Staton Rabin is an optioned screenwriter/novelist, and a freelance story analyst who has worked for Warner Bros. Pictures, the William Morris Agency, the Big Break Screenwriting Contest-- and screenwriters like you (www.StatonRabin.com and www.ScreenplayMuse.com). Staton evaluates scripts and loglines/pitches; coaches writers; and enjoys spotting talent in any film genre. She's available for consultations, and can be reached at Staton@StatonRabin.com.
These days, most aspiring screenwriters hear constant dire warnings about the importance of “grabbing” readers in the first ten pages of their script. But few of these warnings offer any advice on what that actually means. As someone who evaluates hundreds of scripts every year for screenwriters and a major screenwriting contest, I see how that “grab your readers quickly” advice is getting misinterpreted. I’m here to fix that.
First, the bad news: you really do have to grab your readers immediately-- and, actually, it’s in less than a page. By that I mean that most professional script readers will know whether you are a competent screenwriter-- and whether your script has at least the potential to be great-- that quickly.
There is nothing unfair or unreasonable about this. The ability to recognize talent quickly comes with experience - lots of experience - evaluating scripts. There really is a huge difference between a bad script and a good one-- or a good one, and a great one. And professional readers can spot this immediately. Like doctors who can spot the signs of a stroke or a possible burst appendix in a matter of seconds or minutes, experienced script readers know a bad script when they see one, and what the problem is, very quickly. And spotting a great script - or at least one that is potentially great (they will keep reading to find out) - is also not difficult.
Now, the good news: While some people in the film business stop reading a script within ten pages - or the moment they lose interest, whichever comes first - this is rarely true for most people hired to read scripts, especially for movie studios. I’ve been a script reader for decades - having read at various times on a regular basis for film studios, a major film agency, screenwriting competitions, and many screenwriters and directors. At no time was reading only the first ten pages of a script an option, even if I already knew before the eleventh page (as I almost certainly did) whether it was a “pass” or a possible “recommend”.
Most of the time, story analysts (a fancy name for “freelance script readers”) have to synopsize a screenplay, teleplay, or book and/or do at least some kind of analysis of it, the depth of which varies depending on the situation. That’s not possible if one hasn’t read- or at least carefully skimmed - the entire script. Even when reading for contests, many don’t permit their readers to simply discard a script after reading only ten pages or less - and most require readers to write at least a brief synopsis and do some sort of ratings or evaluation. And certainly, when I do a script analysis for a screenwriter, I have to read every word of their script carefully, in order to do a proper evaluation and critique and help the writer with suggestions for strengthening it.
That said, all this should give you no comfort. Your job is to write a great script from the very first sentence, on and just because a reader usually isn’t permitted to “pass” on a script without reading at least a substantial portion of it, doesn’t mean they don’t already know very quickly what they think of it (or at least start to form an opinion). And if it’s a really bad script, they will know this well before the end of page one.
Still, it’s not “pleasing the reader” you should be worried about. Your goal should be to write a great script from the start, simply because striving for excellence is your job description. Whether it pleases the reader or not is not really the point and not something you can entirely control. Still, being excellent on every page of your work - starting with sentence one, page one - is necessary if you take pride in your work and hope to get your spec script optioned, win a major screenwriting competition, or impress a manager.
So, how can you grab script readers (or, ultimately, film audiences) right away with scene one, page one?
Let’s start with what NOT to do.
Trying to get your reader’s attention through a scene of rape, dismemberment, a bloody car crash, graphic child abuse, or racially-motivated violence in the very first scene of your screenplay is not at all what is meant by “grabbing” your readers. This kind of non-contextualized writing is neither exciting nor suspenseful. Most of the time, it looks like a desperate bid for attention and just marks you as an amateur.
In fact, starting your script this way doesn’t hold readers or film audiences’ attention-- at least not beyond a few seconds of rubbernecking-- since it has totally the opposite effect. It will turn off most readers-- in part because they read first scenes like this in aspiring screenwriters’ scripts every day of the week, and in part because action of this kind has no context in the story or characters, so it serves no dramatic function and fails to elicit the kind of emotion that engages them and creates curiosity to read more.
