NOTE: I posted this last week in a Facebook group about screenwriting. Afterwards I invited people to post the first page from their script...and not many took me up on it.
THE FIRST PAGE: PRO vs. AMATEUR
I read a lot of scripts from unrepped writers. I find it educational. And I try to be helpful, when I can. (I am not a pro writer, but getting close.)
Have you heard pros comment that they can tell from the first page whether something is worth reading or not?
I used to think, how could anybody possibly do that? Judge a script just from ONE PAGE? It seemed insane, and unfair.
I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the people saying it… I just didn’t know what they were seeing. And I really wanted to know!
Well, many years later…now I know. I find myself looking at a first page of a script from an unrepped writer and “checking out.”
I will try, as politely as I can, to explain what I am seeing—and why.
First, take a look at the first page of a genius-level pro script, BLADE RUNNER 2049 by Michael Green (screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, story by Fancher, but pretty sure this is Green’s voice).
Please pay attention to these things:
1. TRUTHFUL HUMAN BEHAVIOR
Amateur scripts have people behaving like “fake people”: they get mad too easily, emotional too easily, and, in general, express themselves way too hyperbolically.
This is because writers are aware their scripts need conflict, so they have characters behaving urgently and dramatically—as if that will scream, CONFLICT!
Unfortunately, it only screams “FAKE.” The right way to get conflict is to build it into the concept and structure—and then have people behave realistically, so that the conflict comes across as subtext.
This is hard to explain because it’s such a large topic. But truly, the single most important difference between pro and amateur scripts is TRUTHFUL HUMAN BEHAVIOR.
In BR49’s page one, we meet our protagonist, K, asleep behind the wheel of his sci-fi “Spinner” car (on autopilot). He has a flying car (I want a flying car!) but it means so little to him, he’d rather take a nap!
This is because he’s a trained professional. Somebody who does this all the time—and who knows when and how to save his strength.
So it’s already intriguing—what does this guy know that would make him behave this way? What has he experienced?
And it feels real, like a commuter grabbing shut-eye on the train to work.
Green could have made other choices: he could have had K polishing his service weapon, preparing for a showdown.
But having the cop asleep is, to me, a far more interesting choice. What kind of man is comfortable showing vulnerability in that way? It reveals character, and begs interest.
It also offers CLARITY. If K was cleaning his gun, we’d be thinking: he’s expecting a fight…but with whom? Who is this guy? What’s going on? What are the stakes?
It would get us ahead of the moment—we’d be leaping from character to plot. And amateur scripts, as a general rule, have too much plot.
Starting with him asleep keeps things simple: We don’t have to think about all the story points because there aren’t any, so far—thus we can take them one at a time, as the character does.
And yes, it is a cliché to open a script with somebody waking up—but if he’s a Blade Runner waking up inside his Spinner car, that doesn’t count!
2. ENTERING THE STORY THROUGH A HUMAN MOMENT
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel, which is different from a typical script. The original Blade Runner starts with a title crawl to explain the premise, leading into the first interrogation scene (which is full of tension because we, the audience, know something that the police interrogator doesn’t: he’s almost certainly interviewing a bad guy).
Star Wars famously starts with two spaceships fighting each other.
There are a million great ways to open a movie, and I’m not particularly a connoisseur of them.
But what I notice with most amateur scripts is that it’s like the writer got the message to start the story as late as possible—consequently, the script starts way TOO late.
It’s too rushed, too expositional, and too crazy with action and conflict. There might be a chase which is, in theory, exciting—but if we don’t know who these people are, we don’t even know whether to root for the person chasing, or the one trying to get away!
For example, in BR49, a typical amateur opening might be: let’s have K be a captive who the bad guys knocked out and put behind the wheel in order to crash the spinner and make it look like a suicide. So then the opening sequence unfolds with him getting free!
Cool, right? Exciting? Big opening car-chase action and escape?!
No, it would be incoherent—because we would have no idea what is going on!
Folks, SLOW DOWN. And whatever you do, find a HUMAN way to enter the story.
Blade Runner 2049 has that human moment: the cop taking a nap behind the wheel. (Even though K is, spoiler, a Replicant.)
You use a relatable SITUATION to build an audience connection with your protagonist.
I can’t stress that enough: If you don’t have a human situation to build identification with a character that’s at least STARTING to happen on page one…it’s game over.
It doesn’t matter what your genre is, where the setting is, or even if the character isn’t an actual human being (or robot/alien/fairy/talking dog/whatever). Do not overburden the reader with a ton of exposition and worldbuilding!
Find something universally understood and expressed simply so that we get onboard with his or her journey at a human level—like the cop taking a nap at the wheel.
Star Wars has that human moment, even though it’s with robots: C-3PO complains to R2-R2, “Did you hear that? They shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.”
We don’t really know what’s going on, yet—but neither do the robots (making them audience surrogates). But they’re lovable, so we quickly like them and worry for them.
