Top 5 Tips For A Script's 1st Ten Pages
Any script reader or screenwriting competition will tell you the first ten pages of a script are the most vital, as this is the cut off point to judge whether the script, and the writer, has any chops. So here are my top 5 tips for a TV script's 1s ten pages, based on my years as an industry reader and reading for the Red Planet Prize (but the tips equally apply to a feature, too).
1. CORE CONCEPT
Is your idea original? Or an original twist on a familiar but popular genre? ‘Cops and Docs’ shows are always in vogue but you want to dress to impress not rehash old fashions, so what’s your take on the genre?
If your idea/genre is more ambitious, like sci-fi or supernatural or a period piece, then what is it about the idea that will get the reader excited? Does your core concept have a neat ‘irony of character’ that can generate a reliable format for returning series?
Most of the time, scripts read too samey. No idea is truly unique any more but an original take on a familiar concept will stand out. For screenwriting competitions, the reader will have probably read your logline before they start reading your script, which already conjures up some expectations. Make sure the script starts with the right tone and approach based on the promise of the premise.
Occasionally, the appeal of the core concept can take the reader beyond the first ten pages even if not much has seemingly happened in the opening scenes.
So, it’s worth spending time on your core concept. What’s the hook? What’s the genre? How will the premise/format generate story ideas beyond episode one, and beyond? It’s usually easy to say what happens in episode 2, but what happens in episode 52?
2. THE OPENING SCENES
A reader will usually know after page 1 or page 2 whether a script is going to be good and/or if the writer knows what they’re doing. So the first ten pages is a luxury, really, to show your bones.
Don’t hang around, get to the story quickly. This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a fast-paced action sequence. It’s more to do with establishing the right tone and pace, and to pique the reader’s interest. When the reader is given too much information to work out – characters being introduced left right and centre, the action cutting between various plot strands, or there’s just drab scenes of introduction with no real drama or conflict happening on screen – then the first ten pages become very heavy lifting indeed.
Avoid all this: keep things clear. Clear doesn’t necessarily mean simple. You’re the storyteller, feel free to introduce characters left right and centre, and intercut between various plot strands if that’s the only way you see the story beginning. The trick is to make the script detail clear and engaging rather than creating an indulgent sense of ‘stick with it, this is just the set-up’.
The reader has probably read your core concept/logline before they open your script. This means they know (or think they know) the genre of your script. The genre then raises basic expectations of tone, and perhaps certain story elements to occur. For example, if it’s a murder mystery, then the opening scenes may be someone discovering the dead body. A perfectly fine if familiar start to this kind of story. To set it apart from the others in the pile, is there anything original you can do to make the discovery more interesting? Or something to subvert the reader’s expectations but still moves the story forward in a clear and compelling manner?
Remember, storytelling is an interactive experience; the reader/audience likes to work things out as the action unfolds rather than having their hands held all the way with dull exposition or excessive detail. Keep your description short. Create a sense of visual action unfolding on screen rather than scene description that tells us non-visual information.
If something interesting and/or original is happening, and the writing is clear and engaging (even if it’s just mum and dad in a domestic exchange), then the reader will be more likely to give the script a go past the first ten pages.
3. SET UP Vs STORY
There’s nothing wrong with set up, as long as it’s dramatic or interesting in some way. That’s when set up becomes story, or a vital part of the plot. Indiana Jones trying to steal the idol in the boobytrapped mine is all set up but it becomes a vital part of the plot as it establishes the tone of adventure, and what type of character Indiana Jones is like.
Take the first episode of Ashes To Ashes (the sequel to Life On Mars). Notice the tone, the pace, the cheeky way it dismisses Sam Tyler’s trademark voiceover from Life On Mars. And it immediately gets DI Drake on the scene. Set up as story. You can read the script here.
The worst beginnings to scripts tend to start with a tame set up or familiar scenarios or, worse of all, dull introduction to characters. Dreams, a nightmare, people waking up from said nightmare; people waking up (in bed usually) from an alarm or a phone call; a domestic scene with the family, all rushing to start their day; characters on their way to work, and so on. This is set up as set up, and doesn’t help the reader appreciate the tone or the story on offer, giving them an easy option to ‘pass’ when the script eventually reaches the ten page mark.
Prologues, flashbacks, flashforwards, voiceover, dreams, intercutting plot strands/characters, breaking the fourth wall, and so on, are all acceptable and useful craft to help get a script started, but don’t fall back on familiarity or cliché. Always think of originality or subverting basic expectations; that’s a quick win to get a reader quickly engaged in your story.
