Here at The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards, we have the opportunity to read a lot of scripts and talk to a lot of very talented writers who actively compete in the annual screenplay contest.
Among the questions we hear frequently from those screenwriters are often posed with undertone of (quite reasonable) suspicion: “Do you read my whole script? Or is it true your judges only read the first ten pages?”
While it’s true that many other screenplay competition readers only read the first ten pages of a script and then pass judgment on it, the team at The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards absolutely reads every single word on every single page of submitted scripts.
But the question is a valid one, as the industry standard is, in fact, to open a script and give it the quickest possible reading. That simply means less-than-compelling or early drafts of a writer’s work—which may need some professional guidance in rewriting—may indeed get “short shrift” and be set aside before the story or the writing really gets rolling.
There are several reasons for this state of affairs, and they all have to do with the kind of attention and analysis you script is getting.
If your script is being read for “coverage”--
Readers working for agents and production executives are expected to provide a full synopsis of your story and to provide an analysis of the core elements and mechanics of your screenplay. That obviously requires a front-to-back reading of the material, whether the reader finds the script of interest or not.
As a writer, you need to understand that such a reading is only possible when “official” coverage is ordered by a producer or a studio. That means your agent or manager (or your girlfriend/pal/mother who works at a studio) has managed to get your script into “the right hands.
If you already have an agent (congratulations!), any material you submit to them will be reviewed and given “official” coverage. Of course, that doesn’t mean your agent—or anyone who works at the agency—will read it, because they routinely send client material out to freeelance readers for such mundane tasks. The problem is that the skill level of a particular reader—frequently struggling writers themselves—is completely beyond your control. When he/she picks up your script, they may have just been evicted from their apartment...or they may have just won the lottery. Both of those events would be expected to influence the reader’s reaction to the task at hand, and it’s all completely out of your control.
When you send your script out to anyone for review, coverage, or analysis to any agent, producer, or studio exec, you simply have no control over who reads it, what mood they’re in when they read it, or the temperature of the room they’re in when they read it. And—with the exception of the judges at The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards, you won’t even know if the people reading and judging your material have any genuine professional experience in the film or television industry.
That’s just one reason why you should only submit your screenplays to readers and judges whom you’re certain are qualified to provide analysis, coverage, and a sincere reading designed to ultimately help you produce a successful and marketable piece of writing. Another reason to submit your script to bona fide professionals is to get coverage and analysis that isn’t merely critical, but supports your writing with meaningful guidance that reflects the industry standards. When you get the right kind of professional analysis, you’ll get an insider’s perspective of how your script would be received at an agency, studio, or production company. Getting feedback from working professionals is essential to developing your material so that it will be regarded as professional.
That’s exactly the kind of analysis, coverage, notes, and feedback you get at The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards.
If you’re paying to have your script analyzed by professionals:
The reputation of those reading and analyzing your script is a clear indication of the nature of the professional approach you’ll see. At The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards, the reputation of our team and our judges is unparalleled, and we strive to maintain that reputation by providing writers with the best and most comprehensive reading and analysis possible.
But what about those first ten pages? Do readers and judges really just read the first ten pages and then pass judgment?
We certainly don’t...but consider the industry realities: there are stacks of scripts on desks at every agency, every studio, and every production company throughout Hollywood. Thousands of scripts. That means the readers sitting at these desks are under the gun to get through material as quickly as possible in their search for that one-in-ten-thousand worth sending up the food chain to their bosses. If they go through that pile of scripts too slowly, or if they send inferior material to their bosses often enough, well...they won’t have those bosses for very long because they’ll be standing in line at the unemployment office.
That’s where a screenplay’s first ten pages comes into play, and why your script needs to quickly catch the reader’s attention and overcome that initial reflex to toss it into the recycling bin along with the 9,999 scripts that have gone before it.
So how do you manage to send them a script that doesn’t get hurled from 3-point range into the trash? Make sure your screenplay’s first ten pages accomplish these six things:
1.Hook the reader quickly. That means sharp, concise, clear writing. Wake the reader up with top-notch verbal energy and skillful craft.
2. Establish your tone in the first half-dozen sentences.
3.Define your core premise in the first three pages. Don’t leave the reader to guess what kind of movie this is going to be.
