Having a killer first page is critical in spec sales.
By the end of Page 1, experienced readers will have already have formed many opinions about your script. They’ll know:
- If you’re a professional-level screen or TV writer.
- If you know how to write “cinematically.”
- If the story is likely to be gripping or boring.
- If reading the script is going to be exciting or is going to put them to sleep.
If you can seduce a reader with your first page, you stand a good chance that what follows will be judged fairly.
On the other hand, if your first page does something to piss the reader off, you can probably kiss a sale goodbye, no matter how brilliant the rest of the script may be.
Pity the poor script reader.
So just who are these “readers” you’re trying to seduce?
“Readers” are the gatekeepers for studios, production companies, agencies, and management firms. Their mission: read two to four screenplays/teleplays a day and then write up detailed reports on each so their higher-ups can determine whether or not a project ―or writer ―is worth considering.
The job is exhausting, both physically and spiritually.
It tends to put people in a bad mood.
As a screenwriter, your first job is to put them in a goodmood by making make the experience of reading your script as easy and pleasant as possible.
The best ways to achieve this are:
- Write sparsely so the page has lots of “white space.”
- Open with a character in action.
- Include sharp, character-specific dialogue.
- Make sure your script is properly formatted.
Let’s look at each of these points individually.
Readers ♥White Space
Nothing is quite so terrifying as to open a screenplay/teleplay and find yourself facing a massive, solid block of descriptive copy.
You don’t want anypage in your screenplay to look like a Brick Wall of Doom. Open your script with massive, detailed description and you might as well hang up a sign that reads, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
There’s an easy way to fix this.
Write in short, quick sentences.
Avoid compound sentences and subordinate clauses.
Choose words carefully. Be vivid. Evocative. Visual.
Ideally, have copy blocks that are no more than one line long.
Just like I’m writing now.
And alternate description with dialogue. The eye appreciates visual variety.
But what if your opening has no dialogue? Same rule applies. Write in short, crisp sentences. And write about things happening,not just how things look.
Writing sparsely is not only psychologically effective, it’s more honest cinematically. As a rule, one page in a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Action tends to take longer to play out than does the spoken word. So if you’re writing sparsely, you’re probably more accurately describing a full minute of running time than you would writing in a solid copy block that could take two or three minutes to play out.
Open With Something Happening
Nine out of 10 spec screen- and teleplays open with some form of “world building.” We get establishing shots of a city. Or a rural landscape. Or a workplace.
Often, a script opens by showing us the main character’s average day. The alarm goes off. The character hurriedly gets dressed. Has breakfast. Commutes to work. Gets stuck in traffic. Maybe throws some change to a homeless person (to evoke audience sympathy).
It’s all standard stuff. And it’s booooorrriiiinnnggg.
Think of a script as a waterslide.
Your goal is to make readers take that first step. Because once they do, they’re stuck. They have no choice but to ride the slide until it spits them out at the bottom.
Your first page is that first step. It needs to be enticing. And it needs to be greased. It need to contain something that demandsthat the reader continues.
Many writers address this problem by opening with someone being chased. Usually through the woods. At night.
The approach is right but, again, it’s a cliché. Any reader who’s been on the job more than a week has already seen this opening a dozen times.
Better to start with a character in the midst of doing something that reveals who that character is.What that character wants. Show the character in the midst of a struggle, having an argument, or doing something dangerous. And, if at all possible, throw in some kind of twist or surprise revelation.
One of the best specs I ever read was Matt Healey’s original screenplay “Bottom Feeders,” which was ultimately produced as Clay Pigeons back in 1998 starring Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, and Janeane Garofolo. The script opens with two Texas good ol’ boys parked off a country road drinking beer and shooting cans off a fence. They casually exchange a few friendly remarks ―Bang! ―have a few boozy laughs ― Bang! ― then one turns to the other, gun in hand, and says, “So, I understand you’ve been sleeping with my wife.”
That’s the end of page one.
Do you think I would want to turn to page two? Damn right!
Because that’show to start a screenplay.
Open a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, and the first thing you expect to see is great dialogue.
Why shouldn’t one expect to see great dialogue from everywriter?
Great dialogue is terse. It’s clever. It says something. It’s memorable. It also reveals character, propels action, and has the lyricism and rhythms of good music.
A great opening line immediately grabs the reader’s attention and promises even greater things to come.
Here are some of my all-time favorites:
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” – Goodfellas (1990), Screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese.
“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden” – Fight Club (1999) Screenplay by Jim Uhls.
“Now, I want you to remember no bastard every won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” – Patton (1970) Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North.
“Today is a good day to die,” Flatliners (1990) Screenplay by Peter Filardi.
“Did you know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?” – The Social Network (2010) Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.
“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being” – Stand by Me (1986) Screenplay by Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans.
“Who am I? You sure you wanna know?” – Spider-Man (2002) Screenplay by David Koepp.
“He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.” – Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.
“What am I working on? Uhh…I’m working on something that will change the world, and human life as we know it.” – The Fly (1986) Screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue.
What do all of these lines have in common? They’re intriguing. They’re engaging. Some are weird observations or opinions or statements of value. All hold the promise — either explicit or implicit — of more to come. In that way, they’re seductive. They entice you to come closer, to read on.
There’s another great use of dialogue, not only on page one, but throughout your script. When possible, end a scene with a line that drives the story forward. Imagine an old Star Trek episode. The Enterprise is facing some kind of crisis. On the bridge, Capt. Kirk hits the intercom button and says, “Bones. Spock. Meet me in the transporter room.” The next shot is Kirk, Spock and McCoy beaming down onto an alien planet. See how one scene smoothly transitions into the other, how the dialogue in the first scene sets up the action in the next. That’s the “waterslide” I’m talking about ―writing that compels you to keep reading.
Form is Function
I can’t emphasize enough how important industry-standard formatting is. Obvious from Page 1, formatting immediately telegraphs to the reader your level of professionalism.
Spec screenplay formatting is different from formatting for production scripts. A spec’s title page should contain no date or draft number. Scene slugs should not be accompanied by scene numbers. The slugs themselves should be in ALL CAPS, but not underlined, and should contain the minimum amount of information necessary to convey the information needed.
There should be no redundancies like EXT. OUTSIDE JOE’S HOUSE or INT. INSIDE THE SHED.
Readers should never see things like EXT. AIRPLANE or EXT. CAR. Vehicles are not exterior locations, but exist within larger spaces. (You can have INT. AIRPLANE or INT. CAR, because an “interior” is any space confined within four walls.)
DAY and NIGHT slugs should be used only when establishing location’s time of day, but then used only when the time of day changes or when jumping to a remote location.
Descriptors like CONTINUOUS or LATER should be avoided unless absolutely necessary to avoid confusion. That one scene follows another in time is assumed.
First Impressions = Lasting Impressions
We all know that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Nowhere is this more important than in spec scripts, be they for TV or feature films. Before readers read their first word, the look and layout of your first page is going to make an emotional impression that will, in large part, determine how your script will be reviewed.
If Page 1 looks thick and heavy, the reader is going to put in a negative mindset that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
Conversely, if the first page looks light, clean, and easy, the reader is more likely to approach your script with a positive attitude.
Start your love affair with a whisper, not an anvil.
Less is more. – Allen B. Ury