If you have a deliberate slow pace to the start to your story, that doesn’t mean you can afford to be indulgent or boring. Something in the scenes, or in the scene description at the very least, should engage the reader in terms of the tone of the story, or pique their interest to continue. This refers more to the writer’s original voice.
4. ORIGINAL VOICE
There are many elements that determine a screenwriter’s original voice, e.g. the style of scene description, the originality of characters, the way the characters speak (or if the dialogue has a certain slant), the setting, the script’s premise and/or theme. In the first ten pages of a script, the writer’s original voice will become apparent by the way they’re presenting the storytelling detail (the scene description, character introductions, and story set up).
A lot of scripts feel and read very samey, and don’t particularly stand out. But when a writer has an original voice (and a particular talent for screenwriting), the script will usually have a sense of immediacy with the action and detail, and draw the reader into the world of the story with ease rather than just dumping plain information on the page that the reader struggles to process.
Tony Jordan has always said that he could watch an episode of EastEnders and know who wrote it without seeing the writer’s credit. This is because he can recognise the writer’s original voice; the dark but humorous nature of Sarah Phelps, the emotional insight of James Payne, or the distinctive style of Simon Ashdown, and so on.
Put simply, your original voice is the way you (and only YOU can) tell the story. If you can start your script with a clear sense of pace, story and setting whilst creating interest and/or humour, then your original voice will easily stand out amongst the pile.
5. PACE & INTEREST
As writers, we need to ‘hit the ground running’ so that the script generates the required pace and interest to get the story underway. Here are some effective techniques to consider:
– Dramatic Need: if a character wants something in a scene it creates more interest than just a character talking or delivering plain set-up. Even if it’s a trivial dramatic need it could be useful as a knock-on effect for what happens in the first ten pages. For example, say you’ve got two colleagues chatting about their boss at work as your opening scene. Fine. But how about if one of them is desperately trying to get a can of soda from the drinks dispenser, and increasingly gets angry. When they finally do get the drink, in the next scene they could open it up and it explodes all over them and their boss.
– On The Job: introduce the main character by showing us what they do best – a boxer in the ring, a detective on the crime scene, a celebrity fixer, whatever – but after this sequence is done, throw the main dramatic problem of the episode in their way. This sets up clear expectations and story direction.
– Teaser/Prologue: establish intrigue or intent (possibly before the main credits), indicating what the story is going to focus on before we get introduced to the main character(s).
– Dramatic Sequence: start with one simple and clear dramatic sequence to entice the reader into the world of the story. This helps to create pace and interest, while also introducing character through action (rather than dull scenes or unnecessary exposition).
– Subvert Expectations: lead the reader to one anticipated outcome of your opening scenes or sequence, only to twist the story in another direction. This is particularly useful if the anticipated outcome is a familiar trope of whatever genre you’re writing in, only for you to surprise the reader with an unexpected development.
The script’s opening lines of description, over titles: “Eerie dawn light, dark figures moving stealthily into position, vehicles rolling into place.”
The script’s first line of dialogue: “Units en route. Flat 56, Regal Court. Vehicles en route. Forward units arriving Regal Court.”
The dialogue exchange builds to the moment where “Alpha is in the building“.
The action then cuts to a police raid, but with tight and terse visual description: “A fire door bursts in. Muzzles of high-velocity rifles jab through. Then come 6 burly blokes in bullet-proof vests. They charge up dirty concrete steps.”
Immediately, the script is visual and pacey, and creates little effort for the reader to get into the tone and flow of the piece.
The opening sequence builds the tension of the raid so that Arnott, the protagonist, must make a difficult decision to follow a ‘shoot to kill’ order.
Crucially, tragically, the police get it wrong, and Arnott races to the scene, realising they targeted the wrong flat. “Arnott doesn’t know whether to scream or cry“. Subverting the reader’s expectations.
By the end of page 10, Arnott’s superior officer is already cooking the cover up, but shortly afterwards, Arnott won’t fall in line, which leads him to his new position… (the core concept of the show begins to kick in).
The script’s first ten pages are tense, pacey and visual but mainly focused around one simple and clear dramatic sequence to entice the reader into the world of the story.
We also learn a fair bit about our lead character through his actions without actually being told anything about him (indeed, he’s just described as “DETECTIVE SERGEANT STEVE ARNOTT, late 20s”). Skilful screenwriting from Jed Mercurio.
So there you have it, my top 5 tips for prepping your first ten pages (whether they be for the Red Planet Prize or not).