First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

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  • First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

    The following is an in-depth post on the topic to give new writers a thorough understanding. If you’re a guest or member who doesn’t like to read long posts, then I strongly suggest that you immediately leave the thread.

    FIRST TEN PAGES: WHAT READERS WANT

    (Note: the following is a generalization. Depending on a writer’s artistic vision and what works for HIS story, some of the mentioned elements may not necessarily be found, or required in their own first ten pages.)

    Why is it the “first ten pages” and not 8, 12 or 15?

    Was it totally arbitrary because the number ten was a nice even number? Was it because of the old ten minute reels? Was it because of producer Joel Silver’s Whammo edict (action beat of some sort every ten minutes as not to bore the audience)? Or, was it because of an industry person’s experience he has found 10 pages provides enough evidence of whether or not a script has good prospects?

    Whatever the reason, the first ten pages is the industry standard.

    In the context of a screenplay, the first ten pages are the most important.

    Yes, I know -- EVERY -- page is important, but I like to look at it this way: the first ten pages represents a script’s “curb appeal.” The more attractive it is the more appealing it is to hook a buyer and entice him to enter and look at the property further.

    The first ten pages is the story’s foundation. It establishes and sets in motion the major elements: theme, world, plot, characters, genre, tone, Inciting Incident, etc.

    The reason you always hear that you have to hook/grab the reader (agents, managers, producers, studio executives, etc.) by ten pages is because of volume and time.

    When an industry person takes a pile of scripts home for his weekend read, he’s not gonna spend the 110 minutes it takes to read each screenplay knowing after 10 pages he’s gonna pass.

    Is this fair to the writer? No, it isn’t. Is it possible an industry person may miss out on a great script because he stopped reading after 10 pages? Yes, it is.

    It’s because of this possibility that there are some industry people that will read at least up to the first act.

    A writer’s opening/first page is his first impression to an industry person, so hook the reader right away with a captivating opening visual, memorable dialogue, vivid description, or connect emotionally.

    I suggest that the screenplay’s opening harmonizes with the story that’s about to unfold. Not be just a gimmick to hook the reader.

    If possible, the opening visual will hint/express to the reader one or more of the following: genre, tone, theme and/or mood.

    For example, THE CROW:

    FADE IN:

    EXT. CEMETERY - LATE AFTERNOON

    BOOM! A crack of lightning illuminates the silhouette of a perched crow large in the f.g.

    -- Within one to three pages, a reader will know, or get a hint, whether or not a writer can write. The reader will know if he’s in the hands of a professional, or an amateur.

    What will tip him off are things like unoriginal voice, word choices, an abundance of unnecessary words, useless scenes, confusion, lack of craftsmanship (using tools, principles and techniques well), meandering narrative, too much backstory/exposition, cliche scenes (sometimes a cliche scene is required), etc.

    Readers want to see magic happening on the pages. This is accomplished with specific narrative elements.

    The important elements are the following:

    VOICE

    Original and distinct. Not cliche and derivative. If it’s something familiar, there’s a fresh take or unique spin.

    When a new writer asks what does a “writer’s voice” mean, I’ll repeat what I’ve posted in the past:

    Ask yourself this: What root sources do writers rely on to create art, i.e., worlds, characters, themes, plot, dialogue, etc.?

    The writer relies on his own life experiences: his environment, family and friends’ relationships, attitude, personality, POV, world view, whether or not it was happy, humorous, sad, hurtful, loving, etc.

    A writer’s voice is the “essence” of who he is.

    Take for example the following comedy writers: Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, John Hughes, Ethan and Joel Coen. All successful. Why? They told stories in their own, unique voice.

    I suggest for a new writer to use the search box for a thread called: “Voice (Descriptive Narrative).”

    PROTAGONIST

    A memorable character that grabs the reader’s attention the moment he appears on screen. A hero that’s so captivating he/she will attract a star.

    Introduce the protagonist with a strong event/situation that illustrates their personality?

