Monday, November 15, 2010

Making your first ten pages work for you

Rather than do one long post about what we learned from Project Wilson Phillips, I decided it would be best to dedicate this week's posts to some small lessons I think we can get from it.

I've talked a lot about the importance of the first ten pages when writing a script. A while back, I spoke about the specific challenges of writing the first ten pages of a story that I didn't know the ending to. How did I overcome the problem of not having a specific plan? Easy - I made sure each scene not only contained exposition and introduction, they also posed specific questions that an audience would notice and become invested in.

For example, the first scene I wrote reveals nothing. It's a women threatening a man for information, then killing him. Obvious questions the reader asks: "Who are these people and why are they here?" They also might ask "Who is Viper's boss?"

Then after a brief interlude to set up the car chase (which like has the audience asking, "What's the motivation for the car chase?") there's a scene at the newspaper. In introducing the reporters and the editor, we learn that one reporter has gone missing while on a story. Reader questions: "What's the story they're chasing?" and most importantly, "Is this related to the opening scene?"

Aside, I think that's the key to getting away with some of this cryptic bullshit - give the audience just enough information so they can start forming their own theories rather than passively waiting for you the writer to spoonfeed them answers.

From there we go to the brothel and meet some Russian badguys working with oddball tycoon A.J. Trenton. Key things here: there's a little sex appeal with the fantasy girls, there's some oddball humor from that and A.J.'s general demeanor, and there's a fun quirky character in A.J., who verges on being larger than life. He's working with bad guys, but is he a bad guy himself? Is he Viper's boss? Is she working for the Russians?

And then of course there's the action when the car chase bursts into the mansion and leads into the shootout.

Protagonist: Doug Taylor, Jackson Mack
Antagonist: Russians, possibly A.J., and Viper (who is possibly connected to both.)
Action: car chase, shootout, torture scene.
Humor: homeless man, A.J. Trenton
Sex appeal: Prostitutes in sci-fi outfits

Now, some of the cast expanded, and the plot got a lot larger in some versions of the script, but I bet you can see how many of these elments remained consistent in later script. The main characters I introduced mostly stayed the main characters. Also, action and humor were large parts of the later scripts, taking their cues from the early scens.

That's a lot of informaiton in ten pages. Now, obviously if I was working from a master plan perhaps some of this would have been streamlined. The biggest issue is that there might be a dual protagonist issue with Jackson Mack and reporter Doug Taylor, but even that can be tied together properly if the script handles their next meeting deftly.

The big question is: have I made these ten pages interesting enough that you'd at least be motivated to keep reading? I'd like to think so. The scenes directly pose several questions that the screenplay seems obligated to solve. Even if a reader doesn't know where the script is going, there's at least a sense of it moving toward a destination rather than driving aimlessly.

I didn't write ten pages of exposition to set up the story. If anything, I avoided exposition and got the audience interested in the quesitons first. That's the best way to set up your world. Give them just enough to get comfortable, but have them actively engaging with that world and your story. When we talk about hooking a reader, that's generally what we mean.

I've read too many scripts that open with long dialogue scenes: barroom talks or parent-teacher conferences of exposition, characters sleepwalking through a boring daily routine of monotony, an endless parade of characters who seem unrelated to each other and have no apparent connection to anything in the story. Those are all things to avoid. You don't need to show your hand, but you need at least the illusion of cohesion.

And an interesting ten pages is not guarantee that the rest of the script will be any good. At that point, the script is all potential. A brilliant writer might be able to make Chinatown out of that set-up. A lesser writer might produce Troll 2 with it. But you don't know that until you keep reading. As we've seen via the three scripts - there are many different directions a story can take from that set-up, some good, some bad.

But when you read the first ten pages, are you at least intrigued to see where it's gonna go?

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