Everyone who has studied even a little bit of screenwriting has probably heard many times that you need to grab the reader within the first ten pages of your script. While that is true, it’s about the most useless piece of advice anyone could ever give you. Of course your first ten pages have to grab the reader - every page of your screenplay has to grab the reader! But it’s certainly accurate that some readers will tune out if you haven’t accomplished a number of important goals in the setup of your story, so it is important to make this part –as well as every other part– of your script stand out as much as possible.
If you’ve read my Structure Guide, you know that a big catalyst should hit your protagonist at about the 10% point of your script, or roughly page 10-11 in a standard feature-length screenplay. This means that you have until that point to establish who your protagonist is and what kinds of problems are affecting his life in order for the audience to understand the significance of the catalyst when it arrives and shakes up his life. In order to do that, here’s what you need to accomplish in the first ten pages of your screenplay:
1. Introduce the protagonist. Duh. Remember that you want a narcissistic A-list actor to love your script so much that he will threaten studio heads to force them to produce your script and to let him play the lead. This means that you really should introduce the protagonist on the first page, and do so in an exciting or at least compelling way.
2. Demonstrate the protagonist’s internal problem. Your protagonist should have one huge internal issue that is preventing him from achieving true happiness. As early as possible in your script, you should visually demonstrate how that problem is limiting his life in a significant, even crippling way. Ideally, you should show your protagonist facing a number of challenges, none of which he is able to deal with effectively because of this big problem. Don’t pull any punches here – make your protagonist’s life suck.
3. Show the safe environment that your protagonist has created for himself. Since your protagonist has such a debilitating internal problem, he will have chosen a home, job and group of friends that allow him to avoid confronting that problem. The big inciting incident that you will drop on your protagonist’s head at the 10% point will shake up this safe environment for the first time, so the audience will need to have a clear understanding of what that environment is in order to make the catalyst have the greatest effect possible.
4. Introduce the main characters. It’s not absolutely required to introduce every single major character in your script within the first ten pages, but you should have a really good reason if you don’t. Note that I said “reason,” and not “excuse.” The audience will need to know what roles your supporting characters will be playing and what their lives are like at the beginning of the script too because you will need to demonstrate their character arcs by the end as well.
5. State your screenplay’s theme. This is a different kind of element from the ones listed above, but it’s a good idea for one of your characters to state out loud what universal question you’ll be investigating throughout the course of your script. If possible, the person making this statement should be the protagonist. For example, in “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry states right away that men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way. The rest of the story investigates this theory from multiple viewpoints, coming to a satisfying resolution in the end. Your script does need to explore some universal question and it’s good to let the audience know what that is early, usually around page 2-5.
Blake Snyder described the first ten pages as the protagonist’s “before” picture, which is a great way to think about it. A diet ad wouldn’t be very effective if they only showed “after” pictures. You have to show both the “before” and the “after” pictures in order for the audience to appreciate how much the person has accomplished. If you use your first ten pages to create a vivid “before” picture, everyone who reads your script will see that you know how to start a story and will want to read all the way until you unveil the “after” picture.
BTW, if you were playing a drinking game while reading this post that used the words “protagonist,” “internal problem,” “before” or “after” as the cue to take a shot, then you’re probably completely wasted by now and will need to read it again later, without any alcoholic consumption requirements. Or maybe with more, depending on whether or not that's your own particular internal problem. Made you drink again.