4.Introduce your protagonist early and clearly. Who is he/she? What does he/she want? What does he/she need beyond their “want”? Make us care about them quickly.
5.Establish your protagonist’s primary problem (often the antagonist) before your hero formulates any plan of action to get what he wants.
6.Stay ahead of your reader. Be predictable in the first ten pages of your screenplay and it is in danger of being jettisoned to the circular file.
If your first ten pages satisfies those requirements, you have a great chance of getting terrific coverage and seeing your script read by a series of interested readers, possibly winning a reputable screenplay competition like The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards, and being pushed up the pipeline where those “buy” decisions are made.
The journey of any screenplay through the reading, coverage, and analysis process follows a path strewn with many roadblocks, most of which are created by writers who don’t take the time to hone their craft and to deliver polished, professional material. But if you put yourself in the shoes of any reader (nobody wants to read something boring, trite, or predictable, right?) you’ll be on your way to being the writer of the script everyone in Hollywood is talking about!
The answer to our initial question just how important is the first ten pages? should be obvious by now: VERY.
Let's start with the bottom line: without characters, you don't have a story, theme, plot or marketable script.
Movies about inanimate objects remaining inanimate, meaning without character, just don't get made because you need characters through whom to tell your story.
But not just any characters. You need characters who need or want something; who have clear goals. If your protagonist hero doesn't have clear goals, your script has a serious problem.
If you want to sell a script, your reader needs to know who, what and why. Who's the protagonist? What is his or her goal? And why does he or she need to accomplish the goal?
Without clear goals for each of your characters, your script will never be made.
Here are 5 danger signs that indicate your main characters lack a clear goal:
1--You're having a hard time knowing what your next scene should be.
2--Your story suffers from repeat beats and too much expositional dialogue.
3--Your characters are floating through the narrative without a clear resolution.
4--Your story feels stuck.
5--You have no idea how to get through your 3rd act and finish the script.
So how do you create clear goals for your characters? Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Come back next week for The Secret to Writing Active Characters Part II, and learn exactly how to write compelling, active characters with clear goals.
Is your script really ready to compete? The screenwriting business is a highly competitive environment that demands complete professionalism--and the only place to show that level of skill is on the page.
Guess how long it takes for an experienced writer, producer, director or development professional to determine whether your script is worth ready? About 15 seconds. That's it.
It doesn't matter what you look like, where you live or what kind of car you drive. The people who buy screenplays and put them into development or give them the green light for production only care whether your screenplay is of professional caliber.
Keep your script out of the slush pile by adhering to these 5 industry Dos and Don'ts for writing a winning screenplay:
Screenplay Do--Keep your structure simple
You're already very familiar with a 3-act story structure, that is, a coherent beginning, middle and end. Situate your story in the introduction, then build toward your climax. This is called plot complication, which is any aspect of a story that the protagonist or antagonist must overcome in order to move forward, ultimately reaching a resolution.
Screenplay Do--Use consistent tone
Make sure your tonality is consistent across the board with appropriate dialogue, character descriptions, scenes, plotting and structure matching the genre (e.g., comedy, drama, action, horror).
Screenplay Do--Pace yourself
Keep to the appropriate page count and include scenes that propel the action and move the plot forward. In a speculative script (i.e., spec script), pagination typically runs between 110-120 pages, with the rule of thumb being that 1 page equals 1 minute of screen time. Ideally, you want a balance between dialogue and action in scenes that transition logically.
Screenplay Don't--Include scene numbers
Scene numbers are easily spotted on the first page. Until your spec script gets financing, casting, a director and a production team, you don't need scene numbers. They are a distraction and carry no weight in a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay.
Screenplay Don't--List anything
Cast list. Location list. Props list. None of these contribute to your spec script being a good read--and your screenplay must read well before anyone will ever respond to it. Let the producers and the prop department make the lists.
Yes, your script is a blueprint for a brilliant film or television episode. But you're the architect, not the finish carpenter. Avoid cluttering your script with details that are better left for others during later stages of development.
Do you want to take your script to the next level?
Receive a thorough analysis of your screenplay and connect with an experienced Hollywood professional who will provide extensive feedback to help you improve your writing as you get ready to pitch your script.
Register for our upcoming 1-to-1 Screenwriter Workshop January cohort today--payment plans available!