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  • You Had Me at Hello: How to Make Your First Page Shine

    November 30th, 2009

    You’ve all heard the horror stories of producers who only read the first page and if they’re not hooked, intrigued or impressed, they toss the script. And it’s been drilled into you how important the first page is and how you better have something big and shiny there to keep people’s attentions and make sure they read page two. And while I’ve never ONLY read one page of a script before passing, I can usually tell if it’s going to be a worthwhile script just by reading this single piece of paper, representative of weeks, months or years of hard work. Fair? No. True? Yes. An A-list writer once said ‘It usually takes one page to figure out if the writing is good, but one line to know if it’s bad.’


    Much like your title and your logline, your first page needs to tell a reader certain things. It should set up and tell us the tone of the script. Is it dark and creepy, is it happy and funny, is there a sense of suspense, uneasiness, anxiety, death, happiness, love, etc. Your first page should make us feel an emotion – whatever the correct emotion is for your story. It should tell us the setting and time period so we know where we are. Unless otherwise stated, execs will assume your script takes place in the present. If it doesn’t, you should state this on page one so we know that your writing is genuine to the time period.


    If you are writing a horror, there should be a feeling that death is looming (think the first scene of “Scream”). If you’re writing a comedy, something should be done or said or seen that makes me laugh. And if you’re writing an action movie, you should start with a bang or at least make it clear that a bang is coming right around the corner.


    It should introduce us to either your protagonist/hero or your antagonist/villain. Sometimes it’s creepy to start by focusing on the bad guy or his crime or something like that. With a horror movie, much like with TV shows, the first scene is often a teaser setting up a killing that may not include your main characters at all, but sets up the story and the tone and that your main characters will soon be put into a similar gruesome situation. Your description of your main character should be a bit more extensive and really make us feel like we know him or her, though it should not tell us anything that we can’t physically see on screen. Don’t give us back story in your description on page one unless we are seeing it on screen – that’s an amateur mistake. 


    Obviously there should not be any typos or grammatical or formatting mistakes. If your first page has a couple typos, I will not read page two. Life’s too short. You should start your first page with FADE IN: and that should be the last time you type those words. Then comes your scene heading and then…you’re off.


    And finally, your first page should grab me and show me that you have a voice as a writer that is going to make this script an enjoyable read. It should tell me in subtle and interesting ways that you are unique. And most importantly, it should make me want to read more.


    You can use a fair amount of description on page one – more than usual – as you are setting up a fair amount of information. I know I’ve said that executives love white space and more dialogue on the page, but the first page is the exception page. It’s fine to open with some dialogue (usually done more in comedies then other genres), but it’s okay to switch up the ratio on page one also.


    I wanted to share with you a few often-made first page mistakes. First, if the whole first page is just a narrator’s voice over speech with no description or action or anything happening on screen, this tells me there’s nothing happening. Even if you’re using a voice over as the first dialogue in your script, you have to set the scene first and tell us what we’re seeing. If I am totally confused and have no idea where the script is taking place, this will cause a “huh?” moment, and you don’t want one of these on page one. If the dialogue is cliché or feels slight or stale or repetitive, that’s going to be an instant turn off. If there’s dialogue on page one, it needs to pop and put us into the mindset and voice of the character.


    Basically you need to paint a picture on page one and make it clear that your story is visual and your writing is interesting. Can you do all these things on page one? Well, it’s not easy. But the more of these things you can do, the better the chance that people get to page two…ten… and 110.

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