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The Ten Page Test, Part 1

The BBC Writers’ Room does it. Red Planet will be doing it. The Film Council do it with initiatives like 25WOL. All the literary agents I have read for do it, so do some indie prodcos and screen agencies.

What am I talking about? What I call The Ten Page Test: the presentation of ten short pages so intriguing, so well formatted, so full of sparkling dialogue that a Reader will forego the chance of another cinnamon swirl and read your script in full. Hooking a Reader, making them actively WANT to go beyond page 10 of your screenplay is difficult. We’ve all heard the horror stories: Readers aren’t paid enough, are overworked, are looking for reasons to stick your script back in the “out” tray.

All of that is true. However, what you often don’t hear about is the Reader’s aching desire to find a story or screenplay that interests them, that keeps them turning the page, wondering what happens next. Nine times out of ten, Readers don’t get those scripts. Ninety per cent of the time at prodcos, agents, writing initiatives and screen agencies, they’re clocking mistake after mistake, distracted from the story and the characters you’ve spent hundreds of hours constructing. So when they find a script that hooks them from page one, that draws them into the world of the story – well, it’s actually exciting. That Reader will devour your script in one sitting, maybe even champion it to their boss. They won’t always be listened to of course, but somewhere, at some point, your script will have touched someone, if only a lowly Reader on work experience.

So getting read in full is hard work; this is because writers grossly underestimate the importance of those first ten pages. A script’s starting point – start late and finish early, anyone? – is often in the wrong place; protagonists are not introduced properly, their needs, the arena, motivations and genre may all be unclear or muddled by page ten.

Needless to say, all of the above is bad news. Yet script after script will turn up at places and a Reader will be no closer to knowing what a story is or who it is about by page ten. Sometimes, screenplays will take the entirety of Act One before it reveals this vital information – anything up to thirty pages. Whilst it’s never wise to assert that anything definitely happens in this scriptwriting lark, it’s unlikely that scripts that take so long to reveal information of this kind will get read in full.

You’ve heard the phrase, “hit the ground running”? In my experience, those scripts that are read in full are those that do this. We join an obvious protagonist, with an obvious journey, from page one. That protagonist’s motivations and backstory is hinted at from the start (no expositional dialogue please: “I need to change my life because of the death of my wife…” Yuk!) and his or her need to gain something – and indeed whom the antagonist is and why they are standing in the protagonist’s way – needs to be introduced. All within ten pages: therein lies the challenge.

I think it was Blake Snyder who coined the phrase “stating your intent” with regards to making it obvious to the Reader where your story is going and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that this appears to have been embraced wholeheartedly by many places that practice The Ten Page Test. I must confess I’ve only read part of his book “Save The Cat” since I have a concentration problem beyond screenplays (reading of an evening suddenly seems something of a Busman’s Holiday nowadays), but as I understand it, Blake says you need to have shown, absolutely, what a story is (ie. genre, arena), who it’s about (protagonist and antagonist intros) and why it’s a story (why are we watching this, NOW? What is important about it, what message is behind it?) by p 10.

I couldn’t agree more. When people send their screenplays for me to read through Bang2write (as opposed to those that come from “beyond” – oo er), I often find myself asking them the following questions:

a) Who is the protagonist? Why is this their story? What is important about NOW – why is this playing out at this time and not say, last week, two years ago, ten years in the future in this character’s life?
b) Who is the antagonist, why do they want to stop the protagonist in their mission/journey/etc?
c) What is the function of the peripheral and secondary characters?
d) What is the “seed” of this story – not the plot, you remember – but if story is the pip in the middle of an apple, what is at its core?

Often those Bang2writers will know immediately who the protagonist and antagonist are, yet not know why I can’t see it. This often lies in the execution of how they have introduced the characters. Introduction of characters often goes through “fashions” I find; there don’t seem to be many features around that don’t start with a protagonist, from the very first shot, anymore for example. In the good ol’ days there was some leeway on this; the first human we see on board The Nostromo for example is not Ripley when those cryo-capsules go up, but Kane. Nowadays though (let’s call it the last decade), I’m struggling to think of a film that does not start with its protagonist. Miles in SIDEWAYS awakes, hungover. Riddick in that space capsule, with that eerie voiceover “All but your animal side…No wonder I’m still awake” in PITCH BLACK. Bruce Willis, shot on his bathroom floor in SIXTH SENSE. We start with them, ergo we go on the journey with them… A simple device, yet very effective and one writers could do well to copy when presented with The Ten Page Test and stating their intent.

Unless of course you need a prologue. Sometimes we hook an audience via presenting a scene that seems or is out of sync, like in SEVERANCE with the escort girls in the hole or ARLINGTON ROAD with the child who’s blasted his thumb off. Sometimes you need a backstory, presenting some vital info that viewers will need later (though often this is disputable), as in THE CAVE. Other times you want to introduce the world of your story before you introduce a protagonist whose job it is to then turn that world upside down – like Will Smith’s character in MEN IN BLACK, who is introduced substantially after Tommy Lee Jones’.

However, prologues can be dangerous in specs, especially those latter two. Whilst “out of sync” prologues can be intriguing on their own merits (as long as they’re not too lengthy), exposition (as in CAVE) tacked on to the front of your script can seem clumsy within the isolation of the first ten pages. Equally, the reason for introducing a protagonist late may not be apparent from ten pages alone and a particularly harsh or overworked Reader may imagine you’ve made a classic newbie mistake, as opposed to constructed it that way on purpose. In other words, when it comes to prologues and stating your intent, it’s wise to tread carefully.

