Why are Your First 15 Pages So Important?

Jun 1, 2012 by     7 Comments    Posted under: Fun Stuff.

Hi all.

Today Roy and I want to take a look at one thing, the importance of the first 15 pages.

This is one of the reasons we broke up the Sunday Spotlight the way that we did.

Like a handshake at an interview, these pages are the first impression a reader will have of us, so we’ve got to look (or write) our best.

Let’s take a closer look.

Part One: The Writing (Is every word a conscious choice?)

A.) Are there zero typos?
B.) Are there zero grammatical errors?
C.) Are there compelling sentence constructions?

Hollywood readers are very busy people, we all know this, and if you don’t Roy and I beat you to death with it. As you write and submit to them, imagine a desk piled with scripts, yours needs to be better than every other script in those stacks.

Minimal typos, minimal errors.

Another problem in Hollywood is it’s easier to say no than yes, because yes is sticking your neck out. This comment from Rex Pickett that we retweeted says it best:

In Hollywood everyone is looking for a reason to say no b/c they’re so afraid of losing their parking space if they say yes.

That’s sums it up very succinctly, and as unfair as it sounds we MUST approach the situation assuming a reader is looking for EVERY reason to say no.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but ignoring spelling, typos, grammar errors, etc. is disrespectful of the reader. This goes for ALL readers too, even if it’s a friend or family member reading your script, you should respect their time especially since they just dedicated an hour or two to your dream.

Lucky for us, the first two questions are also the easiest to fix. SO PROOFREAD!

The last question is more of a Roy type question, but after he dumbed it down for me, he more or less meant, are things described in interesting ways? This might be hard for some of us to do, but I compare it to the line yesterday about the imperial walker:

It (meaning the imperial walker) sits dead on its tracks, like a smoking locomotive on stilts.

This is about describing usual things in unusual ways. The point is so much of our writing has become unconscious. We use constructions that other people made up because it saves us time.

If we don’t take these shortcuts, it gives our writing an edge. This will engage the reader. S/he may not know why, but they’ll be actively reading which is the goal we’re after.

Part Two: The Dialogue (Does it “sound” natural?)

A.) Is there as little exposition as possible?
B.) Does the script set up the individual voices of the characters? Verbal tics, etc…
C.) Are opportunities being sewn in to the characters for subtext later in the script?

These questions will most likely carry through to other areas of the Sunday Spotlight, as they’re very important.

We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating again.

Exposition. Can you show us rather then have characters tell us? Are you using incluing instead of “As you know Bob?” This can be difficult because we don’t want to leave readers in the dark, so if exposition is a MUST give the characters something interesting to do as they talk and keep it short. AVOID cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. Remember eating/drinking and talking is still just talking. (Think Pope in the pool.)

Character voices. Eliminating character’s names from the dialogue, could we still tell who is speaking? This is important, ESPECIALLY if the line of dialogue could fit several different characters in your script. That’s bad. This question is also the opportunity to see if we’re bleeding too much of our own personalities into the characters. Like us, all characters need to be unique personalities.

Subtext. I’ll admit this is the hardest aspect for me, but are characters saying more with their dialogue? Is a simple statement hinting at an underlying (and often unresolved) issue between two characters? Remember, the essence of story is conflict, and subtext is a great way to add more of that to yours.

Part Three: The Story (Is it interesting?)

A.) Is the groundwork being laid for future reveals?
B.) By page 15, do we know what the engine will be?
C.) Does the engine make sense given the protagonist’s flaw? In other words, will the protagonist have an arc?
D.) Is there a specific inciting incident (catalyst) by page 15?

These last questions deal with setting up the story.

This is about gaining the reader’s trust also. Metaphorically speaking, think of the relationship between reader and writer as something of a war. Their intentions are in contradiction. The reader is looking for ANY excuse to stop reading. Reading takes time and effort and there are always a hundred other things s/he would rather be doing.

The writer has to find some way to overcome this. The writer has to provide a reason to keep reading.

By page 15 there should be absolutely no question in the reader’s mind about wasted time.

There should be parts of the plot that we want to know more about, facts about the character that are driving them forward but slightly unclear, mainly, the taste we’re given of the story isn’t enough, and will read on to satisfy that craving.

Lastly, something should have happened that we know is going to force the protagonist into unfamiliar territory. This is the inciting incident we’re always talking about, it has to come early, so the reader knows the story won’t drag out.

If the writer includes the elements from these questions in the first 15 of his script, and the reader does not keep reading, it’s the reader’s fault and not the writer’s. The writer will have gone the ninety percent for the kiss, but the reader just didn’t want to come the final ten.

Different strokes for different folks, so know that not everyone will like your story. Don’t be discouraged by a “no” or “pass” but realize if the brief notes you get are all sounding similar there may be an issue worth investigating.

In closing, the first 15 pages need to be a covenant of trust between the writer and the reader. The reader respects the work if the writer respects the reader’s time. Put simply, remember the golden rule, you would only want to read someone’s best work, so only present your best to someone else.

7 Comments + Add Comment

  • Great read! From beginning to end. It held my attention. I wanted more…..Definitely makes me go over my writing and search for new ways to present it….thanks for the inspiration

  • I hope everybody at least read this, even if they were unable to leave a comment.

    As a writer it was difficult for me to come to grips with the overarching importance of the first 15 pages of a spec script. You work so hard on your B story, reveals, character arcs, and ending. But basically if you don’t nail the first 15 all that work is for naught.No one will ever meet those secondary characters or watch those plotlines come together.

    I was talking to an old friend recently, he is not interested in any of this, but he read my first script because he’s my friend. He complimented a scene I wrote. I said that was my best scene in that script, and it came on page 61. I told him I had since learned that page 61 can be fucking blank and most people wouldn’t notice.

  • By the way, Lucasfilm might just want to cease and desist, because I am the imperial walker.

    • And I am Hahn Solo….

  • Very clever Randall. And don’t worry, I’m solo too. You get used to it.

  • This is probably one of the most important posts on this board. If you can’t hook your reader right off the bat, the chances of them actually finishing your script are very low. Nice post Hank.

    • To be fair, I used notes from Roy, but I appreciate any boost to my ego.

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