in the beginning
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– . – In the Beginning

 

In the Beginning

“If you don’t have your hero up and running and doing something compelling by page ten, the guy reading your script is going to put it down and read somebody else’s.”—Oscar®-winning screenwriter Marc Norman (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE).

We all know that action movies and thrillers need to start strong, but the truth is that no matter what genre you are writing, you need to start with an opening that engages the audience. You have to hook them by page ten, then start reeling them in.

In the first ten pages you need to tell us:

(1) Who the lead character will be.
(2) What the story is going to be about.
(3) What the central conflict of the script will be.
(4) What the lead’s character arc will be.
(5) Plus, get to the concept.

 

Just like Marc Norman says, you have to have your lead character up and running by page ten. That means you have to have that lead character introduced and involved in some sort of conflict. Though physical action counts as conflict, we also want an emotional conflict: a decision that has to be made or a personal conflict. We are trying to engage the emotions of the audience, to involve them. Action alone is just action; it’s something we look at, not something we feel.

In SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE young Will Shakespeare is introduced in the opening pages. He is flat broke, has a producer waiting for his next play, and is suffering from writer’s block.  If he can’t get the play written, he won’t get paid and his landlord will throw him out on the street. That’s a physical and an emotional conflict, all rolled into one. But young Will makes it worse! In order to pay his bills, he sells his unwritten play to another producer! Now he is in even more trouble. Even if he does manage to finish the play, he has two producers expecting to stage it! The conflict has escalated in the first ten pages, and Will still can’t seem to write his play.

Norman also introduces Will’s character arc: he’s more interested in bedding women than falling in love.

We’re also going to introduce the story and the central conflict in the first ten pages, which I think Marc Norman did masterfully. The internal conflict and external conflict are connected; so the emotional problem of writer’s block has escalated into Will desperately needing to finish Romeo And Ethel: The Pirate’s Daughter before his world collapses around him… or the two producers bump into each other on the street.

“I like to put a major reversal at the bottom of page ten that kicks us right into the rest of the script.”

We also get our first glimpse of Viola, and see that Will finds her attractive. Everything we need to set the plot in motion has been established in these ten pages.

THE GOLFING GOAT RULE

You have this great idea for a family film about a farmer who discovers that his goat can golf… and hijinks ensue. The farmer ends up entering the goat in a PGA Tournament, yada-yada-yada. You have come up with this fantastically funny scene where the farmer discovers the goat knows how to golf. That scene is so great, you want to save if for the end of act 1… plus it radically changes the farmer’s life, so it belongs at the end of act 1, right?

Wrong.

Here’s why: After Disney buys your script and makes the film, they will have posters that show the goat golfing. The coming attractions for the film will have that hysterical scene with the goat and Tiger Woods. And the title of the film is: GERTIE THE GOLFING GOAT. The cat is out of the bag! Because the concept of the movie is about a golfing goat, the audience knows the movie can’t really start until we see the golfing goat. Until that scene where Farmer Frank discovers that Gertie can sink a putt. Everything before that scene is filler material.

The audience will be patient for a while, but if that goat isn’t golfing after ten minutes they are going to start fidgeting. Wondering when this film will actually start. Every scene you have between the farmer and the goat will add to the audience’s frustration, because they already know there’s going to be a scene where the goat golfs—that’s the concept of the movie.

So you have to get to the concept by page ten. The audience already knows what the concept is, so don’t save it for later.

To see an extreme case of a film that breaks the Golfing Goat Rule, check out Ehren Kruger’s ARLINGTON ROAD. The concept is: Jeff Bridges believes his next-door neighbour is a terrorist. From the posters and the trailer, we know the concept. You can’t hide the concept from the audience—it’s what the film is about. If people have no idea what a film is about, if they don’t even know if it’s a romance or a thriller, they aren’t going to see the film. So when do they reveal the concept in the script? At the end of act 2! Though the film has fine acting, it’s very slow going because it takes forever for the story to start. Because the story starts so late, there are no plot twists to knock it up another level. All it had was the concept! And it revealed the concept late in the story, not taking into account that the posters would reveal the concept a month before the first ticket was sold.

If your concept is about a goat that can golf, get to it by page ten! The audience already has this information, so holding it until later will only frustrate them.

PAGE TEN KICKERS

You need to keep your first ten pages simple. Limit the number of characters, and keep the relationships between the characters crystal clear. We have to know who the lead is, and grow to like him or her. You have to set up the conflicts, and tell us what the film is going to be about. And by the end of page ten, we must be thrust into the centre of the conflict and be worried that our lead’s life will be destroyed forever if he or she doesn’t solve the problem.

I like to put a major reversal at the bottom of page ten that kicks us right into the rest of the script. A great example of this is Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott’s original script for GODZILLA. This is the script they should have made!

The script opens with a Greenpeace boat pursuing a Russian boat that is dumping radioactive waste in the arctic… and discovering a giant dinosaur frozen in an iceberg! Then they have a great character introduction scene as Keith and Jill Llewellyn, husband and wife scientists, are trying to make love on a very hot night… then the phone rings. The dinosaur find… a government helicopter is on the way. They begin making love again when WHAM! the helicopter lands on their front lawn. At the site, Jill does lab work while Keith examines the huge frozen dinosaur… actually walking inside of its mouth at one point thinking that it’s a cave and the teeth are stalactites! At the bottom of page ten we get this kicker: “The monster’s EYELID OPENS, ten feet across… The eye BLINKS.” Yikes! It’s alive! That’s one hell of a kicker! Check out the GODZILLA script sometime, it’s on the WordPlayer.com site.

By ending your ten pages with a kicker, you force the reader to keep turning those pages. They have to find out what happens next! They have to know if this hero they care about can solve his problems! We have involved them, engaged them, hooked them, and reeled them in…

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