5 Tips for Your First Ten Pages

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You’ve probably had this feeling: very early in a movie (or a book) you think, “wow, this is going to be really, really good.” And whenever you have that feeling you’re almost always right. So, why does that happen? It happens because the writer made it happen. The writer took care to make sure you knew exactly what was going on, and they did it in a dynamic and interesting way. Here are five tips to help you make your first ten pages great.

No. 1 — Opening Image

Your opening image should be important to the story. It can be bold and arresting or it can be quiet and subtle depending on the kind of film you’re writing. Written by Kenneth LonerganManchester By the Sea begins with a simple scene shot from a medium distance in which Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is “kidding” around with his nephew and the deck of his brother’s boat.

On first viewing, it may not seem like much, but Chandler’s relationship with his nephew is central to the film as is the boat and even the fact that he seems to like kids. In this case, the opening of the film manages to do several things at once. A very important thing to do when you only have ten pages to get across so much. (Interestingly, the script description of this scene is a single paragraph while the completed scene takes up two minutes of screen time.)

Photo courtesy Amazon Studios.

No. 2 — Conflict

At the beginning of every story you need to let the reader know what the normal world is for your main character, and you need to begin your exposition. But, while a scene in which two people sit around talking about things they already know would accomplish both of those things, you want to avoid that. You want to make sure there’s a lot of conflict. At the beginning of Sing (written by Garth Jennings) for example, Buster Moon dodges calls from the bank and hides from workers come to demand their pay. The information that he was broke could have come in a conversation with his secretary but the conflict is much stronger if it involves action rather than simply dialogue.

No. 3 — Like me, like me

Likeability is a word I’m not crazy about. Your characters don’t have to be likable in the sense that you’d want to be friends with them. They do need to be compelling, though. The audience must want to watch them. In your first ten pages, you need to let us know why we want to watch this person. You may know that in the days of silent films, the hero would rescue an old lady’s cat from a tree and the villain would kick a dog. These are simplistic examples of pulling the audience into characters.

The opening scene of Hidden Figures (written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi) is an interesting and sophisticated example of creating likeability. The three main characters are driving to work and the car breaks down. Dorothy gets out and starts working on the car. We immediately like her because she’s smart and she has an “unconventional skill.” Then, a white police officer stops and questions them. Now, most of the audience has seen enough film and knows enough of the South during this period to anticipate that the scene is going in a very bad direction. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t because all three women are smart.

Photo courtesy Fox 2000 Pictures.

No. 4 — Central relationship

You need to begin defining the central relationship early. In 20th Century Women (written by Mike Mills), the main relationship is between Dorothea and her son. We start with them at the grocery store as they watch their car on fire in the parking lot (an excellent opening image, by the way). After the fire department puts out the fire Dorothea asks the firemen to dinner. Her son mentions that this is weird and that other mother’s don’t do this, thus beginning to define the central relationship.

Photo courtesy Annapurna Pictures.

No. 5 — Get the story going

In the first ten pages, there is often “call-to-adventure” scene in which the main character is invited into the story. This is the classic scene from detective movies in which the blonde shows up in the PI’s office and offers him a job. Even when your main character whole-heartedly wants to accept the call there should at least be some hesitation or resistance from the character or characters around them.

You’ll find an interesting handling of this scene in Me Before You, written by Jojo Moyes. The main character is being interviewed for a job, which she immediately accepts when it’s offered. The thing is, most of the scene is devoted to letting us, the audience, know she’s completely unqualified. The resistance, in this case, come from us.

Now, you don’t have to do every single thing on this list every time. You’ll find films that manage to do some of these things later. However, if you can find ways to comfortably work these things into your first ten pages you’ll be in great shape.

Remember, though, the most important thing you have to do in the first ten pages is make sure your reader knows what your story will be about and where it’s going. If a screenplay were a term paper, the first ten pages would be your topic sentence. Now, when I say your reader needs to know where the story is going that doesn’t mean they have to be right. You can use misdirection. But the reader does need to at least think they know where the story is going.

As an experiment, try giving your first ten pages to someone you haven’t spoken to about your script. Ask them to read those pages and then tell you what your story is about. If the story that comes back to you is the story you’re trying to tell congratulations, you’ve done your job. If it doesn’t, then you have some work to do.

 

 

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

21 Replies to "5 Tips for Your First Ten Pages"

  • comment-avatar
    Lois Bernard May 23, 2017 (5:38 am)

    Interesting analysis, very succinct and true. Thanks.

