate espionage after being hired to steal the 1st sentient A.I.

Ridin’ The Gravy Train
With his favorite fast-food sandwich facing its final week before it's phased out forever, an obsessed man leads a protest to save it.

Gino And Me
In early 1980s New Jersey, a 12-year-old decides to profile the local mob boss for his seventh grade English project despite the vehement disapproval of his mother.

Crimson Road
Can it get any worse than living next door to a serial killer? It can if you live on CRIMSON ROAD... the whole street is full of them.