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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Most Frightening Question for a Screenwriter: So How Does It Begin?

Getting started is the hardest part. Writers like Stephen King often talk about “The Fear of the Blank Page.” It’s intimidating to start with a completely blank screen or piece of paper. There’s that excellent scene at the beginning of Throw Mama From the Train where Billy Crystal sits for hours trying to come up with the first sentence of his new book. Happens to me all the time.

Most writers usually start a project with no clear idea of how they will start it. What attracted them to the idea in the first place was the drama and conflict slated for the middle and end sections. They have the dramatic confrontations, desperate escapes, the thrilling duels all clearly envisioned. But how does one turn that the first blank page into the doorway to those fantastic moments?

Not to add pressure but I participated in a recent Facebook discussion with Larry N. Stouffer with some other readers about how important the first page is. We all agreed that the first page or first ten pages was vital to the writer. Many readers will just read the first ten pages, ten pages in the middle, and ten pages at the end to decide whether or not to pass on a script. Some readers never get past the first ten.

So how does a writer conquer those difficult to write but oh so important first pages? After reading so many scripts, I’ve seen a number of ways to open a script. Some have worked better than others.

(Note: A really killer logline can buy a writer a grace period. If the concept really excites an executive he may overlook a dull opening.)

Exposition: Probably the worst way to open a script yet I see it all the time, especially in fantasy stories. Mountains of imagined history are recapped by solemn narrators and re-enacted by characters who don’t appear in the main story. Yes Lord of the Rings pulled it off but so many others have failed trying to duplicate that sequence. Just once I’d like to see a fantasy spec begin with a typical day in Cymeria and leave the back story for us to discover later on. There are some instances, like a historical drama for example, that we do need a point of reference. The writer should always treat these the way they would remove a band-aid; quick, short and fast.

Furious Action: Some writers attack the beginning by throwing us right into the heart of an action scene. This opening takes its cue from the classic James Bond films. The writer sets out to thrill the audience from the beginning. Elaborate scenes featuring Wire Fu, Gun Fu, Car crashes or whatever is hot at the moment fill the page. Sounds like a can’t miss strategy? Actually it backfires more often than not. The problem is these scenes are description heavy. Seeing it on the screen and reading it on the page are often two different animals. It takes real skill to keep a reader interested through so much physical action. Some writers even turn it into 5 straight pages of unbroken descriptions. Instead of thrilling the audience, the writer has bored the reader to tears. Secondly this is the first time we’re meeting the main characters. The reader hasn’t established a rapport with them yet so placing them in jeopardy right away isn’t as exciting. Worst of all, these scenes almost never have any impact on the story that follows. They are often a Bond-like teaser, exciting maybe but utterly disposable in terms of the story. So yes, a writer can create an opening as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he runs the risk of boring the reader with a scene that’s not even that important.

Flashforward: A common trick is to flashforward to a scene near the climax of the film where the hero is desperate and on the brink of losing everything. Then the story starts and we wonder how the hero got from his quiet dull life to having a gun shoved up against his face. At least that’s the idea. The truth is this technique has been used so many times that experienced readers tend to ignore it. It really doesn’t take any great skill to write a scene where a man is begging for his life and then cut to a scene “24 hours ago” of him sitting in his cubicle looking bored with life. Yes it’s a contrast, but we’ve seen it already. And writers sometimes mistake jeopardy for sympathy. A jerk with a gun to his temple is still a jerk.

Someplace New: What does get my attention is when I’m taken someplace I haven’t been before. A unique setting can be a great way to open a story. But if a writer is going to open with an exotic location, he has to demonstrate real knowledge. If the writer is getting his info from a travel guide it’s going to show. The writer needs to do some real research (or have actually lived there) to make the setting truly come alive. At the same time he has to keep the story flowing naturally. He shouldn’t be giving the grand tour right away, this isn’t Nat Geo. The writer should strike a nice balance between information and storytelling.

Get the Story Started: I always appreciate it when the writer gets the story in motion right away. It doesn’t have to be a big fight, but if the main conflict is sketched out or hinted at, I’m a happy reader. A thief watches as a well armed security detail gets into an armored limousine, I start to wonder how he’s going to get the loot. An Indian student walks into an all white classroom, even if everyone is polite and civil I know there’s a culture clash coming. Mystery, Thriller, Comedy and Rom Com writers have huge advantages in this area. Thriller writers begin with a puzzle to be solved. How was this man stabbed to death without using a knife? How did this woman drown in the middle of the desert? The writer knows to start at the crime scene with the examiner telling the detectives the news. Comedy writers start with a comedic situation either everyday or extraordinary; the boss is making us work late or the boss is an evil werewolf. The writer knows to start at work with the boss telling the hero he’s working late tonight. Rom Com writers start with opposites who are in love but don’t know it yet. The writer knows to start with his two soon to be lovers enjoying their seemingly incompatible lifestyles. Sometimes a writer just needs to go back to his logline, find the main conflict and open with that. There are far worse ways to begin.

Character: For me the best way for a writer to begin is with the main character. This has so many advantages. It usually means lots of dialogue in the beginning. Good dialogue moves quick. Those first ten pages go by fast if they feature a lot of dialogue. It also tells the reader two very important things about the writer. A) Can he write good dialogue and B) Can he create interesting characters I want to follow. Next to the logline these two might be the most important traits for a writer to master. Look at the screenwriters who garner the most acclaim. Nearly all of them write great dialogue and create unforgettable characters. If a writer creates an interesting character in those first few pages, I’m eager to find out what happens to him even if I’m on my 30th script of the day. That is exactly what a writer wants out of his first ten pages.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Really helpful Michael! I'm rewriting right now and having been trying to figure out how to make my stories open interestingly. I confess to having already tried the Flashforward. In one story, was about to move to Furious Action. But what you say about Character totally makes sense. Thanks again for the tip. Really helpful! : )

  3. Thanks for commenting Mina. Best of luck with the script.

    Character is a great way to go. When I'm reading often I'll be asking "Who is this story about and why should I care about him?" If you answer that in the first few pages you're really on your way!

  4. A common trick is to open with a harrowing scene from somewhere in the second act, then flashback to the start of the story. That structure doesn't make it to the screen... it's just something I've seen in a lot of specs that come out of the agencies.


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