As a script consultant, I can generally gauge the quality of a screenplay based on how the first ten pages play out…
And, in those opening pages, I can usually predict what the grade I will give said screenplay will be. Are you thinking that’s a bit crazy? What about the rest of the screenplay! The story has barely begun and you’re already judging it?
In short, yes.
That’s not to say that I don’t read the entire screenplay. Of course I do! And, in a few very rare cases, I do change the grade. However, more often than not, the first ten pages are indicative of the rest of the screenplay. I generally know pretty quickly if the screenplay I’m reading is going to be a good one, or not. Luckily for you, I’m going to read the entire screenplay, because that’s my job.
But, not everyone has that obligation. Producers, directors and anyone else you are trying to pitch your story to, do not. If they aren’t hooked in the first ten pages, they will likely stop reading and move onto their next offer.
So, how do you nail the first 10 pages of your screenplay?
FORMATTING & GRAMMAR
As always, this should go without saying, yet I see it all the time. A slew of grammatical and formatting issues early on are an immediate red flag. If the first ten pages aren’t written properly, there’s pretty much a 100% chance that the rest of the screenplay will follow suit. If readers are focusing on how badly your screenplay is formatted or how many typos there are, they’re not focusing on the story.
There is no excuse for bad formatting or grammatical mistakes. Proofread your work. Use spellcheck. If you don’t know how something should be formatted, Google it, or better yet, ask someone who does know.
The craft of your screenplay is the quality of your writing. How well are you painting the scene? Are the characters flying off the pages, or are they hidden within them? Does the story feel real? Are the actions and descriptions concise?
Wordy screenplays are amateur screenplays. Choose your words carefully and precisely as you don’t have a lot of room to explain both the setting and actions. How you write scenes in the first ten pages is vital. You are setting up the tone of the screenplay.
Here’s an example:
A gunshot goes off as Henry picks up a pipe with his left hand. He is thinking this will be a good idea, and he looks at Amy. She looks beautiful right now because of her red hair in the wind. They look at each other because they may never see each other again. She thinks he is going to die and cries because she is sad.
A gunshot. Henry falls, grabbing a lead pipe on the way down. He pauses. Amy watches him, her flaming hair rustled by the wind. Their eyes lock. Amy sobs.
Notice the difference?
The second option is not only more concise, but it’s more powerful. We feel the emotion within the scene more profoundly, despite how much shorter it is. It’s also important to notice the use of line breaks! Line breaks are an excellent way to isolate an action in order to make them stand out.
Start with a hook. This is perhaps one of the most classic literary techniques that you can employ in your screenplay. A poor opening scene gives the reader no incentive to read on.
When you start your story in the middle of a mess, you are setting up a series of unanswered questions to the reader. If those questions are good enough, it will propel them to read on in order to find out what the answers are. This is what films are built off of! Tension, suspense and action. Every single film contains these three elements. They must be setup in the first ten pages.
A great example of this is seen in Mad Max: Fury Road. The viewer is immediately thrust into the action. It is interesting, visual, and leaves the audience with a head full of questions. There's no way anyone is walking away from that screen now.
The last thing you need to nail are your characters, or more specifically, their introductions. How does your protagonist enter this world? What do they look like? How do they act? How do they intrigue the reader?
Believe it or not, but all of this should come across within a page of introducing said protagonist. If the reader is not interested in your character, they are removed from the story. If your character doesn’t feel real, the reader has no reason to invest in them. Create characters that jump off the page and grab your reader by the throat and say, “This is my story and you’re going to pay attention.”
Ten pages is not much. It may less than 10% of your story. However, it is arguably the most important section of your screenplay when it comes to selling your work. If you can’t grab the reader’s interest in the first ten pages, it’s unlikely that you will be able to do so in the next hundred.
Nail the first ten pages, but also don’t ignore the rest of your screenplay! The first ten pages are what set the standard for the rest of the screenplay. Don’t get lazy. Your screenplay needs to match the quality of those early pages or it will be equally unsuccessful.
So, get writing and prove your worth.