The First Fifteen Pages of a Script (Tossable?)

March 22, 2008

The first fifteen pages of a screenplay are the most critical.  Think about it in terms of how you work.  By virtue of your job’s routine, you learn a pattern and the signs which indicate a problem.  If there’s a problem, there’s definitely a groan somewhere inside yourself.  I know that groan.  You know that groan.  The reflexive reaction is to avoid the problem.

Step in the professional script reader, the person who will be the first to read your script, the same person who reads at least 30 scripts a week.  These readers long for the tossing – the point at which they’ve determined your script is crap.  The sooner the tossing, the better the tossing.  More often than not, the professional reader does not have to read much more than ten to fifteen pages.

If the first fifteen pages have problems, then anything that follows will be flawed.  So many things have to be established in these pages that one of three things can happen.  1// You miss some elements = weak beginning.  2// You get everything in, but it’s too formulaic (unnatural).  3//  You nail it and it’s captivating!

For instance, we need to meet and be sympathetic with the protagonist(s).  We have to understand something of their flaw(s), character and their need (mission).  We need to meet the antagonist(s) and have a sense of their strength (willingness to oppose).  This establishes the conflict, the depth of resistance against the protagonist’s mission.  There needs to be an inciting incident – the event which gets the plot moving.  Their needs to be a big event (arguably, not in the first fifteen pages) – the point at which the protagonist loses control of their world.

Speaking of worlds, you also need to establish the reality (mis-en-scene) in which your story occurs.  Plus you have to give establish the sense or feeling (genre) of the story.  It does not matter what type of story, there definitely needs to be some form of mystery, suspense and conflict and it needs to be established subtly, but immediately.

The sub-plot(s) must also be introduced and catalyzed.  The sub-plot(s) should be (but don’t have to be) complimentary to the main plot.  It’s nice when they are intertwined from the beginning to the end; where one constantly feeds the other.

A perfect example of this is THE VALLEY OF ELAH (written & directed by Paul Haggis) – first thing the audience hears is a military radio transmission (or recording) of one soldier yelling at another.  Then Tommy Lee Jones receives a phone call.  His son returned from his tour of duty in Iraq four days ago and has been AWOL ever since.  Boom!  Main plot – Tommy Lee Jones needs to find his son.  Sub-plot – the events in Iraq (what happened to his son there?).  The two plots are related but distinct.  They feed each other as the story progresses.  They reach their resolutions together.  Both plots are ripe with mystery.  Best part – both plots are established within the first two minutes of the movie.  Paul Haggis is an incredibly gifted writer.

Other things to be mindful of – these are important throughout the script – are spelling, grammar, the use of language appropriate to genre.  Every sentence is a shot.  Every action grouping is limited to a specific motion on screen.  If one character does something and another character does something else, then the action should be written in two groupings.  No single action grouping should be longer than four lines.  Every page is a screen minute.  If a scene runs longer than two pages, you might need to reconsider it’s execution.

Start scenes late and get out early.  Essentially, start each scene as close to it’s conclusion as is possible without causing confusion or screwing up your story.  Don’t repeat things the audience already knows.  Show, don’t tell.  Actions speak louder than words.  When you are looking at a scene – ask yourself if the story would be any different if you took it out.  If the answer is ‘no’, then take it out.  Everything needs to move the story forward.  Every word, sentence, scene, page needs a purpose.

Dialogue is tricky.  There is subtext – that which the character is thinking.  And there is dialogue, that which the character is speaking.  Never should the two be identical.  People rarely say precisely what they thinking.  Whenever a character opens their mouth, ask yourself – is this what they are thinking?  Does this sound like something they would say?

So here we are.  The basic structure of a story is: beginning, middle, end.  If the beginning is weak, then the middle and end couldn’t possibly be strong (or as strong as they ought to be!).

I can understand how easy it is for a professional reader to toss a script.  You’re pretty much selling your story in the first fifteen pages.  You’re cooked in you haven’t hooked the reader by then.  Oh yeah, which reminds me of the most important thing, your story has to have an excellent concept.

Someone can fix a poorly-executed high-concept.  However, you cannot fix a well-executed crap-concept.


March 18, 2008

Unmovable.  Implacable.  Undefinable.  Undulating.  Don’t ask me to understand meaning.  I don’t.  I won’t.  Can’t.  Shant. 

