Your First Page Sells Your Script

By Hal Croasmun (click here to read the full article)

After spending a year writing and rewriting his fourth script, a writer finally got it in the hands of three producers who all responded to his query letter. Every day, he waited for a call or letter, but nothing happened. Finally, to end the suspense, he called one of the producers.

Writer: Hi, I’m the one who wrote DESPERATE NEED. You know, the script you requested about a month ago.

 

Producer: Desperate need, desperate need. Oh yeah. We passed on that one.

 

Writer: Passed? Its the one where the DEA officer is forced to do shoot heroin in the third act. Everyone who read it loved that ending.

 

Producer: Sounds very interesting. I wish you luck on it.

 

Writer: Wait a minute. You didn’t read the whole script?

 

Producer: I gave it ten pages. If you don’t get my attention in ten pages, I pass. Bye.

Screenwriters often complain that producers and readers don’t read their entire script. In fact, many times, the producer says “no” after reading only 30 or 10 or even 3 pages. That can be infuriating to a screenwriter who has invested their creative and emotional life in every line of that script.

The other side of the story is that producers often complain about the quality of writing they receive. I’ve asked about 25 producers this question…

 

“At what point in a script can you tell if it is written by a professional screenwriter?”

The answers I heard will astound you. Many said “Within three pages” and more than half said “On the first page.”

The first page?! But what about my captivating third act? What about my characters and their amazing relationships? What about the brilliant twists in the second act? What about all of that?

By the end of your first page, a producer is already making decisions about your script and your career. I’ve heard too many screenwriters say “my script starts slow, but it really builds by the end.” You know what? That script is going to be a hard sell. In fact, if it is a spec by an unproduced writer, chances are readers will kill it before page 10.

Again, I know that is infuriating for a screenwriter, but there is a bright side to this situation. It is the side where you, the screenwriter, have the most power. It is called GREAT WRITING!

If you know that a producer could make a decision about your career on the first page, which page is going to show off your best work? I hope you just answered “The first page.” Let me ask another important question, one that may be more important than any of the others above…

 

“When does a reader decide to read the entire script?”

A reader, assistant, Creative exec or producer sit down to read your script. They open it to the first page and begin reading. At what point along the way do they decide to read every word of that script?

Remember that each of these people have 10 to 15 scripts to read this weekend. Their job is to find the ones they’ll take a risk on and cancel out the others. They want to get through those 15 scripts as fast as possible so they can have a social life…even if just for a few minutes. If they’re going to read past page 30, they have made a decision that your script could be THE ONE.

If you’re smart, you’ll do everything you can to make sure that decision happens ON YOUR FIRST PAGE.

Below are four openings that caused me to make the decision to read the entire script. I’ll point out when and why I made that decision. But the overall answer is GREAT WRITING.

MY FIRST MISTER

The first is from the movie MY FIRST MISTER, a low budget flick that came out about a year ago. When I received this script, I had no intention of reading more than 10 pages, even though it came on a recommendation from a producer I know.

Watch how long it took for me to make the decision to read every single word.

INT. CLASSROOM — DAY

 

Over the hand of a seventeen year old girl, JENNIFER. Her fingernails are bitten down to the quick and she is wearing silver rings on every finger, including her thumbs. An Indian string bracelet bisects the small, “Peace” sign tattoo on her wrist. We see a poem she’s writing.

JENNIFER (V.O.)
Death touched her lips. As she kissed her Lover good-bye, she tried not to touch his skin, knowing the coldness would chill her. As it was, she still hadn’t cried nor had she decided who was in the better position. The end.
(pause)
I wrote that. I’m a fucking poet. And when I’m not writing poems, I’m writing eulogies…mine. Don’t freak on me, I’m not exactly on suicide watch, yet. My mother, Shirley Partridge the Second, wants me to go to dental school. I can’t imagine spending everyday dealing with other people’s spit. I just don’t think I’m the type.

 

We pull back and meet Jennifer. She’s dressed in torn, black leggings, a black muscleman tee shirt, and a baseball cap which is on backwards. She has multiple face piercings and purple streaked hair. Underneath it all, she is really pretty.

There it is. That is the point where I made the decision. I remember pausing at that point, turning off the TV, getting a Pepsi and a bag of chips, and sitting down to read EVERY SINGLE WORD of this script.

Don’t worry about whether you liked the scene above or whether you cared for this movie at all. What matters is the point that someone will decide to read every word of your script. In the case of MY FIRST MISTER, it was half of a page for me. Why?