A graphic murder, rape, child abuse, fiery death in a car crash, brutal beating of a person of color, or the like, as the first scene of your movie typically won’t generate empathy for your characters either, which is sometimes its intended purpose. Script readers - and even movie audiences - recognize first scenes like this for what they are: cheap sensationalism and a desperate attempt to be “shocking” that emotionally exploits the audience and victims, in ways that don’t serve the story. Readers and audiences won’t fall for the emotional manipulation and will resent the attempt to do it.
Why do so many aspiring screenwriters misinterpret what it means to write an “exciting” first scene or first ten pages?
To some extent, it’s a lack of experience. Perhaps the writer doesn’t have the skills yet to get readers’ attention any other way. Or maybe they do but don’t have faith in their own writing abilities, and mistakenly think that having blood and guts, racially motivated violence, or raping women or children, is a great way to get readers’ attention in their first scene. Maybe it’s a misguided attempt to show they are empathetic or “woke” by having women, children, or people of color raped or beaten to a pulp on page one, when in fact, most of the time, this shows the opposite because it treats them like objects or victims instead of as human beings with their own individual personality traits, needs, and backstories. I read far too many stories about enslaved Black women who are presented in the very first scene as nothing more than props to be victims of rape by white “masters”. And even when these women escape or fight back, by failing to present these women as specific people with individual characteristics whom we get to know before they are victimized, this only serves to reinforce the racist belief that entire groups of people are all the same, defined only by one thing about them.
To be clear: the problem with scenes like these is mostly where they occur in these scripts on page one rather than their existence in the script. Although, frankly, when graphic scenes of rape, abuse of women, children, POC, or homophobic violence, or scenes of dismemberment, occur in many of the scripts I read, I rarely get the impression they are serving any useful purpose for the script, or for society as a whole. I have, however, seen many truly great movies that are graphically violent (old classics such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Seven Samurai” are two that come immediately to mind), and have no problem with violence in movies, which, if used correctly, can make better humans of us all. Screenwriters should be aware that to make your point and make your audience care, you want your audience to tune in rather than to tune out, and (with the possible exception of Tarantino’s films, and a few others) the more graphic the violence, the more likely it is that you will “lose” a certain percentage of your audience.
So, what is the real secret of holding readers’ and film audiences’ attention in the opening scene(s) of your script, in the first ten pages, and on every page thereafter?
Write well. It’s that simple, and that difficult.
It’s excellent screenwriting craft that is the secret to a successful first ten pages and beyond. The first things readers will spot in your script are evocative, succinct, and filmic action lines, a distinctive voice, your ability to generate suspense and curiosity about what will happen next, creating true empathy for your main character and a rooting interest in him or her, and originality in all respects. They will be impressed by the specificity of the unfamiliar “world” you are creating and pulling us into (you’ve probably done your research, or lived it), originality, and your emotional honesty that comes through your characters and themes. These are the kinds of things that get and hold readers’ attention and makes them feel something-- not trying some cheap ploy to get attention by torturing women or children or splattering blood over the first scene. Sure, that may work for an instant or two, but it’s not going to hold your readers and keep them turning the pages till the end.
Clarity is vital. Never leave your readers in the dark about what is going on in your opening scenes-- or anywhere else. Crackling dialogue that combines clarity with subtext can help. If the dialogue sounds just like you, and all the characters speak the same way, chances are you are on the wrong track. If your dialogue sounds like “banter” or the typical snarky/quirky stuff you see in other movies or TV shows, dig deeper and write something real instead. And if it’s small talk, like simple greetings or ordering food at a restaurant, and doesn’t advance the plot, get rid of it.
Avoid the mundane at all costs. No more scenes of your hero or heroine getting up in the morning, hungover, getting ready to go to that job they hate (when what they really want to do is be a screenwriter!). Apparently, everybody in America hates their job - except me.
