The first five to ten pages...
...and why they mean everything to a non-established writer.
A few months ago as I was coming to bed, I mentioned off-hand to my wife that I was now a trending topic on Twitter. Her immediate response: “oh God, what’d you say this time?” I explained to her — I didn’t say anything too stupid (this time). I put together a thread about the importance of the opening pages to a script that went a little viral and became a trending topic. This is the substack version of that thread.
It's something of a screenwriting cliche to say that the first five or ten pages of a script are essential. And yet “essential” is probably understating things. In my experience, for an outsider trying to break into the industry, those opening five to ten pages aren't just essential for hooking a reader to get them to read the entirety of your script. Those opening pages are where a breaking-in script lives or dies.
My take: at the start of your career, those opening five to ten pages are more important than the entirety of the rest of your script because those opening pages will determine whether the industry person reading your script will be interested in talking with you at all, or if they'll toss your script aside with a shrug and never think of you again.
Now, if they love those first ten or so pages, maybe they'll read the whole thing. Maybe. Or maybe they’ll read at least half of it. But sometimes, even if they do really like those first ten pages and decide they want to chat with you, that's all they'll actually read at first. It just depends on the person and the situation.
For you, your script represents your hopes and dreams and probably months or even years of hard work. But for the industry person reading it, your script is just another nagging obligation in their weekend reading stack they’ve gotta get through before they can go have a drink with their spouse or play with their daughter. And since most scripts they read end up disappointing them and they don’t already know your work, they’re probably going to regard your script with suspicion bordering on contempt.
So what should your script accomplish in those opening five to ten pages? As a beginning outsider, you should realize that with your initial script you're not really selling a script to the industry so much as you're selling yourself as someone who has an original, authentic, potentially hire-able voice.
So with that in mind, maybe your opening five to ten pages shouldn’t focus so much on setting up your story or selling your script. I mean, it should also do that. But if you’re an outsider trying to break in, maybe your opening pages should focus more on introducing yourself as a promising, unique new screenwriting voice.
Why? Because in 2021, producers and execs aren't really looking to buy original scripts so much as they're looking to hire cheap original voices. Producers and execs are looking for cheap original voices to staff their shows, or to adapt their intellectual properties, or to develop a vehicle for a specific actor or actress or director. Those are the jobs that you need to string together to start having a career. And before you can string those jobs together, you need to have lots of industry conversations and meetings.
So practically speaking, to be a success, your opening five to ten pages don’t need to set up a plot or story for a script that you’ll one day sell. Very few original scripts get sold these days. Practically speaking, to be a success, your opening five to ten pages need to introduce you to industry people and make them want to meet with you. Out of the hundreds of thousands of writers wanting to break-in at any given moment, those opening pages are where you make your best case that you in particular are someone worth taking an hour out of their busy day to meet.
That's why those opening pages are so important. Not to sell your script, but to get you into industry conversations and potentially into industry relationships.
I'll try to sketch a plausible scenario where an non-established outsider is having their script read by someone in the industry.
Let's say there's a junior executive named Jojo at a small studio; last year he was an assistant, but he impressed his boss and recently got promoted. That boss, at this week's staff meeting, informs everyone that they've optioned the rights to some recent blue collar crime article. Let’s say there’s an article in Texas Monthly about a young single mother who starts dealing drugs to make ends meet but ends up helping all of these homeless children stay alive through some heroic effort.
This small studio boss wants to develop this Texas Monthly article — which is now a piece of intellectual property that he controls — into a movie. He thinks it’s a good story, but mostly he thinks the lead role would be a good fit for an up-and-coming future star actress like Jessie Buckley or Daniela Melchior who he wants to be in business with. The studio boss thinks this could be a Sundance type of film and possibly the sort of role that can get awards buzz. He wants a distinctive voice for it, but doesn’t think such a financially modest project justifies going after an expensive established writer. So he thinks it’d be great to find a relatively newer voice — with the added bonus that “new” should equal “cheap.”
Junior exec Jojo wants get a win with his boss and find the perfect but affordable writer to adapt this article into a script. But Jojo doesn't yet have his own long list of writers he's already worked or met with, so he calls up some agents and managers and ambitious assistants and other contacts and pals in the industry and spreads word about this new project.
