Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The first ten pages

Anyone who's taken a screenwriting class, read a screenwriting book, or listened in on any given conversation at the Coffee Bean on Sunset is familiar with some pearl of conventional wisdom about The First Ten Pages of a script. One of the best versions goes something like, "Studio executives only read the first ten pages!" (As far as I know, that estimate is at least ten pages too high.)

Thus, aspiring screenwriters everywhere work themselves into a lather trying to come up with the best First Ten Pages ever written, leading to scripts that look like this:

ACTION/ADVENTURE: Screenplay starts with a breathless ten-page action sequence, then segues into 15-20 pages of exposition.

COMEDY: Screenplay starts with ten pages of laughter upon laughter, each bit funnier than the last, then segues into 15-20 pages of establishing characters and situation.

DRAMA/THRILLER: Screenplay starts with shocking ten-page flashback scene, then segues into 15-20 pages of exposition and establishing characters.

Generally, this approach fails miserably. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. The writer has set up unmeetable expectations for the rest of the script. It starts on such a high note that everything else is disappointing by comparison -- especially those next 15-20 pages.

2. The writer has delayed the actual storytelling. Since the opening scene/sequence is only intended to entertain the reader, it has little or no connection to the main plot of the screenplay -- it doesn't set anything up. Now the writer has to work overtime to cram in plot exposition and tell us who the characters are, which makes the ensuing scenes slow and boring.

3. The opening sequence itself is hamstrung. If the reader doesn't know anything about the characters involved, there's a limit to how exciting, funny, or otherwise compelling the opening sequence can be. It's not paying anything off, because nothing's been set up, and therefore it can only resonate on the most generic level -- meaning broad comedy, meaningless action, cheap thrills. No matter how good you think you are at executing this stuff, an intelligent reader will look past the glitz and see the lack of substance.

Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, many writers still attempt to go this route -- and why? Because they're afraid of setup. They have no confidence in their ability to write an opening that lays the groundwork for the story in an interesting manner, so their solution is just to make the first ten pages as entertaining as possible, then jam in all the exposition later. The result is an opening sequence that could be cut from the script without affecting the story. Ironically, then, in their rush to come up with the ten pages they'd most want this theoretical studio executive to read, they've written the ten pages that he or she could most easily skip.

So let's not do that. Screenwriters read lots of screenplays too, and we know what we're looking for when we pick one up, and it's not an immediate all-out sensory assault. Here are some of the things I want out of the opening pages of a script (and I doubt I'm alone in this):

- I want to meet the characters I'm going to be spending 100 pages with, and get to know them quickly so I can decide how I feel about them.

- I want to get a feel for the world the script takes place in -- time, place, circumstances.

- I want some hints about what to expect from the rest of the story. Is this a great situation that will come crashing down? A horrible situation that will be transformed for the better? What's unsustainable in this scenario? By page ten I should have an idea.

Since these are the things I'm looking for, they're also the things I'll try to deliver in the first ten pages. Another thing I try to be aware of is the fact that as soon as I read the words "Fade in:", an enormous information vacuum is created in my mind. I know nothing, and want to know everything. So that information vacuum will suck up every available bit of data scattered throughout the opening scenes of a script -- and I'm going to assume that information is important and will be paid off later.

If a character changes the subject when sex is brought up, I'll be waiting for the scene when those past issues are revealed. If someone looks at an overdue bill, I'll be waiting for money problems to come front and center. And like Chekov so aptly put it, if I see a gun I'll be waiting for it to go off.

These kinds of moments aren't just about setup. They're about anticipation. The power to build anticipation in the reader/audience is one of the screenwriter's greatest assets. It forces the reader's hand to keep turning the pages, fixes the audience's eyes to the screen. If we exploit this principle to the full, we can easily front-load the script with introductions and exposition without being the least bit boring.

I mean, look at Julian Fellowes's script for Gosford Park. (It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, so I guess it's an okay example.) The opening minutes of the film do nothing but introduce the enormous cast of characters and set up the situation they're in. But what a compelling setup! Fellowes drops the audience right into an unfamiliar world, and it's up to us to decipher the rules and customs based on the interactions we're permitted to observe. There's no opening crawl, no voiceover, no Greek-chorus-like mechanism to explain the setting to us. By the time we've figured out the landscape, the story is well on its way.

But -- going back to several paragraphs ago -- if you are absolutely intent on starting your story with a literal bang, there's a right way to do it. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with one of the most iconic treasure-hunting action sequences of all time, and it doesn't technically relate to the central plot of the film -- but it still works as setup. We get a feel for Indiana Jones and his world. We meet his nemesis, a ruthless guy who has Indy's number. We see the fear of snakes. This isn't a lot of setup for the first ten pages, but for this movie it's just enough -- and anyone who thinks that Raiders proves that you can get away with starting a movie with a disconnected action scene is missing the point. Without those elements of setup, the opening (and quite possibly the rest of the script) wouldn't work. There's entertainment, yes, but beyond that there's intrigue -- and intrigue is what sustains the reader/viewer long after the excitement of a set piece has worn off.

First and foremost, we need to use the first ten pages (along with much of the first act) to plant nagging questions, doubts, and fears in the mind of the reader. If we do that effectively, reading the 11th page and beyond will be a foregone conclusion; and then we're all set, provided all those elements are satisfactorily followed up.

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