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 Lonergan, Manchester 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.