There’s a well-worn adage in screenwriting that if the first ten pages of your screenplay can’t grab the reader by the collar and violently shake them into excitement then you’ve squandered any chance you could have had at thrilling them. The screenwriting community at large does little to help alleviate this idea. On their first sift, the BBC Writersroom competition only reads the first ten pages of whatever script you offer them. Countless anonymous readers online will take whatever opportunity they can to stop reading so that they can offer critique and move on and the tenth page offers a supposed industry standard to work with.
I’m not entirely sure if this ten-page idea really exists. Sometimes it’s three pages, sometimes it’s 30. Sometimes, if your reader is dedicated, they’ll get to the end no matter what. Too often when screenwriters hear that their first ten pages have got to be magic they throw everything but the kitchen sink into those opening lines to grab the reader however they can. Explosions, bloody murder, wackadoo comedic shenanigans, a screaming match, anything to immediately ram the drama dial up to 11. I think we’re missing the point a little. We’re not trying to force the reader into submission. We’re trying to intrigue them with an opening that beckons them to come further. To put it in horror villain terms, your opening pages should be a witch luring an unsuspecting victim into the woods, not a chainsaw-wielding maniac running straight for you.
So how do we tread this line? There’s a lot of theories, but I believe that the opening of your screenplay should function like a short film, a representative microcosm of your script that introduces the characters, tone, threat, and world with a clean beginning, middle, and end. To avoid abstract advice, I’m going to analyze the openings of two very different movies and show how each opening acts as a short film unto itself that teases the rest of the movie, introduces all the key concepts, all while staying within those illusive “ten pages”.
Whiplash is a movie full of psychological torture tied up with ambition, obsession, and completely dysfunctional relationships within the teacher/student dynamic all in the name of achieving “greatness”. If you had to narrow the film’s many relationships down to one, it would undoubtedly be the push and pull between Andrew and Fletcher. This opening scene tells us all of this at an exceedingly fast pace.
Whiplash begins with a snare drum roll increasing in tempo. In the most immediate sense, this introduces us to the drums, Andrew’s instrument of choice, and a key motif that reappears in the final sequence of the film. The increasing freneticism of the roll rises and rises indicating a tone that, contrary to the idea of what jazz drumming may look like, is full of tension and coiled energy waiting to snap.
Once the drum roll “snaps” we are shown an image of Andrew, down a long corridor in front of his drum set. The sparse lighting reinforces the tense atmosphere of the film, while also indicating Andrew’s obsessive nature (It’s dark outside, and he’s still practicing? That’s dedication). Perhaps most importantly he’s alone. This opening image begs the audience to ask questions about who this guy is, answers we get when Fletcher arrives.
Even though we don’t know it yet, their first exchange tells us everything we need to know about their relationship.
Andrew apologizes, a little embarrassed, subservient, while Fletcher commands, immediately the superior in their dynamic. The ellipsis and double dashes in Andrew’s dialogue indicates bashfulness or anxiousness whereas the short, firm, confident commands of Fletcher indicate the exact opposite. The rest of this scene expands upon this dynamic showing how Fletcher is able to command Andrew both through natural charisma and through his authoritarian position. When Andrew can’t live up to his standards, Fletcher leaves.
This is our short film. Our central characters have been introduced along with their relationship, themes have been set up alongside the tone of the film and we’re led towards an understanding of what a music school actually looks like. We’re given conflict, a resolution is attempted, and it concludes with our protagonist beaten down. Forget about the first ten pages, if you can hook the audience in the first three like Chazelle does then you have already bought the good grace required for a reader to keep on going.
For a film made in 1954, Rear Window is startlingly modern. Hitchcock doesn’t waste a moment before communicating the setting, tone, and characters of this film in record time. Rear Window shows that the opening of your script doesn’t have to be obvious and flashy for it to be effective.
Rear Window takes place in a small block of apartments at the peak of the summer. A convention of films from this time demands that the opening credits be laid out in full before the action of the story begins, but Hitchcock doesn’t waste any time here. Forced to hold on a single static shot we are shown the titular rear window out of which we will witness the rest of the film. Before the camera begins its famous movements around the windows we can already see daily life proceeding uninhibited in windows down below where we can watch unnoticed.
This introduces the core theme of voyeurism that’s explored frequently throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. We’re then given a chance to look in the windows of these apartments where bachelors, couples, and professionals ready for the day get dressed, eat breakfast, and listen to the radio. The moment we may think “Why do all these people have their windows open?” we’re shown our protagonist, Jeff, sweating profusely followed by a thermometer reporting scorching hot temperatures.
While there is no outer conflict in this opening, there is the thematic conflict of voyeurism. Each apartment we peek into raises the question of whether we should at all, especially when we’re pointedly shown a woman in various states of undress without her knowledge. Alongside the beeping of car horns suggesting a bustling city nearby, this opening familiarizes the audience with the geography of these apartments. The rest of the film’s tension relies upon us knowing where every apartment is in relation to each other and while Hitchcock avoids potentially dreary exposition by layering it in a thick dollop of titillating voyeurism. Rapid exposition continues when we’re shown the inside of Jeff’s apartment, his leg cast (which tells us why he is wheel-chair bound), a smashed camera beside dramatic photographs (implying that he was a great photographer) concluding with a negative portrait of Grace Kelly’s character Lisa, who we will see shortly.
This opening is even more minimal than Whiplash’s but no less effective. Wordlessly, and in a short amount of time, Hitchcock has delivered essential exposition, the central theme, the thematic conflict, and the situation of this unlikely thriller hero. Like Whiplash we are given a microcosm of what is to come, asking the audience to lean in and think about how this premise will mutate as the film progresses.
Case Study: The Third Man: Breaking Down A Classic Thriller
When you’re writing your screenplay don’t jump straight in and sprint towards the first explosion in sight. Think about how to set up the characters, relationships, tone, atmosphere, theme, and conflict as quickly, and more importantly, as efficiently as you can. The sooner a reader can find their feet in the story the sooner they can turn off their critical brain and embrace the enjoyment. Take your favorite film and analyze its first minutes (the first ten minutes if you like, but if you can engage the reader faster than that then do it). See how your favorite filmmakers engage the audience from the start and apply it to your own work. It may not fit perfectly, but when you manage to adapt the elements of successful openings to the world, characters, and tone of your story you’ll find that the first ten pages need not be feared, but enjoyed.
To go further: John Warren On The Process Of Story