  • comment-avatar
    Sira May 23, 2017 (6:34 am)

    Your article got me thinking (again)! The log line of my script is:

    ‘After fulfilling a kidnap contract targeting a 20 year old foreign Prince studying in a Toronto University, a young hit-woman finally admits to herself that she’s fallen for him. Now, she has to evade both sides of the law in her quest to find him before the ransom deadline.’

    In the first ten pages, I show that the Police and the kidnappers cartel have opposite intentions towards the the Prince. In that same space, I do not reveal to the audience which of the students cosying up to him are the undercover bodyguard cops and which one(s) would be in the employ of the kidnappers. Should I be straight with the audience right away or keep them panting until all the characters are revealed after the kidnap that occurs halfway through the script?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton May 23, 2017 (6:53 am)

      The answer to your question is, of course, up to you. Let me pose a couple of questions that might help you decide. Your logline could fall into a couple of genres. It could be romantic suspense or full out thriller. Thrillers need surprises. Suspense not really. I’d study each genre and decide which one is right for your story. Another question to ask yourself is how are the antagonist and the protagonist mirroring each other. Meaning they should have the same problem but different solutions. Your hitwoman can’t do her job because she’s lost control of her emotions and fallen in love – is there a way to mirror this in your protagonists?

      Also, the way you’ve structured your logline suggests the kidnapping is in the first ten pages (as it might be in a thriller) but then you say it happens at the midpoint. Be careful that you’re not suggesting one kind of story and then delivering another. And ask yourself if the story needs to be told in a non-linear way.

  • comment-avatar
    Steve May 23, 2017 (6:37 am)

    Thanks for the refresher course.

  • comment-avatar
    Carolyn Mack May 23, 2017 (7:34 am)

    Thank you so much for these tips. I’m a first time filmmaker at 68 and I love writing stories.

  • comment-avatar
    Sira May 23, 2017 (7:50 am)

    Thanks for the reply Marshall!

    Now, the first ten pages introduce us to the ‘Trainer’ of the kidnapping cartel without showing who he is talking to. It also introduces the Senior Policeman as he gives a pep talk to the unseen officer(s) who will be keeping an eye on the Prince.

    The story is told in a linear way, but with a few flashbacks, especially when the hit woman realizes she has indeed fallen for the Prince. It is a thriller in that it follows her quest to find him while staying a step ahead of the crooked cops and the cartel who both wanted her dead, even before her change of heart. It does, however, have a tint of suspense and romance.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton May 23, 2017 (8:08 am)

      If it’s a thriller then you do want an element of surprise, so I think you may have answered your question.

  • comment-avatar
    Robert May 23, 2017 (8:10 am)

    I am not a writer by profession or nature. Yet, in my very bones, I know I have a compelling story. I have always felt what I needed to do is have a good hook. The protagonist is a beautiful petite young woman who falls in love with young soldier from another culture/country. He is in a small way an antagonist but the real antagonist is/are the unbending rules which their different cultures and religions impose. The protagonist in the end is defeated. She loses her love. She loses respect in her culture and doesn’t gain it from his. But, despite these devastating losses, her values – honor and fidelity are not compromised. My well over 200 pages is now down to about 145. There is another 45 or so to go. Your presentation on the first ten pages has certainly given me focus where I should focus. The likelihood of this story ever becoming a film is very, very small. But, I shall finish this script. And, who know?????

  • comment-avatar
    JK Jones May 23, 2017 (8:28 am)

    Wonderful advice. I’ll use this information on my screenplay, Land of Cotton!

  • comment-avatar
    Robert May 23, 2017 (8:29 am)

    There was supposed to be a ‘thank you’ there. So, thank you, Sir. for you good advice.

  • comment-avatar
    Herb May 23, 2017 (10:47 am)

    Hi. I like this version of “required” events. Simple, to the point and workable. Thanks.

  • comment-avatar
    Lilia F May 23, 2017 (11:27 am)

    Great stuff, tweeting it now! Loved the real-script examples.

  • comment-avatar
    David Harscheid May 23, 2017 (4:21 pm)

    My historical Biopic is already following most of your suggestions.

    At least I seem to be starting out successfully.

  • comment-avatar
    Cat Tree Uk May 26, 2017 (8:05 pm)

    it really is an incredible story.

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