The Secret to the First Ten Pages

The Secret to the First Ten Pages

Managers, agents, producers and studio executives read dozens (sometimes hundreds) of screenplays every year. Because they have read so many scripts over the course of their careers, they can usually tell within the first ten pages whether it’s worth reading through to the end. Now more than ever it is crucial to hook your reader in within the first ten pages, or risk having your screenplay thrown on the rejection pile. But what’s the secret to crafting the first ten pages in a way that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go?

The best place to start is by identifying the Central Dramatic Question of your story. This is the question that goes immediately to the heart of what your story is about, and the central question that will be investigated. A Central Dramatic Question should be included in every story regardless of genre: even comedies need to a pose a question that will keep the audience invested. Note: sometimes the Central Dramatic Question of a story is never resolved, and it is left to the viewer to make their own judgments.

A few examples of Central Dramatic Questions:

  • Will Dorothy find her way home to Kansas, or meet her fate at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the West?
    (The Wizard of Oz)
  • Will Rocky prove himself when he meets Apollo Creed, or will he live the rest of his life knowing he’s just another bum from the neighborhood?
    (Rocky)
  • Will Frodo succeed in his effort to return “the one ring” to Mordor, or will the Dark Lord, Sauron, gain possession of it and use its power to enslave the world?
    (The Lord of The Rings)
  • Will Harold and Kumar break out of their loser molds and make it to White Castle for sliders and fries?
    (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle)

Typically the Central Dramatic Question is set up and posed in Act One, explored and exploited in Act Two, and answered in Act Three. It is the audience’s desire or need to know how the question will be answered that keeps them tuned in. You might be able to recall a film in which the Central Dramatic Question was answered but the film just kept going and going. Usually once the central dramatic question is answered, the story is largely over, and it’s time to wrap up your narrative. Once the Central Dramatic Question is answered, the audience’s attention is set free.

By page ten of your screenplay, your Central Dramatic Question needs to have been posed. If you fail to do this, or the reader isn’t interested in finding out how this question is resolved, it is unlikely they will read any further.

It doesn’t matter if you have a big reveal in the middle of Act Two, or a great twist at the end of Act Three. If you haven’t hooked them in the first ten pages, all that great material will go unread. On the other hand, if your audience truly cares how the Central Dramatic Question might be answered, you’ll have them gripped until the end of your screenplay.

Many writers believe you have to load the first ten pages with lots of crazy action and startling events, and that’s the best way to hook your reader in. But this is a cheap trick many readers will see through, and actually has very little to do with whether they continue reading or not.

Look back to your own experiences watching the films named earlier. Why did you care whether or not Dorothy made it back home to Kansas, whether or not Harold and Kumar made it to White Castle, and whether or not Rocky did himself proud when he met Apollo Creed?

The answer is because you formed an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION with the protagonist, and that connection didn’t come about by accident. The writer made it happen.

That’s the secret to the first ten pages: for the audience to care, there must be an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION between them and the protagonist.

But how does a writer establish this connection? Having the protagonist experience irritating or frustrating events which we can all relate to is one technique. Even if the protagonist is a serial killer, by the time you’ve given them a parking ticket, lost their cell phone, got them stuck in the rain, and killed off their rose garden, the audience will begin to connect with them because they’re a human being, just like us.

Another technique is to write the character as an underdog, or an “everyman” forced to confront and deal with a new and extraordinary challenge. You could also have the character experience undeserved misfortune, brutality, or loss. There’s also the “noble soul” approach: the character that does the right thing despite the personal risk, the kind of person that in our heart of hearts we would wish to emulate.

To learn more about establishing an emotional connection with your reader, study the first ten pages of a few outstanding screenplays and pay particular attention to how the writer causes the reader to form an emotional connection with the protagonist. Ask yourself, what makes the protagonist human? Observe when you, as the reader, begin to empathize with the character, and then notice what the writer did to create that connection. By emulating the techniques already mastered by great screenwriters in establishing emotional connection in your first ten pages, you will be one step closer to having your screenplay move from the ‘slush pile’ towards a green light.