    For example, “Pirates of the Caribbean's” introduction of Captain Jack Sparrow. “The Verdict’s” introduction of Paul Newman’s character, the alcoholic and demoralized attorney Frank Galvin. This film has some great expression of characterization. The reader sees and gets this character.

    Readers look for: a vulnerability in the protagonist. Protagonist’s motivations. Complex, three-dimensional protagonist. What’s the protagonist’s goal? Need? Wants? External conflict?

    What is the protagonist’s flaw? What scares him emotionally? His inner conflict?

    For example, in the “The King’s Speech” the protagonist, King George VI, has a severe fear of public speaking because of a debilitating stutter.

    One of the most important functions of the first ten pages is to create an emotional connection with the protagonist, having the readers become emotionally involved with what the protagonist needs to resolve, or conquer over his journey.

    The reader gets hooked because of the emotional commitment. The protagonist is no longer a stranger. It’s a person the reader cares about and is motivated to keep turning the pages, wanting, hoping, the protagonist obtains his goal.

    Other techniques to get a reader to care for and identify with your protagonist is the use of sympathy and empathy. (I did a thread on this titled “Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist.” Type it in the search box and check it out.)

    When possible, have the first character to appear to be the protagonist. Readers/viewers have a subconscious expectation that when they see the first character to appear in a film/screenplay, it’s the hero/protagonist of the story.

    In my teen romantic comedy’s opening page, I play with this audience expectation to create an impactful surprise.

    The protagonist can be introduced into the story in different ways: physical presence, named dropped in talks between other characters, in a photo, home video tape, etc.

    For example, in “Cash McCall,” staring James Garner, his character didn’t appear on screen for the first 18 minutes of the film. Before then, his name was only mention in dialogue between characters and by a portrait painting done by the love interest.

    When introducing the protagonist, besides his name and age, you want to paint a vivid picture as possible to express who this character IS to the audience. His essence. Use actions and/or descriptions that make a character come alive: clothing reveals character, quirkiness, attitude, character’s actions/choices, etc.

    ANTAGONIST

    Same as with the protagonist. Wants? Needs? Goal? Three-dimensional. Character flaw. Motivations? He may be doing something bad, but in his mind it’s something good.

    Strong introduction that demonstrates who this character IS, his essence.

    The antagonist does not need to be a person. It could be an animal. An alien. A monster. It could be a non-human force: hurricane, volcano, earthquake, disease, something supernatural/paranormal, etc.

    In some instances, the protagonist could be his own antagonist, such as, “Grace Is Gone.”

    WORLD

    The big picture. What does it look like? The structure that your characters live under: laws, government, technology, magical, etc. Rules of this world. Is it in the world of the military, court, hospital, wall street, illegal drugs, etc.?

    SETTING

    Time, location, mood, atmosphere, ambience (sounds, colors, climate, etc.), objects (furniture, cars, etc.), people (types of extras).

    For example: Dracula’s Castle, having an atmosphere of fear, uneasy feeling.

    ROCKY: The dingy streets of Philadelphia and its fight clubs.

    ROCKY’S OPENING PARAGRAPH:

    “... The club itself resembles a large unemptied trash-can. The boxing ring is extra small to insure constant battle. The lights overhead have barely enough wattage to see who is fighting.”

    If a setting is unfamiliar to an audience, rich details will help them visualize it.

    GENRE

    Comedy, action, thriller, etc. If it’s a hybrid, its primary genres.

    TONE

    It evokes emotion.

    Thriller, is it suspenseful? Horror, is it fearful? Comedy, is it humorous? Is it broad comedy: “Pet Detective”? Is it dark comedy: “Heathers”? Is the story a fantasy, or realism? Is it sad? Is it romantic: “When Harry Met Sally”?

    In AMERICAN BEAUTY, the protagonist’s first opening dialogue, he tells the audience: “In less than a year, I’ll be dead.”

    This certainly conveys tone.

