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 Your Mission: Win the reader in 10 pages or 10 minutes, whichever comes first


Ten minutes or ten pages may not be much, but in the screenwriting industry it means everything. The first ten pages (fifteen pages for the more liberal reader) can either create an opportunity for a writer or take it away. In ten minutes the writer needs to introduce the main characters, establish the genre, let the reader or viewer know generally what the story is about, and what is at stake.

"Everybody is so short on time," says agent Marcia Amsterdam of New York based Marcia Amsterdam Agency. "Everybody’s reading, it’s sad to say, for a reason not to take on something. Everybody over schedules and has more writers than they can handle and more projects than they should handle. It’s really tough on the writer because they have to present a reason why this is different from all other screenplays and do it on the first few pages."

Time is the biggest reason why scripts are given a ten page limit. Agents, Producers, Readers, Studio Execs are pressed for time. There are so many scripts and so little time to read them. Unless they are certain they are in for a good read, no one is willing to devote the 90 to 120 minutes it takes to read a screenplay only to end up passing on it.

"Writers should realize agents read zillions of these things and they want to be surprised," adds Amsterdam. "I want to like what I read. People think that you can’t wait to send back the rejection notes." Rejection is guaranteed if the writer fails to use the first ten pages to draw the reader in. To accomplish this, the writer must make sure that the script starts at the precise moment. A common error many writers make in setting up the story is letting the crucial ten pages go by filled with exposition and useless scenes, and then starting the drama around page 30. Very few readers, unless the writing is exceptional, will give the writer 30 or more pages to set up the story. Selma Luttinger of New York based Robert A. Freedman Dramatic Agency wants to be hooked and grabbed into the story. "I want to know in ten pages what is going to happen to these people," says Luttinger. "Sometimes not a lot can happen in ten pages, so then I look at the quality of the writing. I give it a fair shake, say 25 pages and then if I’m not engrossed, I begin skimming."

If it is not on the page it will most likely not end up on the screen and if the first ten pages drag with very little happening, the audience will file out in droves for popcorn, talk, or snooze. Nothing is more frustrating and boring to watch than a film that meanders around without giving the audience a clear idea of what is happening and to whom it is happening. "I want to get on the roller coaster and go for the ride," says Amsterdam.

Setting up the drama in the first ten pages is genre specific. Some genres take more than ten pages to set up, thrillers for example, and it helps to have exceptional writing and interesting characters to keep the reader reading long enough to set up the story. "There are different reasons why different things intrigue you or bore you," adds Luttinger. "Some people may be very good at writing dialogue and they’re not telling a story. Good dialogue is important. It comes out of good characterization."

In the first ten pages the characters need to be established, goals presented, and voice delineated. The writer needs to set the protagonist or main character against the antagonist or obstacles to his goal. In other words, he has to find a way to make the reader or viewer care about the main character. "I look for a certain vulnerability in the main character," states Amsterdam. "I’m totally turned off by obnoxious people or obnoxious screenplays. If the opening scene is five people being obnoxious, then I don’t care what happens to any of them." The audience wants a hero, someone to root for and if there is no clear hero that is established from page one, unless it is an anthology piece, the reader will be confused and inevitably turned off.

The writer should also try to avoid using gratuitous sex, violence, and obscenities to draw the reader in. If it cannot be done through character motivation and plot, adding unnecessary scenes will get in the way of telling the story. Devices that are not motivated by the characters but by the writers pen are a sure mark of an amateur. Facing the blank page and deciding what needs to be established in the first ten pages is difficult and no one really knows what they are looking for specifically. "It’s a feel actually," adds Michael Amato of New York based Michael Amato Theatrical Agency. "I can’t tell you what you need to put in or not, you’ve got to use your creative juices."

Creative juices are slow to flow and this is usually evident in the first few pages of a script. The start of a screenplay is usually the weakest because the writer is just getting to know his characters and their situation. There is an awkward stage until about page 45 to 60 when the character begins to tell the writer where he wants to go and the writer is willing to let him take over the journey. A common mistake many writers make is not closely examining the first ten pages during the rewrite phase, making sure that the character is consistent throughout.

Before sending out that script the writer must look over the first fifteen pages, paying the closest attention to the first ten. The writer has one shot to convince the reader to keep turning pages and if in the first ten, the reader is not swayed, the script faces certain rejection. With over 20,000 scripts registered with the Writers Guild each year it should come as no surprise that agents and producers can handle the workload. Why? Because the vast majority of these screenplays get only ten minutes of their precious time.


Note* This article appeared in the July/August 1994 issue of The New York Screenwriter Monthly.