Through these channels, Jojo gets some submissions and takes home a stack of scripts for the weekend with this project in mind. Let’s say he gets just twenty-five scripts his first weekend. These are all writing samples — meaning, they’re all original scripts, featuring original stories and characters.
In that stack are probably a bunch of scripts by working screenwriters like myself who aren't exactly well-known but who do have a track record and produced credits. Some of these writers have written and developed unproduced but well-liked scripts for studios and producers. Some of these writers have worked in TV. Some have a few smaller independent films under their belts. These all probably fall under the heading of “somewhat affordable pros.”
Let’s say, as an non-established outsider, your script also got into this stack. Maybe through a friend of a friend. If you don’t have a track record, that means your script is probably at the bottom of that stack.
Now when Jojo — who has a newborn child and family visiting for the weekend — gets to your script late Sunday night, he looks at your name. Doesn't ring a bell. No credits on imdb. Maybe he doesn't even remember how your script got into his stack. He's already read 24 scripts in 48 hours, but now he picks up yours. It’s the last of the bunch.
In this scenario, how likely is it for Jojo to keep plowing through an unknown writer's script to get to some big twist on page thirty where things really start cooking? Or for him to read all the way to the emotionally devastating confrontation scene on page eighty-two that the whole script has been building to?
Maybe he will! But, it’s probably not super likely. Because, remember: Jojo's not reading your script looking to buy it. And he's not reading the script to give it a high or low score. Or to see if you check all the right structural boxes all the way through. This isn’t a screenwriting class or a contest. This is something much weirder and unpredictable and less-structured. This is everyday working life in Hollywood.
In this scenario, Jojo’s not even interested in your script’s totality as a script. He's simply looking for a handful of writers who might be a good potential fit for this new blue collar female-driven project at his studio. Why? Because he's looking to get a win with his boss and build a track record and advance his own career. He's hoping to find five or six potential candidates for this project so he can meet with them himself and then eventually bring one or two of them to his boss.
So when Jojo gets to your script, it's probably at the bottom of the stack: not because he's a jerk, but because he rationally believes he's more likely to find writers who are potential fits for the project among those writers who have a track record of doing this professionally.
So, Jojo's a bit burned out, a bit tired, a bit skeptical, by the time he finally gets to your script. But he's a pro, so he'll give it at least a glance.
Your script is now in his hands. That means, you've probably got five to ten pages to persuade this tired, overworked junior exec that you might be the hidden gem in the crowd who he can bring onto the project, impress his boss, and jumpstart his career.
This is why, as an outsider, you can't just be good enough. You have to be potential rocket fuel for some junior exec or some agent or some actor or actress. You can’t just be pro quality. When an industry person picks up your script, you have to jump out from the slush pile as someone who will make them look good. Within the first ten pages, you have to start looking like someone’s potential career lottery ticket.
So, first piece of advice: consider starting your script with a showcase scene or sequence that shows off your voice and your best qualities as a writer. That doesn’t necessarily mean a big action set-piece. Maybe it means an immediately compelling dramatic scene, or a strange surreal visual sequence. But whatever it is, it should probably highlight your best qualities.
Because if you’re an outsider, you're not actually laying out a blueprint for a TV show or a movie with your breaking-in script. Not really. What you're really trying to do via your script is to get yourself invited into a bunch of Hollywood rooms and zooms and phone calls so you can introduce yourself to industry people and have interesting conversations and maybe begin having some industry relationships.
So don't start off your script with long descriptions of camera angles and locations and so on. That shit is not going to get you into these rooms. But — an undeniably great scene might.
Examples? Aaron Sorkin's first scene in The Social Network. Now, that's a bit unfair because I think Sorkin is maybe the best dialogue writer going. But let’s pretend that movie didn't already exist. If any of us put our names on a script with that scene as the opener? As soon as that script got passed around, we'd be up to our neck in meetings. Based just on that opening scene alone. As an outsider without connections or leverage, don't you want your opening scene to likewise immediately call out "hey, great writer here"?
I'm a big Tarantino guy. One of the reasons I think he does non-linear storytelling is not to just be clever or cheeky, but because it lets him start off a lot of his scripts with great showcase scenes. And I mean the very, very first scene.
