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.