Script Secrets: Hit The Ground Running!

Every moment counts in a screenplay. We can’t waste pages slowly setting up the characters and world of our stories before the plot kicks in. We need to hit the ground running! Illustrate the world as the story unfolds. William Martell looks at the first ten pages of “The Dawn Of The Dead” remake as an example.
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“Well, for the first twenty-five pages, I show the hero in their ordinary world, doing ordinary things like waking up and going to work as a precision drill press operator and doing their laundry on Saturday morning and... well, at that twenty-five page mark they enter the special world and have an adventure!”

Though nobody has ever explained their screenplay like that to me, I have read many similar screenplays and wondered if the writer had ever actually seen a movie. There usually aren’t many scenes were people do their laundry, unless they are trying desperately to get the blood out of the clothes that they wore when they killed someone. As Hitchcock said, "Drama is life with the dull parts cut out." So we want to start our screenplays when things get exciting, and then keep them exciting. We don’t want to begin our screenplays before the story has begun, we want to hit the ground running. That “ordinary world” first act is something that may have been normal in the 1970s (all of those early screenwriting books were written in the early to mid 1980s) but this is 2020! We don’t have the time for that!

In fact, in the 1964 version of “The Killers” where Lee Marvin’s catchphrase is “I don’t have the time,” the film has a pair of assassins beating a middle-aged, blind woman for information only 83 seconds into the film and then they kill their victim 4 minutes and 27 seconds into the film. They don’t have the time to wait for all of that ordinary world and special world stuff. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the 1946 version also begins with the assassination. The early 1970s and late 1960s were a strange time in filmmaking where mainstream films more closely resembled what we think of as Indie films. But times changed, and the films made both before that period and after that period just didn’t have the time. Every single second of film is precious - something interesting better be happening!

THE MILLION DOLLAR PAGE

As writers, we can write a whole stack of pages where not much happens, I know that I can! Maybe your first drafts are filled of pages like that... but eventually it will be time to see every page as valuable. You need to trim the fat. Every page needs to be moving the story forward and giving us new information in the most interesting and entertaining way possible. If someone is doing their laundry trying to get out those problem blood stains, you need to make that the most suspense-filled scene possible! In a public Laundromat. With other people coming close to discovering the blood stains. Maybe the only washers available are the front loader with the glass windows where everyone can see how red the water gets? You need to find the details that make the “dull scenes” exciting. The main reason why is that you don’t want to bore your reader... and eventually your audience. The secondary reasons are that you only have so many pages to tell your story, so you don’t want to waste one on a “dull scene,” and that every page costs money when they get to production.

[Script Extra: The Importance of Clear Objectives]

A few years ago, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was still sharing their information, the average motion picture cost $107 million by the time it hit your local cinema screen. That’s the average, not a blockbuster - blockbusters tend to cost in the $200M-$300M range these days. Since the sweet spot on a screenplay is 110 pages or fewer, that comes out to about a million dollars a page, right? That’s what I think about when I am rewriting my screenplay - is this page worth a million bucks? How can I make it worth more than a million bucks, so that the studio will make a profit?

But those first pages are probably worth even more than a million bucks. Because in our Netflix world where someone can just watch something else if the movie doesn’t hook them right away, those first ten pages are the difference between a movie that is seen and a movie that is abandoned. Amazon Prime has begun paying for movies they same way they pay for books - they pay by the page (movies by the minute). If someone stops watching a movie after six minutes, they pay the filmmaker that fraction of the rental fee. So you want your story to hit the ground running.

Since I mentioned Hitchcock earlier - in his “North By Northwest” (1959) Roger Thornhill’s ordinary world gets 3 minutes of screen time before he is kidnapped by a pair of men at gunpoint and is thrust into a very un-ordinary world where everyone is trying to kill him. In his “The 39 Steps” (1935) handsome bachelor Richard Hannay is watching a music hall performance when gunshots are fired... and on his way out, an attractive woman that he doesn’t know asks if she can go home with him. The next morning she is murdered and people are trying to kill him... and we are very far away from the ordinary world.

Hey, what about dramas like “12 Angry Men”? How long before they get into the jury room where the conflict kicks in?

Though none of those old movies cost a million dollars a page, they were written as if every minute mattered. No slow spots, no padding.

Even when writing a novel or short story, you don’t want to waste time. First sentences in fiction are critical - and my favorite is from a novel by Donald Westlake who wrote great first sentences! One of his Parker novels (the character was played by Lee Marvin in the film “Point Blank”) begins with: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a man.” Don’t you want to keep reading? I know I did!

