Script Coverage Chronicles – June 2015: Perfecting The First Few Pages Of Your Screenplay

I’ve read many, many opening sequences.  Their importance to the success of your story is at the deity level.  Here are a few ways to help your opening pages set the stage for scripting stardom:

Borrow A Copywriting Technique

There’s a rule of thumb in ad writing that you should spend 50 percent of your time on the headline and 50 percent of your time on the rest of the ad.

You can think of a logline as your headline (and yes you should spend a good amount of time getting it right), but it also makes sense to imagine your first five or ten script pages as the headline of a magazine ad.  In those early moments, you’ve got to sell your reader on your story.

Assuming you’re writing a 100 page script, while you probably shouldn’t spend 50 percent of your writing time on the first ten pages, it definitely makes sense to spend considerably more than 10 percent of your time on the opening.  If your opening is great, you’ll get some leeway in later moments, even if a particular Act Two segment doesn’t wow a reader, but if the opening doesn’t work, it’s nearly impossible to drag a reader on board later, even if you have some really good stuff in the middle.

When you’re revising a script after feedback from others, if there’s a moment that’s really resonating with your readers, and if it makes any sense to move it up to the opening sequence, do it.  It can make a huge difference.

Open Right Away With Something Somebody Wants

When it makes sense, try to create mini dramas in the opening pages.  Set up something a character wants (an outer goal) and make another character opposed to that goal.  It doesn’t have to be the primary goal of the main character.  It just needs to be an objective with opposition.  Letting a mini drama play out on screen while you establish your world will often increase audience engagement.

Don’t Open On Minor Characters

I see this a lot actually.  For whatever reason, a lot of writers start with minor players.  There are several reasons to avoid this practice.  First off, it’s disorienting; the reader isn’t sure whose story it is.   Second, it’s not good for casting; you want talent prospects for your leads to find their parts up front, not buried underneath a cameo.  Third, keeping minor roles on screen early takes time that you could and should be using to develop your main characters.  Presenting and establishing key characters early is essential to engaging your readers.

Make It Extra Lean

While you want to make all of your script fairly fat free, it really helps to keep that opening quick, with lots of white space around the words – again, the idea of a headline comes to mind.  Keep it catchy and concise.  If you draw your readers in with a fast-paced intro, you can get away with a bit of wordiness later.  But if you have any way to avoid it, don’t do wordiness early.  The wordy bird doesn’t get the worm.

Take A Chance

With spec scripts, it’s not enough to avoid mistakes.  You have to proactively impress.  So take a chance on a dicey joke or an unusual set up.  There’s so much competition that you’re not going to win gold with a low difficulty dive.  Try for that super-triple-twisting-flip.  If you end up belly-flopping, no worries.  Just try again on a rewrite.