Presto, audience investment = forward story momentum.
3. JUST “TELL” WHAT YOU SHOW (I know, that’s a bit confusing)
This is the hardest to explain.
Writers learn to “show, don’t tell.” As in, you give narrative and visual details so the reader infers the meaning. You show a sad scene, you don’t just tell the audience, “Be sad now.”
Except…that’s not really accurate.
“Show don’t tell” applies to narrative structure and character behavior. You don’t want your hero proclaiming, “I am so sad my wife died.”
You don’t even want him dropping a rose on a grave (oy! cliché) or taking off a wedding ring or anything that screams exposition. (Or please, whatever you do, do NOT pan over the photos on the mantel and the last photo is missing the wife.)
We now live in a world where everybody’s seen a million movies. So you can’t have characters acting like they would in a movie without somehow acknowledging it.
What you want is your widower trying to date again and FLASH CUT, he sees his date as his dead wife, and his date sees the look on his face, she knows right away, and asks him “Are you all right?” and he says “yes,” which is clearly a lie—we, the audience, get the drift, he’s still grieving. (Also a cliché, but not as bad as talking to a grave.)
It’s also, importantly, a HUMAN moment: this is a guy who’s hurting, but trying to be nice. His behavior reveals his character: he cares about his date’s experience, even if he’s not able to be with her emotionally. He’s sympathetic, and relatable. He’s got “layers” to him.
And it’s truthful—people are polite. They try to get along. The world is, in fact, full of widows and widowers trying to cope—it really happens, every day. Tough stuff.
That’s the right kind of “show, don’t tell,” at the narrative level.
When it comes to the action writing? Please…show mercy to the reader—just TELL.
What I typically read in amateur scripts is a lot of purple prose: descriptions of glistening dew or spooky barns or messy bedrooms…or whatever the case may be.
A little of that goes a long, long way. Because it’s just STUFF. And stuff is just the same story beat, prolonged. It may be pretty, but it doesn’t move the story forward.
It’s like, if we’re describing a shitty McDonald’s—the typical amateur writer would go on about the pimply underage counter boy, the beige tile floor, the bright plastic tables, the standardized ketchup dispenser, maybe the smell of the fries in the air, the menu with the cheap prices—none of which would be bad, per se.
But it’s boring, and draggy—because it’s all variations of the same beat.
Describing “stuff” doesn’t move the story along. What moves the story are IDEAS—and those come from CONTEXT. (Also, “stuff” is not, inherently, emotional. PEOPLE are emotional.)
So just say, “A shitty McDonald’s.” We all know what that means! And then get on with it.
Sure, the reader can figure out a lot of the context—but if you can express the context in a witty, pithy way, they’ll love it. They’ll love you, and they’ll love your script.
You’ll be confirming their understanding of something, and entertaining them at the same time.
One of the best ways to do that is…
4. BE EXPERIENTIAL
Read James Cameron’s scripts, for a long list of reasons, but he’s particularly brilliant at this.
“Apone stops, his expression changing. They face a wall of living horror. The colonists have been brought here and entombed alive…
“COCOONS protrude from the niches and interstices of the structure. The cocoon material is the same translucent epoxy. The bodies are frozen in twisted positions. Rib cages burst outward, exploded from within. Paralyzed, then brought here as hosts for the embryos which grew within them.”
It’s “experiential” because it’s how the marines are investigating the alien hive: we are seeing it through their eyes. We have come to like and care about these meatheads.
In BR49, look at how Green narrates the landscape atop page one:
“AN INFINITE ARTIFICIAL LANDSCAPE OF SOLAR PANELS AND PLASTIC SHEETING. All dead and abandoned to the dust and wind.”
A newbie writer would take three times as long—and it wouldn’t be one bit better.
Executives love this stuff because it makes them feel confident that if they spend all the money to make this thing, the audience will really be into the emotions—and they’ll get a hit!
5. BE INTERESTED IN IDEAS, NOT PLOT
The real impediment to writers improving their scripts isn’t in choosing words…they tend to be really skilled at picking their words (better than I am).
It’s about choosing the IDEAS behind the words. And that’s something I’ve always been good at.
Because most writers have, sorry to say, ideas that just aren’t very interesting.
They also have way too many of those uninteresting ideas, arranged in messy and confusing ways.
That’s why most scripts aren’t worth reading—as most pros can tell from page one.
In order to find original and interesting ideas, you have to see past the clichés, and think—what would be interesting, different and unique?
You have to have a point of view, one that connects to humanity and sees it in an interesting and meaningful way.
It’s something that can be learned, but not necessarily taught.
The first step in achieving it? Actually wanting to do it. Don’t overlook how simple that is!
Anyway, take a look at your first page. Is it human? Is it truthful? Is the action writing giving experiential context?
That’s really the ballgame. And it’s what pros look for on page one.