Page 1 Is Everything
I can’t stress this enough … what’s on page 1 of your screenplay could sink your chances of getting a full read.
I’ve lost count over the years of how many writers have told me readers *can’t* know their story from the first ten pages. Those writers complain it’s not enough time and that readers are nasty creatures who form premature and false assumptions about the writing in front of them. It’s not fair, etc.
Well I have news for you. Readers don’t just form a judgement in ten pages – they form it in ONE page … and that page is usually page 1.
That’s right. ONE PAGE!!
But you know what? So do you!!!
Seriously. How many times have you opened a book and read page 1? You’ve decided from the first few paragraphs or sentences when deciding to buy it, or take it out the library? I don’t believe you *never* have.
And it’s the same for script readers. We will open the script on page 1 or scroll down to the first in a PDF and form that same judgement. Because we’re only human. And from glancing at HOW you’ve written page 1 based on our experience of reading scripts, we will form any number of opinions, such as …
1) Your script looks like crap
If you’ve not paid attention to the forty three billion pages (actual number) on the internet dedicated to the “right” script format, then shame on you. Here’s a huge rundown for you, in case you want to double check.
2) Your script looks great!
Wow, a screenplay that actually looks like a screenplay. That’s a good start. How nice to begin a script without *that* sinking feeling. Yay!
3) Your script starts with a yawnsome opener
Well the screenplay *looks* like a screenplay, sure, which would’ve been a good start but OH LOOK – it starts with an alarm clock and the protagonist brushing his/her teeth and blundering about, or one of the other many openers that make us want to pluck out our eyes. Oh and here’s another handy list of cliched openers, courtesy of Danny Stack.
4) Your protagonist is MIA
Where is s/he? Who is it? Who knows – because the screenplay has some mad prologue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, so we’re waiting for the story to start and for whoever it’s supposed to be about to turn up. Cue that SINKING FEELING again.
5) Your dialogue is obnoxious
Get this through your heads – going OTT with the words “Fuck” or “C***” from the offset does not make your script stand out. It’s not controversial. It’s just obnoxious. And post FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and SEXY BEAST, boring. Very, very boring.
6) You don’t know how to use storytelling devices
If you start the FIRST PAGE with a “Flashback”, tell me this: what the hell are we flashing back *from*? Equally, if you start with a dream sequence, it better be for a BLOODY GOOD reason, not just so your protagonist can wake up (via an alarm clock so s/he can blunder about brushing his/her teeth).
Please use Voiceover WISELY. And start with a montage of a cityscape or passing seasons OVER MY DEAD BODY, BITCHES! (Here are good examples of such storytelling devices).
7) And yes, we will think the following, from the first page:
i)You’re a bad writer. Any of the above? BAAAAAAD! (Okay, maybe not number 2, but right format is really the VERY LEAST you should be doing, tsk).
ii) You’re a good writer. Avoid the average pitfalls like I’ve just listed and you’re in with a chance. Really. So don’t mess up the next 9 pages and you’ll be in with a full read … and who knows what else. So go for it!
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May I add one more?
8) You’re lazy and/or unprofessional. Scripts littered with typos, misspellings and mistakes in grammar mark you out as a writer who does not care about their writing. Before submitting your script anywhere, run it through a spellchecker, then get it proofread – preferably by a professional proofreader, or if not by a friend who’s a stickler for grammar and spelling.
Amen to that 🙂
All true, but perhaps time for some more up to date examples. 4W&AF was nearly 20 years ago! Sexy Beast? 12 years ago.
Yep, that’s actually the SUBTEXT of my point Mr B and why it’s so boring to be using those openers! 😛
Yes, I get the SUBTEXT, thanks. I’m merely noting there may be undergrads starting BA Screenwriting courses this year who weren’t even born when Four Weddings was released.
I won’t even submit a script for peer review without a THOROUGH scrub for spelling, grammar, and other errors.
I wish there were more writers like you.
I recently had to read a screenplay where the writer had written “vile” for “vial”. Once would’ve been almost excusable, but the ‘vile’ making repeated appearances throughout the script wasn’t excusable.
Well that’s just it – as I always say to Bang2writers, it’s consistent errors that are the issue, no one minds the odd typo – which are bound to happen.
I read that script too and it was really good, though a few homophones definitely slipped through.
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I’ve always maintained that if you can’t write a one page screenplay, you shouldn’t be writing screenplays with more pages. Will probably trackback to this post from my site at some point. Thanks for sharing.
A very good idea about 1 page screenplays!
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Misread bullet point 6 and as “a montage of passing seasons over a dead body” – which I thought would be a very good start to a film as it decomposes.
Haha yeah that would be a good opener! As with anything, subverting the “norm” is always good.
He can title it “Subverting Norm!”.
Super hints too.
Am I imagining it, or did the Bones episode ,”The Feet on the Beach,” begin with such a montage at the Body Farm? I could be wrong… but, I seem to see the visual in my mind as I read these comments.
Possibly, I don’t think I’ve seen this series though! 🙂
Whoops number 6 is me! Thanks for the tips 🙂
Haha, welcome 🙂
Ah Lucy, reading this resulted in a sudden whack over the head by an inspiration how to change page 1 of my pet script… the one I need to rewrite in time for LSF… something I should have seen long ago but you know, trees and all that… Thanks! 🙂
Great article! Including all the links, and amen to all of it… except, I have a cavil with 4, ’cause what about ensemble pieces? I often get the impression readers are a bit over-trained to look for THE protag – so much so,that many don’t realize they’re reading an ensemble piece (built on a theme) when they get one. Your thoughts?