The "Like a Virgin" discussion at the start of Reservoir Dogs. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny deciding to rob the diner at the start of Pulp Fiction. Hans Landa coming to the farmhouse in Inglourious Basterds. The Bride begging for her life at the start of Kill Bill. Nearly all of his scripts start off a scene that basically shouts: “get ready, we’ve got a great fucking story here.”
QT didn't start Reservoir Dogs with Mr. Orange waking up, hitting his alarm, taking a shower, then having some cereal. Instead, he drops you right into the middle of a great dialogue scene, grabs your curiosity, and fills in the blanks later.
Imagine if Tarantino was an outsider now — like he was a true outsider when he started — and his script for Django Unchained landed on Jojo's desk. Unless Jojo has terrible taste — always a distinct possibility, btw — by page ten, Jojo knows he's calling this Tarantino guy in for a meeting next week.
And most likely, during this meeting, Jojo’s not just going to talk about this Texas Monthly article to Tarantino. He’s probably also going to start talking up just about every property his studio has. Why? Because he wants to impress his boss by luring this Tarantino outsider guy to make a pitch on one of their properties. Because Jojo — by page ten of Django — realizes that he may've just found a lottery ticket.
It’s not just that Jojo digs Tarantino’s or Sorkin’s voice or characters or sensibility. It’s also that Jojo can send Django or Social Network to his boss and say: "Just read the first ten pages, and you'll see what I mean." And in turn, Jojo’s boss can send that script to Jessie Buckley or Daniela Melchior’s agent and say: “Just read the first ten pages, and you’ll see what I mean.”
For an non-established outsider, what could be a better passport around Hollywood than that? To not just have your script passed around, but to have it passed around with the added benefit of the opening pages totally selling its most special qualities. No qualifying “the script gets better as it goes” or “stick with the first thirty pages” bullshit. No, it’s “this script rules from page one.” Nothing will get a script passed around more quickly than some industry person saying that.
So why not try to start your script with your version of one of these unexpected, memorable, showcase scenes?
You can justify that move however you have to with the rest of your script. But maybe you have reservations. Maybe you've seen TV critics on twitter making fun of pilots that start with a big scene followed by a "two weeks earlier" card because it's an overused device and so on.
And to that, I say: TV critics on twitter aren't competing with hundreds of thousands of other writers in trying to grab the attention of burned out industry people in the opening five to ten pages of their scripts. You are. So do whatever it takes to grab your reader’s attention and worry about snarky critics later (or, better yet, don't worry about them at all).
Also, there’s lots of ways of starting a script with a great scene without resorting to the “two weeks earlier” conceit. Social Network does it. Most James Bond movies do it. The pilot for Justified did it. In fact, if you can start off with a great scene and not resort to that flashback device, you’ll make yourself stand out even more.
Now, is a flashy, show-off writer's showcase scene the best way to actually start off a TV show or a movie? Not always! It really depends on the TV show or movie. But remember, at this point of your career, you're not making a TV show or a movie. You’re not even close to doing that.
At this point of your career, you're trying to get into Hollywood relationships on the basis of nothing else but the strength of your writing. And very few industry people will read an outsider’s entire script. Remember that. So don't pretend to be playing a different game than the one you're actually playing at this point of your career.
Besides, what could be better for an outsider screenwriter than to have a sample script where an exec can say: "I know she doesn't have any credits, but just read the first ten pages and tell me this isn't the next great voice in horror?"
That’s why, as a non-established writer, I don't think you can settle for just laying down plot points, or introducing characters, or even telling a story in the opening five to ten pages. You need to be making a jaded, overworked industry reader like Jojo feel like he’s just hit a jackpot — not in terms of the overall story, but in terms of you as a writer he can bring to his boss and hire to write something else.
Of course, the rest of your script also needs to deliver the goods, but if your opening five to ten pages don't give your industry reader those "oh shit I'm gonna get promoted" tingles, it doesn't matter what the rest of your script accomplishes.
Why? Because after five to ten so-so pages, Jojo will already be moving on to the next script in his stack, which is one he has to read because it was written by the nephew of a powerful producer who his boss has always wanted to work with, and that script — unlike yours — only has to be good enough.