YOUR FIRST TEN PAGES

A few years ago I was heading to London for the Raindance Film Festival and had both a class on writing Horror and a class on your first ten pages, so I grabbed the 2004 remake of “Dawn Of The Dead” from my video shelf as a great example for both classes. That film hits the ground running, gets us into the exciting world of the story quickly, and makes every single second count. No matter what genre you are writing, the first ten pages are still going to be critical - they will need to hook the reader and then the viewer. The opening of the romantic comedy “Serendipity” (2001) begins with the image of the last pair of gloves on the rack and two different people grabbing them, and then we see our star-crossed couple John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale... and the story has begun. The genre doesn’t matter, you need to start strong and then keep going!

“Dawn Of The Dead” (screenplay by James Gunn, the version I read had revisions by Michael Tolkien) starts with the image of a human skull! It’s an X-ray shown to a doctor by emergency room nurse Anna (Sarah Polley) of a patient who was in a violent bar fight. Though you may think that the opening image is something from “Save The Cat,” it’s one of those things that has been part of cinema forever. Old school. “The Big Heat” (co-starring Lee Marvin) opens with a gun on a law book... then the gun is picked up by someone off-screen who blows their brains out. So, think about your opening image - how does it prepare the audience for the story to come?

[Script Extra: Writing Action Movies—How Much Juice is Enough?]

Anna leaves the hospital after work, passing an ambulance with a pair of human legs sticking out of the back. She moves closer to investigate... and the legs begin moving! Just a paramedic taking a nap, then they get a call, “Let’s go! They’re starting early!”

The story does a great job of teasing the audience - we know that it’s a horror story, but we are still in that “ordinary world” and it’s a bright sun-shiny day. As she is driving home, she turns on the car radio and it’s a news report... so she changes the station to music. If she had only listened to the news report!

Suburbia. In only a few seconds of screen time we see all of the houses with beautifully kept lawns and kids playing in the streets - the perfect world. When Anna parks her car, a cute little girl on roller skates, Vivian (Hannah Lochner), zooms up and talks with her. Anna promises to skate with her tomorrow before work.

In the house, she greets her husband Luis (Louis Ferreira) who is watching TV in bed. She tells him that she has changed shifts with another nurse so that they can have a three-day weekend together at the end of the month. I loved this bit because in a couple of lines we understand their relationship with each working different shifts and trying to find time together. Been there... so have many people in the audience. Anna says tomorrow she’s skating with Vivian - whose mom is divorced and maybe an alcoholic. They have sort of taken Vivian under their wing. Neighborhood gossip hiding exposition about the relationships.

When Anna goes to take a shower, Luis decides to join her. So there is still a lot of heat in this marriage. Giving us information through actions is always better than verbal exposition and the story so far has done a great job of this.

While they are in the shower, there’s a news bulletin on TV about...

Out of the shower, they turn off the TV and make love...

Fade Out. Okay, how much time have we spent setting up the ordinary world and our main character Anna and her life? Four minutes and 44 seconds, about four-and-a-half pages in the screenplay. Not only is a bunch of information packed into that time, but we get a lot of teasing of things to come. You want every single moment to count in your screenplay, and so far we haven’t had a single page that didn’t earn its eventual cost on screen.

SPECIAL WORLD?

The alarm clock next to the bed reads 6:37 in the dark bedroom when the door slowly creaks open. At this point, the filming style has changed from sunny, happy, suburban to dark and ominous... and the writing style in the screenplay also makes that change. Word choice (“creaks” is actually used in the script) is our way of influencing how the director shoots the film. The vocabulary in the first four-and-a-half pages is bright and sunny, she grabs Luis’ beer bottle “playfully” to take a sip. The hospital is “well run.” If there is a positive word to use in those first four-and-a-half pages, it’s used. But now we have creepy and ominous worlds...

Luis wakes up, sees Vivian’s silhouette in the doorway, nudges Anna, “Vivian’s here.” But when Vivian steps out of the shadows, her face is all messed up. Bloody. Because of the line about Vivian’s mother, we understand when Luis jumps to the conclusion that this is domestic violence, jumps out of bed, and tells Anna to call an ambulance. That’s part of our established ordinary world. But when Luis gets to cute little Vivian... she bites him on the throat! Blood spurting everywhere. This is five-and-a-half minutes into the film. Not page 25 or even page 10. Things are happening in those first ten pages.

[Script Extra: What is at Stake? Making The Small Feel Big]

Anna fights with Vivian and pulls her off Luis and takes him to the bed. He has a serious neck wound, blood pumping from under his hand... Vivian springs to her feet in the hallway. Like a maniac. This is a great moment, because we have a cute little kid who is now a vicious monster. Anna and Vivian both rush to the bedroom door. A great tug-of-war scene at the door as Anna tries to close it and this little girl pushes it open. How is that kid so strong? Hey, this is *exposition* - demonstrating the strength of a zombie once they have turned. Anna finally gets the door closed and locked, and goes back to Luis on the bed.