The writer poured a unique character into her dialogue and actions. She intrigued us with lines about this girl writing her own eulogy, not being on suicide watch, having Shirley Partridge the Second as her mother and not wanting her life to be about people’s spit.

She gave us a powerful visual of this girl being an outcast and then gave us a twist with the words “Underneath it all, she is really pretty.”

Essentially, she captured our attention and caused us to want to live with this character for the next two hours.

AMERICAN BEAUTY

The second script is one I read before the movie came out. I’d already heard the hype from people who had been to test screenings, but I didn’t like the story they told. I was totally prepared to hate this movie, but again, watch how fast I decided to read the entire script.

INT. FITTS HOUSE – RICKY’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

 

On VIDEO: JANE BURNHAM lays in bed, wearing a tank top.

She’s sixteen, with dark, intense eyes.

 

JANE 

I need a father who’s a role model, not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school. 

(snort)

What a lame-o. Somebody really should put him out of his misery.

 

Her mind wanders for a beat.

 

RICKY (O.S.) 

Want me to kill him for you?

 

Jane looks at us and sits up.

JANE
(deadpan)
Yeah, would you?

 

FADE TO BLACK.

 

FADE IN: EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL – EARLY MORNING

 

We’re FLYING above suburban America, DESCENDING SLOWLY toward a tree-lined street.

 

LESTER (V.O.)
My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This… is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.

 

INT. BURNHAM HOUSE – MASTER BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS

 

We’re looking down at a king-sized BED from OVERHEAD:

 

LESTER BURNHAM lies sleeping amidst expensive bed linens, face down, wearing PAJAMAS. An irritating ALARM CLOCK RINGS. Lester gropes blindly to shut it off.

LESTER (V.O.)
Of course, I don’t know that yet.

 

He rolls over, looks up at us and sighs. He doesn’t seem too thrilled at the prospect of a new day.

LESTER
And in a way, I’m dead already.

There it is. It’s not a line, but the way the writer puts lines and scenes together. Notice the first scene (1/2 page) sets up a potential murder. Then Lester tells us that he’ll be dead in less than a year. Those two create intrigue and story questions — Did they kill him? If so, how? And why? If not, who did? And why is Lester so okay with it?

So the first page intrigued me. But there was much more. Again, the writer pours character into each line of dialogue. Jane’s lines are filled with character. Lester’s are filled with death and apathy.

The other thing that this writer does extremely well is twist his dialogue. Lester tells us about his neighborhood, his life, his age, then the twist — he’ll be dead in a year.

What I knew from that first page was that Lester’s daughter was embarrassed, disgusted, and dissatisfied by who he was and even discussed killing him. Lester was unhappy with his life and didn’t seem to mind that someone killed him a year later. And I knew that we were going to discover the answers to all of the story questions listed above.

By the end of the first page, I was intrigued enough to want to travel with Lester through his life and to his death.

BULL DURHAM

The opening of BULL DURHAM is one of my favorites. On the DVD, writer/director, Ron Shelton, said:

 

“I figured that I have to start with a woman whose compelling monologue will so attract an audience that they will be willing to follow her anywhere.”

That is the way a professional screenwriter thinks. Now, let’s see what he did with it and at what point I decided to read the entire script.

From BULL DURHAM

A WALL COVERED WITH BASEBALL PICTURES behind a small table covered with objects and lit candles. A baseball, an old baseball card, a broken bat, a rosin bag, a jar of pine tar– also a peacock feather, a silk shawl, a picture of Isadora Duncan. Clearly, the arrangement is– A SHRINE — And it glows with the candles like some religious altar.

 

We hear a woman’s voice in a North Carolina accent.

ANNIE (V.O.)
I believe in the Church of Baseball.
(beat)
I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones–I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan…

 

PAN AWAY FROM THE SHRINE across the room. Late afternoon light spills into the room, across fine old furniture, to a small dressing table. A WOMAN applies make up.

 

ANNIE SAVOY, mid 30’s, touches up her face. Very pretty, knowing, outwardly confident. Words flow from her Southern lips with ease, but her view of the world crosses Southern, National and International borders. She’s cosmic.

There! When he said “She’s cosmic.” Again, half a page sells the entire script. It is the description, the dialogue, the metaphors (Church of Baseball, etc), the character, and I enjoy it so much that you’ve got to keep reading just to see how amazing this first page is.