Readers also need to know exactly what is going on and where your story is going very quickly. No secrets from your reader and film audience! Rather than holding things back and being opaque or mysterious, as many writers do, your job is to provide clear information-- including who the main character is—and get this out as fast as you possibly can.
Introducing a ton of characters all at once, or having them discuss people or events we know absolutely nothing about, is one of the quickest ways I know to turn off readers.
To a great extent, it isn’t “mystery” - opaque or cryptic dialogue and confusion - that makes readers (and film audiences) curious about your story and the fate of your characters, and generates suspense. Rather, it is knowledge of what’s going on and emotional engagement that keeps people turning the pages of your script or watching your movie. You want your audience to be thinking, “I can’t wait to see what happens to this character next!”, not “What the hell is going on here?”
The only mystery in your story should be the outcome, whether your hero succeeds or fails in his mission, not what is going on in your movie.
Why do so many aspiring screenwriters begin their script with some horrific and completely meaningless, non-contextualized act of violence, such as a car crash, rape, child abuse, arson, etc.?
For one thing, they’ve probably misinterpreted the advice of so many experts who say you have to grab the reader’s attention within “the first ten pages”-- or who warn you that people in Hollywood won’t read any further than that if they’re bored-- but came up with the wrong solution.
Also, in part, these kinds of let’s shock-your-pants-off opening scenes are becoming more common due to the influence and increasing popularity of limited-series television. In series TV, there’s a veritable nuclear arms race going on in teasers or cold opens, to see who can come up with the most outrageous opening scene to keep TV viewers coming back after the first commercial, and then binge-watching the series. But while you should always keep your reader or audience absolutely riveted-- regardless of whether you’re writing for TV or film— generating an immediate, burning sense of curiosity in your audience for your feature film doesn’t necessarily require literally setting fire to something.
It is actually writing craft and emotional engagement with your main character that gets readers’ attention quickly and holds it.
The reader wants to get a sense immediately of who the main character is, where this story is headed, and that we are in good hands. This is the same thing film audiences want to know.
Are there movies that begin with violence in the opening scenes that truly grab and hold your attention? Sure, there are many, especially in older classics. Many murder mysteries, of course, start this way. So does Casablanca, when some Nazi couriers carrying the “letters of transit” are murdered in the film’s opening seconds, quickly establishing that they are so valuable here that some people would be willing to kill to get them, which is crucial to establish right away.
And there’s one of the most famous-- and still very effective— violent opening scenes in the history of movies in The Letter (1940; directed by William Wyler, script by Howard Koch, based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham), which occurs at the 2-minute-fifteen-second mark after some establishing shots that do a great job of setting up the story location and mood. It happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time - although, fair warning, its racial attitudes are totally unacceptable today.
After establishing visually and magnificently, with great melodramatic music by Max Steiner, and brilliant cinematography by Tony Gaudio, that we are in the exotic location of a rubber plantation in Singapore where the workers are Asian, we hear a gunshot and witness the character played by Bette Davis (Leslie; the privileged white plantation owner’s wife) walking down a few stairs and calmly, coldly, methodically, firing a pistol at a white man, killing him. She fires again and again after he’s already mortally wounded— which suggests this is personal.
Why does this scene work so well, even though we have absolutely no context for this murder, know nothing about her, and have no idea whom she killed, or why?
First, it works because we sense immediately that this act of violence is what the entire story will be about - was this a cold-blooded murder, or an act of self-defense? And why?
It also immediately generates suspense, because she’s committed a homicide, and there will be obvious consequences for that, unless by some miracle she can find some way to avoid them. There were lots of people around when this shooting happened - lots of witnesses - and there’s no doubt about who fired that gun. We know the body is going to be found, and that many workers on the plantation heard and/or saw the incident. Law enforcement is going to be interested in her. She is not running, and presumably will be caught. And soon.
Second, she’s female, not the most likely person, especially in those days, to be experienced in shooting a gun, let alone committing a homicide.
Also, her demeanor is fascinating. She is clearly disturbingly cold, calm, and certain about what she is doing. We are, of course, burning with curiosity about what led up to this astonishing moment - what could possibly motivate a woman of privilege to do something like this, and was it justified? How will she get away with this horrific crime when there are so many witnesses?
