Erik Bork, script consultant says that a writer might only get the opening pages of their script read — and that it will likely be put down right away if those pages don’t immediately engage the busy industry professional who has given it a chance by opening it.
Most screenwriters who have been at it for a while realize this, and try to pack some of their best description, dialogue, entertainment value and overall scene writing into this crucial beginning section — which makes sense.
There’s also a common piece of advice that you should start the script in media res or “in the middle of things” — meaning that something compelling, emotional, and filled with conflict and spectacle should happen right away or very soon after the opening scene.
It’s also crucial that writers understand and fulfill the function of the first ten pages as part of the larger whole of a screenplay. The main job of this section is to get readers understanding, interested in, and even starting to emotionally invest in your main character and their world, before you hit them with a big crisis or challenge of some kind — that “Catalyst” or “Inciting Event”.
The first ten pages can and should be filled with fun-to-watch, high-conflict material, but these should be examples of the kinds of things the main character is dealing with in their current status quo life, whether it be Ryan Reynolds working for hell-boss Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or Tom Cruise showing us his life as a sports agent who has grown a conscience in Jerry Maguire.
This means illustrating (not just talking about) things like their living situation, occupation, social life, family and friends, and romantic relationships. It’s about how they spend their time, what their life is focused on, and who else is in it.
Since these conflicts are not part of chasing the goal that will emerge after the Catalyst, it can be tricky to write this. You don’t want to be obviously informational, and yet you have to get the audience understanding key things about your main character. The best way to hide such exposition is within high conflict, emotion and spectacle — so the goal is to find compelling situations for those first few pages that place the reader squarely within the main character’s perspective as they deal with problems and challenges that are part of their normal life — and to let the information come out around the edges of them grappling with whatever that is.
At the same time, the audience needs to become engaged with this character as a person, such that they want to follow them. Traditionally, they do something that makes us like them during this section, but it’s also about making them intriguing people that you’d want to follow for other reasons, as well — like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, who is mostly unlikable, but fun to watch as he moves through his current life challenges.
What’s key in all of this is that the main character’s feelings, life desires and overall conflicts are front and center, and crystal clear. Ideally, the reader would feel like they are within the perspective of the main character of a story. This means that they are not just intrigued and entertained by them, not just liking them or even caring about them — but they actually take on the character’s problematic situation as their own, and want to see it solved as much as the character does.
To do this requires making that character’s thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, goals and plans totally clear, and the main focus of the writing, starting with page one — and to take the time to give the reader a clear and full enough sense of their engaging personality and situation that you’ll be able to really “grab” them with the Catalyst, when it finally comes.
If you can deliver all of that in the first ten pages, trust me, they will keep reading.