ANNIE (V.O. CONT’D)
I know things. For instance–

(beat)
There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary. And– 

(beat)
There are 108 stitches in a baseball. (beat)
When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance.
(beat)
But it just didn’t work out between us The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.
(beat)
You see, there’s no guilt in baseball…and it’s never boring.

 

ANNIE OPENS A CLOSET DOOR — Dozens of shoes hang from the door. She chooses a pair of RED HIGH HEELS, with thin straps.

 

She sits on a bench and

ANNIE (V.O.)
Which makes It like sex.
(beat)
There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career.
(beat)
Making love is like hitting a baseball– you just got to relax and concentrate.

 

ANNIE SLIPS ON THE RED HIGH HEELS — Smoothing her hands up her calves as she does.

ANNIE (V.O.)
Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250 unless he had a lot of R.B.I.’s or was a great glove man up the middle.
(beat)
A woman’s got to have standards.

If I hadn’t decided to read the entire script earlier, I would have by this point. The way he weaves baseball, religion, and sex in Annie’s dialogue tells us that we’re in the hands of a master. It tells us that we’re going to be entertained and satisfied throughout this script. That is the message you want to give to anyone who reads a single page of your script, isn’t it?

One more, just to have you see how a boring Senate Hearing can be turned into a fascinating first page.

G.I. JANE

While this movie was a High Concept, I didn’t really care to read all about women or men in the military. But once again, the first page sold me on reading the entire script.

INT. SENATE HEARING ROOM – CAPITOL BLDG. – DAY

 

Blinding in their white uniforms, naval flag officers sit in the audience, showing their support for THEODORE HAYES, a 50- year-old civilian. This is his confirmation hearing.

 

Reading from prepared material:

HAYES
… last few years have brought many advances in the interests of women in naval service, particularly in the land-based maritime specialties.

 

What’s more, the Navy has instituted special sensitivity courses with an eye on —

 

DEHAVEN
Whoa, whoa, whoa. “Land-based maritime specialties.” Gimme a second here to de-euphemize that…

 

At the center of a dais, LILLIAN DEHAVEN leans back to ponder the ceiling of the hearing room. Her plaque card reads “CHAIRPERSON — SENATE ARMS COMMITTEE.” DeHaven is a tough- hided old Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara at 60.

 

In her arsenal she carries conversational hand-grenades — and she’s apt to pull a pin at the slightest whim.

 DEHAVEN
Would that be anything like “typing”? “Restocking the cupboards”? That sort of thing, Mr. Hayes?

 

CHUCKLES from the packed gallery. The flag officers go stone- faced. Hayes forces a smile.

HAYES
Hardly the case, Senator.

DEHAVEN
Well, I’m just an old dame without much time left, so you’ll pardon me if I jump right in here before they discontinue my blood-type. I am deeply concerned over the Navy’s seemingly incontrovertible attitude toward women in the military. Case in point…

 

On cue, aides begin distributing reports to other members of the dais. Hayes gets a copy, too. And it jars him.

DEHAVEN
“The Lark Report.”

The first line that really caught my attention was:

 

In her arsenal she carries conversational hand-grenades — and she’s apt to pull a pin at the slightest whim.

Then Dehaven’s dialogue. She’s feisty, in his face, and unique in her expression. But what had me decide to read the entire script was how this lady ambushed Hayes at his confirmation hearing. That told me that we were in for a great story.

The writer could have taken 10 pages explaining all the backstory or reasons why Dehaven would have done this, but instead exploded it on the screen in one page. For this movie, it was the perfect opening.

HOW CAN YOU DO THE SAME?

Here are some tips that will help you get a reader to decide to read your entire script on the first page.

  1. Make dramatic statements with your dialogue, action, and scenes that intrigue us.
  2. Make sure every sentence pays off in some way.
  3. Pour character into every line of dialogue.
  4. Create story questions with your opening scenes.
  5. Give us conflict on Page one!

Basically, it all comes down to great writing. Give the reader great writing on the first page and they’ll trust you to give them great writing in the rest of the script.

1 Comment

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  1. June 1, 2015, 12:57 am

    I am a script reader for a London-based production company. I recently was reading a script and stopped at page 50. Why? Because the following tells you everything you need to know about this script.

    Angelina was chosen Sex Goddess of the week. Her prize was a gigantic dildo. I could have stopped at page one but soldiered on until I couldn’t take anymore. This script can be likened to Animal House meets The Three Stooges. Every screenwriter should be forced to read your article and memorize it.

    Thanks for writing it.

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