We also wonder when, how, or even if her ruthless, impassive, demeanor will crack under pressure (as a side note: there’s a wonderful scene shortly after this in which Davis’s character locks herself in a room and weeps, but the camera remains on another character the entire time, which is a brilliant choice, presumably by the director, Wyler, and perhaps by the screenwriter as well. The weeping generates some sympathy for her, all the more interesting because she didn’t seem to be someone capable of human feeling. But for whom is she weeping—for the man she killed, or for herself? And why? It will take the whole movie to fully answer that question).
Just as important, in the opening scene and throughout the story it’s clearly the shooter, not the victim, that the writer and director have chosen to focus on. They don’t want us to have too much sympathy for the victim. Director Wyler has so little interest in focusing on the victim in these famous opening scenes, that we never get a clear look at the man’s face, and only briefly does Wyler show us his dead body (face down). In fact, other than at the moment he is shot, we never see him (“Geoffrey Hammond”) alive - not even in flashback. This serves several purposes. For one, it creates even more curiosity in the film audience. But it also prevents us from feeling so sympathetic to the victim that we no longer identify with his killer. And identifying with the killer - the star of the movie, played by Bette Davis—(which doesn’t necessarily mean we like her) is crucial to making this story work so well.
And what’s another reason the opening scene works? Well, it’s Bette Davis. And, let’s face it, anything she does is riveting. Due to the kinds of roles she played before this one in “The Letter”, audiences knew that she can be the villain, the heroine, or any combination of the two. So, her presence in the starring role in “The Letter” doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to feel toward her, nor does it give away the ending. Neither will I. See the movie.
What does all this mean for you as a writer?
To grab a film audience’s attention on page one of your script (you can’t afford to wait for page ten), the best way to do this is excellent screenwriting craft. If you plan to do it by starting your film with a shocking act of violence as The Letter did, carefully consider whether that’s really the best approach before jumping in. And make sure that the shocking event really is shocking, and that it is truly integral to what your story is going to be about and truly generates suspense and burning questions, and wasn’t merely a one-and-done desperate attempt to get short-lived attention.
Ask yourself some questions:
Does this first scene you’re writing really generate emotional engagement with my story and main character and will prove to be an integral part of it, or is it just cheap sensationalism-- or a misguided attempt to gain sympathy for the hero?
Are we really going to care about the victim you just killed off or their surviving relative, or a victim of a beating or sexual assault, if we don’t really know any of them or the context?
Do we already get a sense of who this character is as a unique individual in ways that provoke a lasting sense of curiosity, suspense, and a burning need to know more? Consider all the different ways that opening scene in The Letter is different from other opening scenes that start with an act of violence - or the scene you are planning to write. Perpetrators can be so much more interesting than victims, especially if they are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and we can tell a lot about the context and character - as well as the potential consequences - even from just the one scene. For the most part, hired killers are far less interesting than ordinary people who find themselves needing or wanting to kill.
Is my opening scene something that Hollywood readers haven’t seen before that is really going to inspire them to read the rest of my script to find out what happens? Or is it merely noisy, bloody, or confusing?
Does the scene needlessly exploit women, children, LGBTQ folks, or people of color by treating them as mere generic “props” in your movie by making them helpless victims of violence in a badly calculated attempt to create “excitement” - especially if it’s your opening scene?
It’s important to remember that when generic characters we’ve barely met become helpless victims of racially or sexually motivated violence - or children are the victims of abusers - in a movie’s opening scene, readers and audiences instinctively resent this and feel repelled by it. If you are using their victimization as a quick way to keep eyeballs on your script or movie, that’s not good writing, creating empathy for your characters, or striking a blow for women, children, LGBTQ folks, or people of color. That’s exploitation and cheap sensationalism - plus, it won’t work. Readers/audiences will take out their resentment on your script or movie, by tuning out.
One other thing. If you’re going to start your movie off with a “bang”, you’d better make sure it’s someone as interesting as Bette Davis firing the gun.