No One Reads Free

March 18, 2008

Intersecting interests dissecting an interlude in a delusional memory subject to fits of stupidity bordering on senile.  Every lamp is a phallic symbol lighting up your life.  Mmmmm-mufflers!  I love to wrap my lips around lies, sighes and butter pies.  Rocking myself to relax, karmic release, shuddering in degrees.  When I am something I am nothing more than any other thing which brings me to the blunt point of a shattered shard, hardy-har-har, I remember that laugh.  I remember laughing.  I remember happy, somewhere left of sadness and a little warmer than gladness, truly a lot closer to madness.  Insanity not anger, inanity not a word, we’re in danger.  A Mexican guy in a manger.  Bethle-ahem, may I have your attention please.  Everyone’s favourite number is mine, number sine wave goodbye to Dewey’s decimels because everything at the library is free.  Flax seed brings out the same thing as greed in people.  The same thing as need.  The same thing, I plead my face, blue case, entire human grace kelly green puke and a burst spleen.  I don’t know what I mean.  Where have I been?

The Stonecutter’s Desire

March 6, 2008

I don’t know if you know this story or not.  I probably won’t tell it well.  I’m revisiting my deep memory for the words which construe it.  It’s significant enough to have stuck in my muddled mind all these years.  First time I read it was in high school, grade eleven I think.  I was branching out in terms of ingesting philosophy, good times.  Free to think.  Free to learn.  Free to experience.  That’s really all we’re supposed to do as teenagers, at least that’s what I think now. 

One caveat though – if I wanted to experience life on the wilder side, then I had to think and learn more than the tamer ones.  I had to earn the right to let loose and live free.  There’s a price for everything.  I’m still paying the price of mine.

Anyways, the stonecutter.  A Taoist tale.

There was a Stonecutter, who made a meager living from chiseling stone, toiling under a tropical sun.  There was a big kerfuffle one day, everyone who lived on the Stonecutter’s street stopped and bowed in reverent duty.  A royal procession, servants, slaves, soldiers and the Prince perched in a gondola on their shoulders.  The Stonecutter envied the Prince.  “What power has this Prince?  To make everyone stop and bow.  Happiness he must surely know.”

A simple wish and the Stonecutter became the Prince.  Endless processions, endless interruptions, endless bowing, but his happiness was not long lived.  For one day, during a particularly long procession march, the Prince experienced discomfort, sweat dripped from his brow.  He looked up at the sun-disc, blazing in the afternoon sky.  “What power has this Sun to make me seek shade, me who makes all bow before him?  What majesty and happiness the sun must know.”

A simple wish and the Prince became the Sun.  He blazed, he blared, he razed.  Every living thing cowered before him.  He knew happiness and majesty, but only for a while.  For one day he felt his power over living things dwindle away.  He looked down in rage.  A storm cloud.  “What power has this storm cloud?  Stronger than I who beat upon peasants and Princes alike?  What power this storm cloud must know.”

A simple wish and the Sun became the Storm Cloud.  He thundered, he poured, he soaked, flooded and destroyed.  He knew power, happiness, and majesty, but not for long.  For one day he felt himself dissipate, his power diminished.  “What is this that could be more powerful than I who blot the sun from the sky?”  A Strong Wind blew to him to infinity but not before a wish.

The Storm Cloud became the Strong Wind, the most powerful thing that could possibly be.  He blew, tormented and raged, destroying crops, houses, lives.  He knew power.  He knew happiness.  He knew majesty.  Until the day the Strong Wind came across something he could not budge, knock down or destroy.  “What is this that could be more powerful than I, the Wind?  Is it possible for something to be more powerful than I?”  The Mountain didn’t have much to say, so it just sat there and shrugged his boulders.  (I couldn’t resist!)

A simple wish and the Strong Wind became the Mountain.  And there he sat, basking in his power, his majesty and happiness, unmoving, unyielding, seemingly resilient against all things.  The most powerful thing that could possibly be was he, the Mountain.  One day the Mountain felt something strange, something was breaking him apart, breaking him down, piece by piece.  He rumbled, “What is this thing that could be more powerful than I, the greatest Mountain since the first drop of magma cooled?”  He looked down, so far down he had to squint. 

There it was, the most powerful thing that could possibly be – a Stonecutter.

 Wisdom from the sages of the ages.  Powerful, huh?

A period pinches the line.

March 6, 2008

Born this morning without warning, don’t number me a hundred fifty tornadoes, a person is a thousand pictures, requiem mourning, symphony of pleasance and woe, hymn frantic to and fro.  Never sojourning.

A period pinches the line.  Every breathe, a pinch of time.  You are yours, I am mine.

Show me how to give.  Show me how to care.  Show me you know something of hell.  Show me you’re well.  Save me from me.  Show me your face.

No slowing the winds of a tornado.  No cooling the fire within.  No easing, nothing pleasing.  The stone-cutter becomes the mountain on my back, bringing me back, breaking my back.

I’m the black-hole.  No events on this horizon.  Big events in store for me.

Mental exhaust.