    Tone is also inappropriate content: Having nudity and profanity when it’s a family film.

    DIALOGUE

    The majority will be brief. It will be natural, fresh, stimulating and intriguing.

    Used to create the characters, world of the story and to move the plot forward.

    Dialogue stands out being centered down the screenplay. A reader will be able to detect right away if it’s professional or amateurish, whether or not the writer has a good ear for dialogue.

    DESCRIPTION

    Clear, concise and vivid that implies more than it says.

    It’s vital a writer compels the reader to “see” the movie. When a reader reads the words, images form in his brain, providing a mental picture, but you don’t want to stop there.

    You want the reader to “feel.” A writer is looking to engage the emotions of the reader. You need the emotion to flow to the reader’s heart. The heart is where our ultra intense feelings come from.

    Doesn’t matter how many words as long they are -- necessary words -- to express what the writer needs the reader to see, feel and know for his narrative to work.

    Use language that’s vibrant, has a rhythm, drawing a reader in where he feels it. Full of energy.

    Not in a way where it’s dense, flowery novelistic writing, though a novelistic flair here and there could be engaging.

    When possible choose specific details over generalization. A pit bull attacking a character will have more impact than “a dog.” Type of car, clothing, gun, etc., reveals character and makes the visual more interesting.

    INCITING INCIDENT (II)

    It reveals the story hook, where something happens. This entertains (grabs) the audience, causing anticipation and expectation, holding them captivated until the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) is answered at the climax.

    In JAWS the inciting incident is the female swimmer being killed by a monstrous shark. The MDQ: Will the protagonist (sheriff) succeed in killing the shark?

    The concept is a monstrous shark killing machine. If that shark ain’t killing after ten minutes, the audience may get bored and distracted, wondering when the concept/story is gonna commence.

    If the protagonist isn’t in the scene when an II happens, then the story must be structured where this incident crosses paths with the protagonist, inciting him to act, or there be no drama and no story.

    Hooking an audience with tension, mystery and suspense is a strong technique.

    OTHER MAJOR AND MINOR ELEMENTS A READER WANTS

    Theme. Pacing. Rhythm. Style. Introduction of important secondary characters. Conflict (external and internal). Relationship dynamics. Set ups (to be paid off). Aesthetic look. Nice balance of white and black. Standard format.

    Correct spelling and grammar, which will not only make the writer look professional, but help the reader from being distracted and taken out of the story.

    Momentum, one scene moving to the next. No matter if it’s a slow pace drama like “The Piano,” or fast paced action like “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

    Show, don’t tell. Showing something happening visually instead of one character telling another character what happened.
    Last edited by JoeNYC; 10-17-2020, 06:39 PM.

  • #2
    Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

    Old wisdom was 10 pages. I think that was just a nice round number -- today you got 3 pages I'd think if you are a new writer. If the spec is coming in from a manager or producer saying "this is great" the person will read more I'm sure. But if a random script is in front of someone and they decide to read it until they don't like it -- yeah - 10 pages is a lifetime in 2020.

    Point is, what readers want is what everyone wants -- to forget they are reading at all and get lost in the movie.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

      Originally posted by Bono View Post
      ... Point is, what readers want is what everyone wants -- to forget they are reading at all and get lost in the movie.
      This is it in a nutshell. And I think it starts on page 1. If you bounce them out of the read, "Wait" Huh? What does that mean?" you've lost their confidence in you.
      Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

        Yeah, 10 pages seems like a lifetime. Everyone shit on Dan Brown when he got popular, but he was great at never letting you put the book down - "now what? now what? now what?"

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

          Good post. I think it doesn't take long to know you're in good hands.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

            Originally posted by Vango View Post

            I think it doesn't take long to know you're in good hands.
            As far as the caliber of writing, a reader will know if he's in good hands in the first one to three pages, but on whether or not the story has prospects, a reader will need more than one to three pages.

            I know, Jeff, Bono and sc111 say that "10 pages seems like a lifetime."

            This gives me an idea for a writing exercise. We can have 6 members, don't mention your Done Deal names, volunteer their opening 3 pages. Three from screenplays that have advanced in the big competitions and three that did not advance.

            We can post them here, or the SCRIPT PAGES forum. Jeff, Bono and sc111 will be the judges to choose which stories have prospects and which ones do not.

            Yes, I know about the subjectivity factor but there are three screenplays in each group. You want a bigger pool? It could be five.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

              Originally posted by JoeNYC View Post
              This gives me an idea for a writing exercise. We can have 6 members, don't mention your Done Deal names, volunteer their opening 3 pages. Three from screenplays that have advanced in the big competitions and three that did not advance.

              We can post them here, or the SCRIPT PAGES forum. Jeff, Bono and sc111 will be the judges to choose which stories have prospects and which ones do not.

              Yes, I know about the subjectivity factor but there are three screenplays in each group. You want a bigger pool? It could be five.
              Sounds like a pointless exercise that proves nothing other than trying to set up a "gotcha".

              John August's podcast have a segment where they frequently review 3 non-pro pages. They are very helpful and insightful for people looking to improve their scene work.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                Originally posted by Why One View Post
                Sounds like a pointless exercise that proves nothing other than trying to set up a "gotcha".

                John August's podcast have a segment where they frequently review 3 non-pro pages. They are very helpful and insightful for people looking to improve their scene work.
                Agree. I also recommend the advanced section here. Even though the pros are no longer reviewing pages, the section is a good source.
                Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                  Originally posted by Why One View Post
                  Sounds like a pointless exercise that proves nothing other than trying to set up a "gotcha".
                  Why One, if you believe this is about a set up to prove a "gotcha," then that means you agree with me and don't believe someone can tell a screenplay doesn't have any prospects by reading only one to three opening pages of a script.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                    Originally posted by sc111 View Post
                    Agree. I also recommend the advanced section here.
                    sc111, this was not about reviewing to give notes. It was just to read one to 3 pages and say yes, or no, on whether or not the script has prospects.

                    To see if someone can judge the true worth of a screenplay with such a short window of opportunity.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                      Originally posted by JoeNYC View Post
                      Why One, if you believe this is about a set up to prove a "gotcha," then that means you agree with me and don't believe someone can tell a screenplay doesn't have any prospects by reading only one to three opening pages of a script.
                      You know what, JoeNYC? I'll bite. I looked at the first page of your script and here are my personal thoughts:

                      Trope, trope, trope.

                      You opened with that typical camera flying through different characters in a school yard and that typical voice over that says, "That's not me (showing a popular girl) That's me (showing a lonely nerd)"

                      You know how many times we've seen this before? You can't use that misdirect technique anymore because we know it already. It's no longer a misdirect!

                      And again, another nerd protagonist in a romcom? It's a tired trope. Show us something else. Show us something different.

                      "That's Brandon. He's my BFF"

                      I've not read beyond page one but already I know who she gets with at the end of the movie!

                      Where's the surprise? Why should I care if I already know how it's gonna end? Again, another trope where the guy she should be with is the BFF that's been there all along.

                      You're giving away your hand way too easily with your execution.

                      I know you're going to say that these tropes are used in commercial movies all the time, but you're trying to stand out from the pack at a spec level.

                      You look at movies like THE KISSING BOOTH where the main girl isn't a nerd, and she doesn't get with the BFF. Because why can't girls just be friends with guys and not get with them? It's friggin' 2020!

                      You're not hooking me at all with your writing, you're just repeating beats I've seen a million times before.

                      You cannot lead a script with this level of execution that telegraphs familiar ideas with tropes and call it your unique, best, voice. Nothing in this tells me this script has something others don't.

                      Now this is just my opinion. To me, (AND THIS IS JUST MY OPINION!), I'd stop just after page one.
                      Last edited by Why One; 10-04-2020, 02:44 PM.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                        Do something different. I'm just pulling this out of my a$$ here...

                        What if your lead girl is getting bullied by a small group of boys. Voice over is something like "My mom told me to keep my head down and people will leave you alone." The boys push her to the ground. She keeps her head down. But then the voice over says something like, "What a crock of sh!t!" She springs to her feet and single handedly beats the boys up.

                        Now I don't think I've seen that too often. It also tells a lot about the character rather than your version which simply has a character sitting down eating candy and the writer describing what she's wearing.

                        As for the BFF. What if after getting beaten up, the lead bully starts sobbing and a teacher breaks up the fight. And as the teacher drags the girl away, the lead bully suddenly stops sobbing and flashes a grin back at the girl. That just makes the girl even more mad. "That's how I met Brandon. That a$$hole. That c0cksucker. And also my BFF."

                        Again, haven't seen that too often. We establish an interesting dynamic that makes the reader want to see more rather than your version where the BFF just sits next to her and grins at her with braces -- which just telegraphs to the reader, "yep, they're gonna fall in love, might as well skip the rest".

                        I don't usually go with first ideas so I could be wrong and maybe more veteran writers can see the tropes in my ideas.

                        But I think (in my opinion) with my ideas, you'll at least pass the page one test.
                        Last edited by Why One; 10-04-2020, 02:44 PM.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                          If the story makes the reader keep turning pages to the point where they can't put it down... that is the first benchmark that matters.

                          This is the goal for every screenplay. It doesn't matter if it won, placed, or failed to show in a screenplay contest (big or small) or not.

                          As SC111 mentioned anything that bumps the reader is bad. Professional readers, in most cases, are required to read the entire script to provide coverage to their employer, whether they are bored or not.

                          But a producer or CE does not. So if your opening pages are boring and cannot engage the reader intellectually and/or emotionally, your script is DOA.

                          What it takes is ONE person to champion your entire script.

                          "Prisoners" was initially rejected all over town. It took ONE agent to champion it and then find the right collaborators to get it made.

                          The objective is to get readers to want to read the entire script and that means that you have to grab them at the onset, AND continue to entertain and engage them throughout the script. It can come down to your first page, or as seems the norm, in the first 5-10 pages.

                          If I recall, Craig and John are giving advice on their Three Page Challenge on how writing can be improved. They may or may not enjoy the pages. They may comment on whether they would personally want to keep reading or not. I don't think I've ever heard either of them suggest anything more than that after reading such a small sampling (ie 3 pages).
                          "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                            Originally posted by JoeNYC View Post
                            sc111, this was not about reviewing to give notes. It was just to read one to 3 pages and say yes, or no, on whether or not the script has prospects.

                            To see if someone can judge the true worth of a screenplay with such a short window of opportunity.
                            The first three pages are not about the script's prospects and entirely about the writer's skill.

                            A concept may be appealing in a logline however if the writer grossly fumbles in the first three pages, it tells the reader the remaining pages have more of the same problems and the likelihood that the concept was well executed is zero.

                            I have no idea why you believe this contest you've suggested -- because three people in this thread, including a pro who staffs his TV shows, didn't fully agree with you -- will somehow prove your opinion is the last and final word on the topic.
                            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: First Ten Pages: What Readers Want

                              Originally posted by Why One View Post


                              ...And again, another nerd protagonist in a romcom? It's a tired trope. Show us something else. Show us something different.

                              "That's Brandon. He's my BFF"

                              I've not read beyond page one but already I know who she gets with at the end of the movie!

                              I know you're going to say that these tropes are used in commercial movies all the time, but you're trying to stand out from the pack ...

                              .
                              Another thing that bothers me about the nerd HS girl getting the guy who lusts after the hot cheerleader is that it rarely if ever happens. How about some honesty about the surging hormones of teenage boys. Or, girls for that matter. For decades, Hollywood has pumped out some weird propaganda about love, sex and romance, in my opinion.
                              Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

                              Comment

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