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Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make On Page 1 Of Their Screenplays

The Page 1 Test

Page 1 is THE most important page in your entire screenplay. You have to start as you mean to go on. Most spec screenwriters know they have up to 10 pages to impress the script reader … but few realise it’s page 1 that really needs to rock FIRST.

So, to make sure your first page doesn’t sink your chances, read on. Let’s go!

1) Starting with something DULL on page 1

Dull is in the eye of the beholder of course … but there’s plenty of pitfalls we can commit with the very first sentence on page 1! For me, screenplays starting on BLACK always make me groan. Why? Because sooooo many spec scripts do this! When half the battle is standing out, you don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.

Also, just like uber-author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard said, starting with the weather is a big snooze fest. Also, stay away from camera angles and ‘establishing shots’. Those are for shooting scripts only.

Lastly, stay away from ‘every day’ actions to open your screenplay. Things like walking, catching buses or trains, eating, waking up, getting ready, looking in mirrors, drinking etc are not compelling openers … unless you can twist them in some way and subvert our expectations. MORE: 5 Openers That Readers GROAN

2) Not starting with a strong visual

Every spec screenplay needs to start with a strong visual, but what does this mean? Well, your spec screenplay’s strong visual beginning should give us a hint of the …

  • TYPE of story this is (as in genre, tone, style etc)
  • WHO the characters are
  • WHAT kind of situation they find themselves in (even if that is a lie)

Yup – it’s that involved, which is why it is so difficult. What’s more, every single scene needs to be visual like this! Remember the old adage, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’.

CLICK HERE for a case study on 3 Amazon Prime shows and how they open visually, including shots.

3) Starting with a character introduction

Sometimes, spec scripts launch straight into character introductions like this:

This ends up meaning the characters simply walk onto the scene and start talking. Yawn!

If ‘characters are what they do’ (and they are), then we need to see their ACTIONS and BEHAVIOUR. Only then will we understand who they are and what situation they find themselves in.

This means you need to start with VISUALS, not character introductions. Think about starting with something visual that tells us:

  • Where we are in terms of storyworld
  • What type of story (or genre) this is
  • Who these characters are

Yes, it’s very difficult. No, you shouldn’t skimp on this. MORE: Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make With Character Introductions

4)  Too much dialogue

On page 1, dialogue may be important … or it may not. What it shouldn’t EVER do is tell the story and ‘lead’ the scene. This happens when everything revolves around talk, rather than characters’ actions and behaviour.

We know we are doing this when ‘nothing happens’ in a scene bar the dialogue. Very often scene description becomes filler – characters will be doing random actions such as raising eyebrows, putting their hands on their hips, walking to windows, etc. I call this phenomenon ‘false movement’.

To avoid false movement, like anything in a screenplay, dialogue needs to do two things:

  • Reveal character
  • Push the story forward

But most importantly, it needs to do these two things CONCISELY.  Yet writers get carried away with dialogue (instead of writing actions and behaviour) because dialogue is the ‘easiest’ thing to write.

Think about it: how many times have you found your scenes becoming chains and chains of it? Yet characters don’t stand around and talk for 3, 4 or even 5 minutes plus as standard in movies and TV shows!

In contrast, spec screenplays frequently have 3 pages (minutes) of talk or more … hell, I’ve read plenty of specs that have 11-20 pages of talk! Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Oh and while I’m on the topic, don’t ‘monologue’ on page one either … if your characters are saying stuff for over four to six lines as standard, that’s a big issue upfront in your script.

5) Devoting page 1 to ‘set dressing’

This is usually when a screenwriter realises they must write visually … but they go overboard. Instead of introducing us to a character DOING something in relation to the story, they will do this instead …

As you can see, the writer has basically painted a picture of the scene. They’ve ‘placed’ the character amongst the scenery and accounted for everything in that small space like the stage of a theatrical play.

Yet we are writing a SCREENplay, not a screenPLAY. Screenplays – whether for movies or TV – do not have the space constraints of a theatrical play. We don’t have to use our imaginations to ‘see’ various things like we might on stage. Also, the characters can go anywhere and do anything thanks to cameras being able to travel, or the magic of CGI.

Consider instead what your characters could be doing in service of the story … For example, if Katie wants to be a famous singer, what could she be doing when we FIRST see her that says she wants this? (Because getting on a train and listening to her headphones does not communicate a goal like this!).

In addition, waiting for a train is very ‘every day’ and therefore dull AF. It gives us …

  • Zero clue what the story is
  • No idea where we are in terms of storyworld, or
  • What the genre could be, or
  • Who exactly Katie COULD be as a character (despite starting with her), plus
  • It’s also not visual!!!

Ack! In short, set dressing is a combo from hell when it comes to page 1!!!

So how SHOULD this screenplay start?

Let’s pretend the script is a feel-good, aspirational story about the power of dreams, even when you are an underdog. In the story, Katie is a ‘girl next door’ type character trying to compete in the cut-throat industry of singing.

Katie is not someone automatically thinks of as being star material, or having ‘X Factor’ … yet over the course of the story, she will become a TikTok sensation playing songs live from her bedroom. In short, it’s a ‘rags to riches’ story.

The industry will beg her to sign with them, which at first Katie is delighted by … then she is asked to change who she is to fit those expectations that kept her out in the first place. She also discovers the industry is full of sharks and back-stabbers. She decides that no, she won’t do that and goes back to her real life, content she has made the right decision.

With all that story in mind then, here’s how I would start a screenplay like that …

Can you see the difference? This is what script readers mean when they say ‘start as you mean to go on’.

Of course, this is when screenwriters say, ‘What the hell CAN I write??’ 

Look, I get it. It can seem like there’s waaaaaaay too many ‘no-nos’ in screenwriting. This is why I believe writing scripts is THE hardest medium (yes, even harder than novels – remember, I am an author myself).

But screenwriting is a visual medium. That’s the whole point of it. This is why I recommend the following:

  • Watching TV and movies with the sound turned down. You should be able to understand at least 70% of the story of most TV shows and films. David Mamet’s tip here is genius, because it’s such a quick way of appreciating the visual component of screenwriting.
  • Reading screenplays via peer review. Many of the scripts we find online are really transcripts, plus produced screenwriters can get away with a lot more than spec screenwriters. For this reason, I recommend peer review. Seeing others’ mistakes on the page and working out how to give them feedback in a constuctive way can be REALLY illuminating and help our own writing.
  • Invest in your scene description. Most spec screenwriters completely underestimate the importance of scene description. Yet scene description is scene action! The more time you invest in your scene description to make sure you really understand its purpose, the better screenwriter you will be.

Most scripts in the pile are simply chains of dialogue. So get visual and improve your chances of making out of the spec pile by about 500%. Yes, really!

Good Luck!

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