Yes, it’s true that a writer might only get the opening pages of their script read — and that it will likely be put down right away if those pages don’t immediately engage the busy industry professional who has given it a chance by opening it. Most screenwriters who have been at it for a while realize this, and try to pack some of their best description, dialogue, entertainment value and overall scene writing into this crucial beginning section — which makes sense. There’s also a common piece of advice that you should start the script in media res or “in the middle of things” — meaning that something compelling, emotional, and filled with conflict and spectacle should happen right away.
I think this is a good idea, but that it’s also crucial that writers understand and fulfill the function of the first ten pages as part of the larger whole of a screenplay. To me, the main job of this section is to get readers understanding, interested in, and even starting to emotionally invest in your main character and their world, before you hit them with a big crisis or challenge of some kind — that “Catalyst” or “Inciting Event” that Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books recommend happen on exactly page 12.
As I speak to writers groups and offer script consulting, I’m often asked about the seeming ultra-specificity of this, and is it really important to hit these arbitrary page numbers with story points in a screenplay? My answer is “no, as long as it’s working,” but I’ve also noticed that when a Catalyst happens much later than p. 12, I am tending to get restless, waiting for something to happen. And if it happens much earlier than p. 12, I don’t know the main character enough to really care about the “big uh-oh” of their Catalyst — and the life-changing situation they now find themselves in.
This is the key thing about the first ten pages. It’s about making the reader start to care about your main character. To do this, you have to introduce that character at some length and in some breadth — in their status quo life, prior to the Catalyst. It takes some time to do this, and if you’re trying to “grab” people with some huge event in the first few pages, they might find that they’re not up to speed with the characters and world enough to really be able to engage. (Michael Hauge has a great section on this in his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, where he rightly points out that it’s not so much about “grabbing” the reader, but “seducing” them into the world of your story, and its central figure.) So any “grabbing” that’s done — any in media res activity that we open in the middle of — should ideally just be the beginning of illustrating for us who this main character is, what their life situation is, and why we should be intrigued by them.
Perhaps one of the “grabbiest” such openings in recent memory is in Saving Private Ryan. Storming Omaha Beach takes more than ten minutes, granted (in an almost three-hour movie), but if you really look at it in the context of what happens after, it is still merely “Set-up” — telling us who Capt. Miller is, and what he’s been up to and dealing with,before the Catalyst of getting the mission to go find Pvt. Ryan.
The first ten pages can and should be filled with fun-to-watch, high-conflict material, but these should be examples of the kinds of things the main character is dealing with in their current status quo life (whether it be Ryan Reynolds working for hell-boss Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Tom Cruise showing us his life as a sports agent who has grown a conscience inJerry Maguire, or still-animated Amy Adams before she’s come to New York City in Enchanted). It should not usually be already changing that status quo in a significant way. That should be saved for the Catalyst. First you have to compellingly dramatize what that status quo is, such that the reader is properly “seduced.”
This means illustrating (not just talking about) things like their living situation, occupation, social life, family and friends, and romantic relationships. It’s about how they spend their time, what their life is focused on, and who else is in it. Bridesmaids does this pretty methodically, with Kristen Wiig’s character (see my Save the Cat “Beat Sheet” for details). Twilight does it with Kristen Stewart’s new life situation before the vampire romance kicks in. Virtually all successful movies find a way to accomplish some variation on this.
Since these conflicts are not part of chasing the goal that will emerge after the Catalyst, it can be tricky to write this. You don’t want to be obviously informational, and yet you have to get the audience understanding key things about your main character. The best way to hide such exposition is within high conflict, emotion and spectacle — so the goal is to find compelling situations for those first few pages that place the reader squarely within the main character’s perspective as they deal with problems and challenges that are part of their normal life — and to let the information come out around the edges of them grappling with whatever that is.
At the same time, the audience needs to become engaged with this character as a person, such that they want to follow them. Traditionally, they do something that makes us like them during this section (like “save a cat,” which is where the book series gets a title), but it’s also about making them intriguing people that you’d want to follow for other reasons, as well — like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, who is mostly unlikable, but fun to watch as he moves through his current life challenges.
What’s key in all of this is that the main character’s feelings, life desires and overall conflicts are front and center, and crystal clear. Ideally, the reader would feel like they are within the perspective of the main character of a story. This means that they are not just intrigued and entertained by them, not just liking them or even caring about them — but they actually take on the character’s problematic situation as their own, and want to see it solved as much as the character does. As Dramatica says, they look through this main character, and at all the other characters. (I discuss this further in my blog post about writing from a subjective point-of-view.)
To do this requires making that character’s thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, goals and plans totally clear, and the main focus of the writing, starting with page one — and to take the time to give the reader a clear and full enough sense of their engaging personality and situation that you’ll be able to really “grab” them with the Catalyst, when it finally comes.
If you can deliver all of that in the first ten pages, trust me, they will keep reading.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.