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A New Approach to the First 10 Pages of Your Screenplay

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Every page of your screenplay is important. But the first 10 pages face special pressure because they need to hook the reader enough to make us want to read the rest of the screenplay.

And yet, there isn’t much guidance out there on what actually needs to happen in the first 10. (Come on, admit it – you know it’s the “normal world” but what else?)

Before the plot kicks in, it’s all about the character. A screenplay or movie is most often the story of one character’s transformation. The plot events they experience over the course of the story cause them to change in some way, usually for the better. So before that plot begins, what will prove to be a transformational experience, there is a character who needs to change. And that’s the focus of the first 10 pages.

The first 10 pages need to firmly establish character so we’re primed for the story you’re about to tell us, and there are a few specific ways to think about doing that.

Why the first 10 pages?

I keep saying the first 10 pages, but let’s clarify: we’re talking about the part of the screenplay before the Inciting Incident. That may or may not be literally 10 pages.

You know the Inciting Incident kicks the plot into motion, and you know the Inciting Incident happens around page 10, 12, 15, (choose your guru) – somewhere in there.

That means you have 10-15 pages that come first. Something has to happen on those pages… but what?

Avoid the “nothing happens” reader note

One of the most common reader complaints is that “nothing happens” in the first 10 pages of the script. That is, before the Inciting Incident, it feels like we’re treading water, waiting for the story to start.

As a writer, you’ve been told that the first 10 pages are where you establish the character’s “normal world.” And that’s not wrong.

But think about how, in beginner screenplays, a lot of times this is the ol’ “character wakes up on an average day, brushes his teeth, and goes to work” series of scenes. That’s the normal world, right?

If we think about this first section of the script as “before the story starts” then it’s all too easy to lapse into “not really important” which probably means there’s no urgency there, and pretty much guarantees it’s going to bore the reader.

Just because it’s the normal world, that doesn’t mean there’s no conflict.

And how do you get conflict? You start with someone who wants something, and wants it badly.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Action defines character

Your character – just like every person on the planet – wants something.

What the character wants badly shows us what’s important to them, and in that way it defines them.

How do we know what they want? Because they’re going after it. That means they’re taking action to achieve it. This puts them in motion right away – no treading water, no feeling like we’re waiting for the story to start.

And, because you’re a good writer, you’re going to make sure there’s some conflict there to engage the reader and show us just how important it is to the character. If it’s easy to achieve, we won’t know to what lengths they’re willing to go, will we? You have to make it difficult, so we can see how badly they want it.

When someone wants something badly, especially if it’s something we can relate to, we feel an affinity for them. We get on their side and begin to root for them. When we care about whether they succeed or not, we’re invested in the story and more likely to keep reading.

The kind of action the character takes also tells us something about them. The strategies they use reveal character.

A character who flies to LA to win his wife back at her office Christmas party is different from a character who sets out to win his wife back by obsessively reading every book she assigns to her high school English class.

The goal before the goal

How do you figure out just what the character should be pursuing before their main story goal is created at the end of Act 1? There’s no one right answer here, but a good place to start your thinking is with what’s going to be at stake for the character later in the story. What they’re pursuing from Page 1 may not be the exact thing that’s later at stake, but the two are often connected in some distinct way.

Like in the Silver Linings Playbook example I alluded to earlier, Pat’s story goal is the deal he strikes up with Tiffany. He’ll do the dance competition with her in exchange for her help winning back his wife, Nikki. What’s at stake is access to Nikki (Tiffany is going to facilitate the communication). The scenes before the Inciting Incident lay the groundwork for us to understand these stakes by showing us what is most important to Pat at this moment in his life: reconciling with Nikki, getting his old life back.

This start-with-stakes method does a couple of good things for your script, one of which is it helps create a tight, efficient story. If you familiarize us with the stakes now, there’s less to set up later when the plot’s in motion.

And because you’re showing us something that’s important to the character, you’re also creating some context we can use later to understand what’s changed, i.e. the character arc.

The character’s “before” picture

If the story you’re telling us is about a transformational experience, then that means the character must have a starting point for that transformation – the “before”. What they want in the beginning of the story and how they go about getting it show us who they are before the transformational experience occurs.

This creates a yardstick for us to measure change. Either what they want or how they go about getting it (and possibly both) will likely change by the end of the story, as a result of the events of the story.

Let’s revisit Silver Linings Playbook again for a moment. Pat wants to reconcile with Nikki and get his old life back, that’s his “from page 1” desire. As Pat pursues his story goal in Act 2 (fulfilling the deal with Tiffany), what’s at stake is access to Nikki.

But thanks to what he experiences in this story Pat is transformed. By the end of the movie he gets access to Nikki – and he realizes those stakes are no longer a motivating factor. He no longer wants to spend time with Tiffany just so he can gain access to Nikki. He wants to be with Tiffany and that’s it. He’s changed. He knows more, he understands himself and life a bit better, as evidenced by his new goal and new stakes, and his ultimate victory – getting to be with Tiffany – feels well earned.

Plant your stakes

Something needs to happen before the Inciting Incident, preferably from the very first page of your screenplay. (Don’t make readers wait to be entertained.)

Start the script with a first 10 (or so) pages that show us who we’re watching and rooting for, and that define the character by showing us what’s important to them and what they’re doing to get it.

What’s important to them before the transformational experience serves double duty because it also creates the starting point of their character arc. And when you start with stakes, you’re priming us for a strong emotional investment and a satisfying payoff.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe