Sometimes a film never gets off the ground. The first weekend box-office is a good indicator of a movie’s fate. When a movie suffers poor attendance at liftoff it is said to have “never opened.” I call it the failure to launch.
The same can be said of a screenplay. As a matter of fact a screenplay that ‘doesn’t open,’ more often than not, predestines a film to the same fate. One might ask, “How does a screenplay that doesn’t ‘open’ make it to production?” It’s just a fact that a screenplay can look good on paper. It may even sound good at its reading. But it simply doesn’t translate to the cinematic “wow factor.” It fails to launch.
It has long been a fundamental of the screenwriting trade that the first 10 pages make or break a script. However, with screenwriters popping up from every nook and cranny on the planet due to the proliferation of screenwriting classes and easy formatting software, one must learn to get beyond the fundamental first 10-page syndrome our competition is obsessed with. So, just because you’re my secret buddy, I’m going to share a little secret with you.
It’s like this. Wipe the first 10 pages idea out of your mind when you FADE IN. Instead, make the first page your make or break sequence. Before you shoot for the fabled 10 or 17 minute inciting incident, aim for a first page exciting incident. Think in terms of the opening paragraph of a novel you began reading and couldn’t put down. Like a Ludlum thriller. Page 10 won’t do. He sets the hook on page one. Example:
The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to breaking point. Тhe animal was dying.
Two abrupt explosions pierced the sounds of the sea and the wind and the vessel’s pain. They came from the dimly lit cabin that rose and fell with its host body. A man lunged out of the door grasping the railing with one hand, holding his stomach with the other.
A second man followed, the pursuit cautious, his intent violent. He stood bracing himself in the cabin door; he raised a gun and fired again. And again.
I remember picking the “The Bourne Identity” off the shelf at Books-a-Million and opening and reading the first page. I couldn’t get my wallet out fast enough. The book had launched. The first page of a screenplay is no different. Using the terminology of the studios, it either “opens” or it doesn’t. That’s an apt description. Page one must compel a reader to open to page two or else, with one well-practiced sweeping movement, it’ll be tossed atop a stack of fifty or so other plays that the secretary will dispose of at her earliest convenience.
How about this for an opening:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-2).
I advise doing something on the first page that one is ill-advised to do during the first draft. Rewrite. Envision the first page on the big screen. Think of all the movies you’ve watched that left you breathless in the first minute. Yes, the first minute! Like Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s “Vertigo.”
EXT. SAN FRANCISCO ROOF TOPS – (DUSK) – CLOSE SHOT
We see a close view of a roof parapet and the curved rail of a fire escape. In the bag, are large skyscrapers with all their windows fully lit in the late winter afternoon. This background is used for the CREDIT TITLES of the picture.
After the last card has FADED OUT, we HOLD on to the empty parapet, when suddenly a man’s hand reaches and grips the top of the rail. It is followed by another hand and, after a beat, we see the face of a man in his early 30′s. He is an Italian type, with rough features. He turns quickly and looks below him and then turning back, springs up over the empty parapet and is lost from view. We STAY on the EMPTY SCENE for a second or two as we HEAR the scraping of boots on the iron ladder. Someone else is coming up. Presently, two more hands and the head of a uniformed policeman with cap and badge starts to climb over the parapet.
The CAMERA PULLS BACK so that by the time he has completed his climb, he is in full figure.
He dashes out of the picture drawing his gun. Immediately following him over the parapet, a detective in plain clothes climbs over. This is JOHN FERGUSON, known as SCOTTIE. He too pulls a gun and dashes out of the picture.
All things being equal, the variable that opens the possibility of your screenplay getting a full read is right there on page one. This is where 90% of screenplay submissions fail to launch. I spend more time on page one than any other sequence in a screenplay. By the way, I’ve caught readers flipping back to the last page when they first pick up a manuscript.
It’s a pretty good idea to fine tune a FADE OUT that leaves one as breathless as the beginning.