It’s certainly true that readers are trained to see **the main characters** these days, but then that’s because 9/10 that’s what the audience wants too, especially in genre film. But that said, write ANYTHING “well enough”? It’ll get through the door.
I’m taking the pugnacious view that that’s what 9/10s want to see is a myth, Lucy! And a mistraining for readers. Otherwise, how do we account for the success of The Hangover, Bridesmaids, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, The Expendables, Jurassic Park, The Departed, The Godfather, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Sin City, The Ususal Suspects, Gosford Park (and Downton Abbey), most of Taratino, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Soderburg, Wes Anderson – I could go on for pages really – Plus Lord knows how many TV series? (Lost, Gray’s Anatomy, Mad Men, Game fo Thrones, Walking Dead….) pant, pant.
It’s time to shoot that silly mantra down! And work on readers and producers who spew it out unthinkingly. Maybe you should do an article on this! ‘Cause no, they don’t get through the door, or past readers, rather, trained this way. I tend to get wildly different reactions from producers on one I have (lots of kudos), than from the gatekeepers who chant “But who’s the protagonist??” But sadly, it’s a ‘medium-budget’ ($10-15 M) and ‘too ambitious’ for the only producers I can get to read it (i.e., the smaller ones). I’m starting to get winded!
I have a theory about ensembles – and that’s they’re not *really* ensembles. Taking two of your examples Gail Noyer, THE X MEN may have multiple characters, but in all 3 of the main movies, Wolverine was our protag ultimately, hence all the stuff about his past and his love for Jean Grey; the same in JURASSIC PARK – Alan is our ultimate protagonist, hence his assertion at the end of the movie “Mr Hammond, I will not be endorsing the park.” I call these protagonists “umbrella characters”: all the other characters congregate “under” them. Of course, there ARE true ensemble pieces, esp in indie film, but I think the majority of Hollywood ones are illusions. As for TV – well that’s a whole different ballgame, but again, there’s usually that “umbrella character” the others all congregate under: the doctor in LOST, Grissom in CSI and so on.
I just found you via my subscription to “The Writer’s Store” E-mail offerings. I was intrigued by your promise to enlighten me regarding the first page, and was immediately glad I followed the link. Thankfully, I believe one offering will pass muster, another needs a minimal rewrite, but a third requires “shuffling” the index cards. Your “vile” example caused me to think fast… did I spell “vial” correctly on the second page of that first one? Thankfully, yes!
On the discussion of ensembles, I was glad to see your response. I, too, believe many movies that appear at first glance to be ensembles, are not… there does always seem to be an identifiable protagonist. Your “umbrella” apellation is perfect! I find that true ensembles do not usually hold my interest. My concept of “story” just doesn’t like to stretch to include them. Downton Abbey may be an exception. But, then, I tend to identify the Earl of Grantham as the protagonist, striving valiantly to hold the entire estate together.
I subscribed to your newsletter a few minutes ago, and anticipate receiving it.
Welcome Itasca! I had noticed sudden increased traffic to this page and was wondering who had posted it, so thanks for letting me know – I thought it must be a newsletter somewhere – and glad you liked the umbrella idea, I may write a post about it.
Thank you, Lucy!
I forgot that I had noticed you were in the UK, when I referenced “Bones.” It’s a very popular weekly television series here in the U.S. It’s about a female forensic pathologist who specializes in bones. Here is a Web address that quickly describes the show: http://bones.wikia.com/wiki/Bones_%28TV_series%29
I’d like to see what else you would include in a post on the umbrella concept….
About how I found this page, I went back to the E-mail, and can tell you it was The Writer’s Store’s “Script.mag: Week In Review” message. I’ve copied the teaser from there and the Web address it links to, in case you’d like to see the breadcrumbs:
Submissions Insanity # 9: Submission Techniques GUARANTEED To Fail
Script Editor Lucy V. Hay gives her top 10 submission techniques that make her see with rage to the point she might catapult screenplays out the window!
LOL, silly me! I was the one who linked to it then, ‘cos that’s my article 😉 I write so many I forget! Thanks for the tip re: BONES, it sounds interesting, will check it out 🙂
LOL, we all have “glitches” upon occasion! (Your advice reminded me not to use a cliche´.) You’re welcome, hope you like BONES 🙂
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On point 6, I think that’s maybe a bit null, isn’t it?
It’s only you calling it a “flashback”… If its Scene 1 of the film, and it happened some time before Scene 2, isn’t that just… “chronological”? Or, if its a really long time before the events of Scene 2, maybe “prologue”? Or have I misunderstood?
Not meaning to be pedantic (oh okay, maybe a little bit), but I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say on that particular point.
Erm, that’s my point — how *can* it be a flashback if it’s the very first scene! 😉
What irks me is when someone writes a joke and then puts ( ha, ha) after it. If people can’t tell it’s funny then ha ,ha won’t help.
I’ve just discovered this post and been reading the list of most clichéd openers. It’s suddenly a little more apparent why a lot of pilot episodes fail to secure a strong enough audience for new shows. If script readers are ruthless, the viewing audience is even more so. I’m working on my first short film script now and this “checklist” is going to come in handy! Thank you for posting this.
John Lennon; on writing songs (and the same applies to screen plays): Have a great beginning, a good middle, a twist at the bridge, and a brilliant ending. For writing. use “Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White: be clear, concise, and complete with proper punctuation, grammar and spelling for clarity and ease of reading (we are doing this to be read by others!) and then get off the page. With appreciation, Bob Curtis.