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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The First Ten Pages

They say that just as the sun sets over the ocean, a brilliant but brief green flash appears.

They say that a person will tell you everything you ever need to know about them in the first five minutes you meet them.

They say that readers can tell, within the first ten pages of your script, whether the script is working.

They say that if your first ten pages don't rock, an executive will simply toss the script on the PASS heap.

I don't know about the green flash, never having seen it, but I do know that all the major signifiers of your skillset as a writer are contained within the first ten pages of your script.

This Saturday, I will be leading a class at the Great American Pitch Fest punchily titled: Ten Things Readers HATE. The class is going to be a hoot and one thing I will be doing is passing out samples of good, bad and ugly first ten pages (yes, they will be anonymous samples and yes, I have permission from the good-natured writers to use pages from their very early scripts).

My aim is for the members of the class to see, first hand, what works and what doesn't work.

But let's get down to brass tacks: what are the signifiers of your skillset as a writer that are so evident in those first pages? Well - what should be happening in the first ten pages in general, Wavers?

The main character(s) are introduced and described
The world is established (relative to the genre and tone)
The main idea of the story is established
The genre and tone are established

So what are the skillsets we are then looking for? What turns us on and what turns us OFF?

Action lines:
Are they dense and talky? Do they tell and not show? Are they descriptive yet brief? Are they wordy with typos? Are they lifeless? Or are they like chiffon - colorful and textured but very light. Are they clunky or are they cinematic and evocative? Does the writer have not only a grasp of language but a way with it?

Bad example:
She stares at him. He leaves. It starts raining outside.

Good example:
Her look withers him and he skulks out of the room. A clap of thunder and the bruised sky lets loose with a deluge.

Character descriptions:
Did the writer describe your characters in a blow-by-blow, wordy and yet ultimately empty way, noting everything from their shoes to their hair color? Or did the writer take it a up a notch and manage to capture the character's essence in a clever shorthand?

Bad example:
SHIRLEY (in her mid thirties), in a denim skirt and with bleach blonde hair is a waitress. She has an English accent and she hates her job.

Good example:
SHIRLEY (30s) is a life-long waitress and it shows. She shifts the gum to the other side of her mouth. Shirley: Take your order, innit?

It is in your action lines and dialogue that you will paint a picture of the world you are establishing. Within the first ten pages, I want you to paint a vivid picture of what it looks and feels like where the story is set. Is it bleak? Is it rich and colorful? So often writers just leave that part out. It's set in some generic city. Sometimes the city isn't even named. Wavers - think about it, if you're writing a thriller are you maximizing the space around the characters to add an air of creepiness? If it's a romcom are you using the world it's set in to create a sense of loneliness or romance or whatever you're going for? Are you GOING for anything in your setting and location? You should be and never moreso that in those first ten pages.

All the signposts should be in place to indicate the genre. If it's a romcom or comedy of any kind- the first ten pages should have...wait for it....funny dialogue and moments. If it's a horror...give me the creeps right away. me where the conflict is going to come from. Sci-fi/apocalyptic, period piece - set up your genre with the signposts of that genre.

In the first ten pages, the reader should have major hints about where the story is going.

Readers are weird; we've read so many hundreds if not thousands of scripts that our minds are geared toward seeing patterns. Probably better than anybody, readers are great at grasping what lies ahead in your script. If we can't get a sense, by page ten, of the main idea or, annoyingly, "Big Idea" of your script - something is not working.

To refresh Wavers, the main idea or concept of your script is that short sentence I might reiterate to an exec: It's about a guy who robs a bank but the bank manager is his long lost brother. So that's the main concept of your script. So in the first ten pages, you need to establish so much: the characters, the place, the tone and the genre - and that the main character is desperate enough to rob a bank. Notice I am not saying that if the main concept, that a guy is going to rob a bank needs to be spelled out - but it needs to be heading in that direction by page ten, yes. In tone and otherwise. So what does that mean? That in the first ten pages, I am seeing desperation, bleakness, maybe loneliness, anger...Unless it's a bank heist comedy in which case - well, you get it already.

Set up your story efficiently and do it quick.

To head off the inevitable question: Yes, sometimes I read scripts in which the first ten pages didn't completely tell me where the script was going but the writing is so good, the voice is there, the writer's grasp of the pages is so strong that I am so on board with it - it's a delight to find out where it's going.

But for newer writers, that grasp of language, that confidence that voice is often not there. So even if some pretty cool stuff happens in your story later - it's like going on a bad date. Once you've gotten spinach in your teeth over salad - I'm not feeling it anymore. Even if dessert is great.

The first ten pages - of any genre - is like a seduction. Foreplay. A strip tease, if you will. You want the reader to sit up and take notice. And by page 108, you want the reader to stuff a hundred dollar bill marked CONSIDER right in your glittery g-string.

So come on, Wavers - it's all in the hip action. And a boom chicka boom chicka boom boom boom. Shake your booty in the first ten pages and you just got yourself a reader interested in the next 98.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

First ten pages? Make it five.

Anonymous said...

Hi PJ and Julie

I could be wrong. But I was just thinking...

When pacing the suspense and curiosity factor, why should the reader know where the story is going in the first 5 or 10pages? Maybe between 20-30 pages.

There should be a build up.

Look at movies like "Atonement", "Salam Bombay", The Sweet Hereafter, The Matrix, Moulin Rouge, Traffic, King Kong, Footloose, Cloverfield etc.

5-10 page is a bit too early.

Julie Gray said...

Hello, anonymous! What I mean by being able to tell where the story is going is not that the writer should telegraph what is to come but rather that there is a sense of build - dramatic, mysterious, comedic - so that there is a sense of drive in the pages almost immediately. Of course you don't want to give it all away. Remember the boom chica boom...reveal a little bit, then a little bit more...

PJ McIlvaine said...

I'm not saying to give away the store in the first five or ten pages. But in those initial pages, there has to be something, anything, that hooks the reader into going further. Could be an inciting incident, a question, voice, whatever...

Julie Gray said...

I don't know why I keep returning to the stripper metaphor. I guess I need to go to the Kitty Kat Klub or something ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

Hey ....
Julie, I think there is an actress in you, when will it come out.

You ever wrote a short film. Can you rock the foundation of film festivals with it. Yes, I say. It's not big deal to direct a short - you have the com. skills.

I read your web weekly.

You have some great advice and life.

Make a short film. Let's call it "Julie, Today and the World"

I'm sure it won't be cliche or boring.


Julie Gray said...

I'm *pretty* sure that was a compliment. So thank you. I think :)