She grabs a towel and presses it against the wound and tells him to hold it. She is a nurse. This is what she does. Luis has lost a lot of blood... and she is scared. She grabs the phone and dials 9-1-1 and gets a message that all circuits are busy. She hangs up and dials again, same thing. Her husband is dying and she gets a recorded message!

Vivian keeps pounding on the bedroom door, trying to get in.

Behind Anna, Luis gets out of bed as if nothing had happened. What?

She turns to see if he’s okay... and there is a tense moment as they look at each other and she tries to process the information... then he attacks her. Six minutes and 41 seconds into the film, a few lines down page 7 in the screenplay.

She fights him off, grabs her car keys from the night stand, runs into the bathroom, slams the door closed and falls into the bathtub. She scrambles to her feet and tries to open the bathroom window - locked.

In the bedroom, Dead Luis gets to his feet and starts slowly to the closed bathroom door... suspense builds as he gets closer and closer and closer. She tries to open the bathroom window as he tries to break down the bathroom door. Another race - and she gets the window open as he breaks down the door. She scrambles out the window, and he grabs her leg... pulling her back in. She kicks him in the face until he lets go, falls onto the ground outside (hard - ouch!) and races to her car.

SUBURBAN HELL

We are now about a third of the way down page 8, and she has escaped whatever is going on in her house. The great thing about these pages is that they set up everything that the audience needs to know for the rest of the story. Whatever is happening, it turns children into powerful flesh-eating monsters, it turns the people that you love into monsters, and it’s happening all over because you can’t get through to 9-1-1... oh, and that means that the authorities are powerless. There will be no help from the government - you are on your own. The opening titles kick in at the ten-minute mark, so let’s keep going and see what is going on in the world outside her house?

Anna runs to her car - and that quiet suburban street from a few minutes ago is now filled with people running and screaming and cars speeding and sirens screaming. She opens her car door and a man in a bathrobe holding a gun calls her name. Her neighbor. She asks what’s happening and takes a step towards him - and he tells her to get back. A moment of weird tension...

Then a speeding ambulance hits her neighbor and just keeps going. Shocking.

We are 8 minutes and 26 seconds into the film.

Anna looks at the neighborhood - people running and screaming, houses on fire, complete chaos. That’s when Dead Luis races out of the house. Anna runs to her car door, climbs in, locks all of the doors. Luis tries to break in. He jumps onto the car hood and starts pounding on the front window, shattering it, as Anna tries to start the car. She gets it started, speeds away, throwing Luis off the hood... but he gets up as if nothing has happened and chases after the car! Running almost as fast as she can drive! This is also some great visual exposition - these are not slow zombies.

When Anna passes a running screaming neighbor, Luis stops chasing Anna’s car and goes after the neighbor - breakfast.

We are now at 8 minutes and 56 seconds into the film...

The car radio has a taped emergency broadcast message that just plays over and over again. The whole state of Wisconsin is under mandatory lockdown. Do not open your door to anyone, even if you know them...

A woman in a nightgown grabs the passenger door handle, and pleads for Anna to help her. Stories are about characters faced with impossible decisions - and the audience “plays along” - we make the decision for ourselves in the cinema. What would you do in this situation? Unlock the door and let the woman inside? The woman keeps pleading. Pushing Anna to make a decision.

She drives away, leaving the woman behind.

We get a great overhead shot of Anna’s car speeding away from this insanity on a long highway... cars are on fire, people are screaming, the radio warns people to lock all of their doors and windows... ahead of her, a car slams into a gas station at high speed and there is a massive explosion - this shot reminded me of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and the destruction of Bodega Bay.

And as Anna’s car skids off the road and down a hill and crashes into a tree, we hit the ten-minute mark and go to titles. This is actually a quarter of the way down page 9 in the screenplay, which doesn’t have the overhead shot.

Do you see how fast the story starts? How we go from the ordinary world into this version of hell on earth quickly and efficiently? How not a single moment is wasted - everything is used to tell the story in the most exciting and interesting way possible? Even though this is a horror story, no matter what the genre, you don’t want to waste time on anything that isn’t moving the story forward - even the character scenes are moving the story forward. If you have a character element and a story element, find a way to combine them in a scene that accomplishes both things. Conflict brings out character, so we will learn more about your character if they have to make an impossible decision than if they are just talking about themselves. 

Make every page worth more than a million bucks. Get us into the story, into the conflict, as quickly as possible!

For the next 99 pages of this 109 page screenplay, Nurse Anna will have to survive in this “special” world. Do you think that she will make it?

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