The two things Bang2writers often don’t know though are c) and d) and this can significantly affect how well you might state your intent in those all-important first ten pages. Dealing first with character, every character in a screenplay needs a function; even peripheral characters must have a reason to be there, else they must be cut. Some writers like to write crowd scenes and/or have peripheral characters say random things to add to arena. Whilst this may prove what a skilful observer of people you are, it often does little to push your story forward. When it comes to peripheral characters, I always ask myself in my own specs – what does this peripheral character GIVE to my main characters? Peripherals are not “real”, they are cardboard cut-outs. They need no backstory, no real motivation of their own – they are servants, in effect, there to serve your story. If you consider LIAR LIAR for example when Fletcher goes to retrieve his car from the impound lot, the guy who brings it out to him has scratched it, but he says the scratch was always there. Fletcher is outraged, calls him a liar, ironic when he was the biggest liar of them all. That peripheral character then is there only to serve the point up to us, on a plate, that Fletcher is now beginning to realise his past behaviour was repugnant.

Secondary characters are somewhat different; they can’t be cardboard cut-outs, used only to present various story and plot points to us. They need to be well-rounded, but again need to support those two main characters in their contrasted missions – even if crucially, they don’t realise that is what they are doing. Secondary characters need a soupcon of backstory (but not too much and certainly not the same amount as your protagonist or antagonist; the latter has less than the former, too) but also need a particular function, often dependant on genre. Human beings like to “pigeon hole”: if we can see who the Love Interest, Comic Relief, Weakest Link etc is, very obviously, then all the better. If you can then put interesting slants or mix up those “standard” secondary character role functions, then you are the wo/man. Man. The key though is not in introducing TOO MANY peripherals in the first ten pages or if you do, make it obvious these guys are throwaways. Similarly, don’t fall into the trap of having too many secondary characters (between five and seven is optimum)and certainly don’t introduce them too late in an attempt to not clutter up the narrative. If you can’t introduce all your characters from the start, ask yourself why. There’s a good chance it’s because you don’t need most of them.

Finally then, if you don’t know what is at the heart of your screenplay, you simply can’t state your intent by page ten effectively. If you don’t know what this story is about, how can any Reader, unconnected to your material? No one is saying you must wrap up your story by page 10; far from it. That would be deathly dull and the next eighty pages would fall flat on its arse. Rather, keep us guessing whilst still making it obvious what is going on: yes, it’s as hard as it sounds. But consider all your favourite films: where are we, ten minutes in? Crashed on a hostile planet perhaps? Or perhaps the protagonist has gone away for a holiday, started searching for their adoptive parents, been reunited with their brother, had their family kidnapped? Then we know it can only get worse or more difficult… But how will it get worse or more difficult?

Give The Reader a concrete look at your world, your characters, your story, the seed behind it and only then you can state your intent effectively. Without the intent, without giving the Reader little lanterns like that along the way, that’s how they get lost. Not because they can’t read or are thick, but because sometimes the vision in your head doesn’t make it on to the page. However, if a Reader can get to page ten of your script and say, “This is a horror story about a band of crash survivors who are faced with something even worse than nearly getting smashed to smithereens” or something similar – before even reading the rest of your script – then you know you’re on the right track.

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6 thoughts on “The Ten Page Test, Part 1”

  1. I read alot of scripts online on peer review sites like Zoetrope and often I’m wondering what type of film I’m reading, sometimes up to the halfway pt and beyond, so I really get what you’re saying here. And if we think of all the “great” films, we know where we’re at from the first minute: THELMA AND LOUISE for example makes sure we know all about their friendship and the dissatisfaction in their lives within the first ten minutes so we know there’s trouble brewing, even before it happens. Like you say, we don’t have to spell it out, we just have to take The Reader with us and not change the goalposts. One thing I hated about TOMB RAIDER 2 was that it suddenly became a creature feature at one point, then changed back just as quickly with those wall monsters. What’s the point? It was set up as a girl James Bond/Indiana Jones thing, stick with that, thanks.

  2. I know exactly what you mean Anya about those wall monsters – Tomb Raider 1 was a little more mythical than Indiana Jones, but at least it hinted at that from the start with the time device thingy and Lara talking to her dead Dad at one point, whereas those creatures seemed to come out of nowhere (if not the walls!). It’s these type of crow bar plot moves/genre shifts that totally undermine a movie’s success in my view and I think you’ve given me an idea for another article, thanks! ; )

  3. Anon – I think of it more as the inciting incident, hooking them into the action that comes next on the planet…Without the crash, there would have been no monsters, kind of like Mother’s intercepting the beacon in ALIEN: without that, The Nostromo would never have landed. Hope that helps.

  4. What about say in the pilot to the West Wing? That starts with the introduction of the senior staff finding out about POTUS being in a bicycle accident. Its not till the end of the teaser that we find out who POTUS is.

    The show is a character ensemble so how you would go about starting that kind of show and making the first 10 pages exciting.

    Your start with a main character and allow us to go on a journey with them works for shows like Merlin, Doctor Who (we're brought into the TARDIS by Rose who is just starting on this journey like the rest of us), Life on Mars etc. where you have a very small cast but what if you wanted to write a more ensemble show like the West Wing?

  5. Ensembles are notoriously difficult when it comes to spec writing – readers have to make quick decisions and too often, a mass of characters is a mistake, rather than a deliberate construction, so it's easy to see why ensemble dramas don't always make it out the spec pile alive. That's not to say it's right or the reader is wrong, it's a numbers game and the odds are not in ensembles' favour, it's just the way of it. It does deserve a post all of its own really but in the meantime here – if you come back – I'd recommend making your character intros as tight as possible and making the fact it is an ensemble as obvious as possible… It can be done. I put an ensemble through on a contest only recently.

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