It’s the opening moment of the film, the scene that grabs the audience by the scruff of their neck and drags them through the rest of the story. Every great script has an amazing first page. Here are seven ways to write a killer first page.
1. Open With A Bang!
You have to catch the readers attention from the first word. You don’t want to open with your protagonist droning on about the difference between pop-tarts and toaster strudel. That is, unless you can make it the most interesting comparison in the history of cinema.
Now, some genres it is hard to start with a literal bang. Action, thriller or horrors lend themselves to this. That shouldn’t stop you from trying if you are writing a romantic comedy. Maybe the break-up happens on page one. Ultimately, start with a bang just means don’t bore the reader on the first page.
2. Avoid Unfilmables.
Unfilmables are the sights, smells and feelings of a scene that cannot be shown visually. An unfilmable is a good way to break the trust with your reader by not allowing them to view the scene in their minds eye.
Writing that the room smelled like mildew and rotting flesh is tough to visualize. Molding food with flies buzzing around and maggots growing inside is a much more visual way of describing that scene.
Stay as visual as possible. The only time I will allow an unfilmable in one of my scripts is during character introductions. Hey, that’s a good segue to —
3. Character Introductions.
Your characters are the most important people in your script. Recently there has been a backlash about the introduction of female characters in scripts describing them as “pretty but doesn’t know it” or “beautiful without make up.” Avoid these at all costs, even for male characters. It is so easy to mess up a character introduction but if you focus on a few key elements you’ll find success. I have to give credit to Craig Mazin for saying this on an episode of the Scriptnotes podcast. When introducing a character focus on their hair, make up and costume. Why? Because that is what the audience will be seeing for ninety minutes. Hair. Make up. Costumes. Productions will spend days and sometimes weeks on those three items. I will allow myself one sentence of unfilmables in a character introduction if it helps the actor get in the headspace.
4. Nobody just walks into a room.
Adverbs sometimes get a bad rap in writing but I have to agree with one fact about them. Adverbs make you lazy. Quick grammar lesson. A verb is an action word, like run or jump. An adverb is something that modifies the verb, like slowly or gently. This is why some screenwriters are so against the -ly suffixed words. However, it’s not the -ly. It’s the laziness of the adverb. Great writing uses as much of the English language as possible and overuse of an adverb shows that the writer has a small vocabulary and imagination.
No one walks into a room. They saunter, rush, limp, step, jog or dash into the room. Did Kramer just walk into a room? No. Neither should your characters.
I’m going to spend a little more of my precious word count on this item because it’s important. Don’t be lazy when writing. The laziest word in the English language is the word very. Very does nothing but increase another word. No one is “very tired” they are exhausted. No one is “very angry” they are irate. Don’t get coy and use super either. I’m watching you.
Credit where it’s due, I learned that from the amazing film Dead Poet’s Society. If you haven’t seen it, you must go watch Robin William’s in one of his best performances.
5. Write in Present Tense.
Everything in a screenplay happens at this exact moment in time. With a screenplay, you are writing what the film experience is going to feel like. When you are watching a film nothing happens in the past tense and nothing happens in the future tense, that would be weird. If you are coming from a novelist background, you’ll find it hard to make the change. This is why screenwriters often make bad novelists, because they are so used to writing in present tense.
A few things to look for when writing in present tense.
A few examples: is, beginning, starts, etc.
No one in a script “is beginning” they are just do the thing they were doing. “John bakes cookies,” in a script instead of “John starts baking cookies.”
Sometimes, a writer needs to write “He starts to run,” to convey that he wasn’t running but now he is. This is one “rule” that you can break if the time is right but remember to use it sparingly.
6. Cut Out The Shoe Leather
There is actually a term for this: in medias res. Loosely translated means, to start in the middle of things. The shoe leather of a scene is your characters walking into the room or walking out, using the leather of their shoes. Pretty catchy, right? You want to cut out all this pre and post scene work. Start the scene with the two characters in the midst of their heated argument. Tarantino started Reservoir Dogs in the middle of a breakfast then jumps to Mr. Orange bleeding out in the back of a car, in medias res. There is an old adage, attributed to William Goldman, that you want to start late and end early. Remember, SLEE.
7. Know Your Genre, Write For It.
Genre isn’t just sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Your genre is the type of story that you are telling. Will an audience laugh or cry? Will they scream or hold their breath?
Genre isn’t just for the tone either, it’s also in your word choices. This is something that leans itself towards your voice as a writer. In a horror film you’ll want to include gorey words like blood, organs or screams. You won’t find that in the first page of a romantic-comedy. Likewise, you won’t find the light descriptions of comedy in a thriller.
Two examples describing the same scene:
The BLOOD RED sunlight fell over the haunted hillside of the Malibu Resort. Brown weeds sprouted from the ground like skeleton fingers.
The sunlight drifted onto the grassy valley. Clouds sprinkled across the bright blue sky high above the Malibu Resort. Laughter and cheers echoed through the lobby.
Know your genre and what your audience expect to see, hear and feel. Write for that.
This article was originally published on Page to Pixels, check it out there for an additional three tips! Remember, there is no rule in writing. Write your style and if it works for you, great. Now go out and write that amazing screenplay. Stay awesome.