Columns > Published on January 29th, 2014

Screenwriting: Speed Dating The First Five Pages

Spec screenplays these days should have the reader at ‘Hello’.  Even a few years ago, a screenwriter could afford a leisurely introduction, setting up the basics of their story’s Who/What/Why/Where/When over the first ten to fifteen pages.  Now, thanks to the exponentially growing number of screenplays on the market,  the increasing importance of genre categories (see: Netflix algorithm), and the ever-decreasing attention spans of readers, any hopeful script has to establish its overall identity straight out of the gate – ideally before that fifth page turn.

There are a lot of script mechanics to set in motion: tone (Satirical? Romantic? Bawdy?), genre (Netflix currently has 76,897 ways of categorizing a movie), geographical and temporal setting, themes.  In a perfect world, you also manage to introduce the protagonist, or antagonist, or both, show the inciting incident, and outline the basics of the problem that’s going to drive the narrative.  Nonetheless, you must resist the temptation to cram too much into your curtain-raiser, and instead initiate the kind of taut, economical screen directions and snappy dialogue that will keep the reader engrossed until the final page.

Any hopeful script has to establish its overall identity straight out of the gate – ideally before that fifth page turn.

It’s a tough call, and there are many different ways of responding. Some screenwriters favor a short prologue, a 1-3 page scene that encapsulates the overall flavor of the story, and which could be a flash-forward or flashback. Others prefer to jump straight in with a bank heist or a car chase, others an argument.  There’s no right or wrong way to begin your story – for every Skyfall there’s an equally enthralling Reservoir Dogs – but in those first five pages you have to make sure your screenplay has one thing: appeal.  Your goal is to keep the reader reading – and, later down the line, the audience watching.  And you have to do it off the bat.

It’s all about making those first impressions count. It’s helpful to think of the process of connecting your script with a reader as very much like speed dating. You have the same finite amount of time within a restrictive format to make a connection with another human being. You have less than five minutes to charm, enthrall, titillate, amuse or otherwise hook your target. What you exclude is as important as what you include.  In screenwriting, as in speed dating, this means busting out your A-game from the get-go: choose scenes and characters that will take up space in those first five pages with the utmost care. Your second date depends upon it. 

So, in the interests of perfecting your opening sally both on the page and in the bar, let’s take a look at a few of the tried and tested speed dating tactics that will make you – and your screenplay – stand out from the crowd.

Be Yourself

All dating advice anywhere, ever, begins with ‘Be Yourself.’ It sounds easy enough, but the prerequisite of being yourself is knowing yourself, and how to present your true face to the world.  Not everyone appeals to everyone else, and, in order to maximize your chances of success, you have to be honest about who and what you are, and what you’re offering.  There’s no point lying about your age, income, bra size, emotional baggage etc, because you’re creating a false set of expectations that will be impossible to meet further down the line – and you may also end up struggling to maintain a relationship with the wrong kind of partner.

It’s the same for screenplays.  From the outset, a screenplay needs to be very clear about what kind of story it’s telling.  Genre should be evident from the top, and, if possible, from the title. If your title evokes a well-known designer perfume (e.g. Escape, Envy, Obsession, Adventure, Life, The One) consider changing it to something less generic. Equally, if you’ve typed BLOODY AXE KILLER FACE FEAST on the front page of your sensitive Sundance-bait drama because you’ve heard that horror is an easy sell, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Many screenplays lack this basic self-awareness, and take too long to get into the genre groove.  The first few pages are bland, establishing merely location (the Manhattan skyline, or Sydney harbor, or the rolling steppe), introducing a few characters with vague purpose, one of whom may or may not be the protagonist, and hinting at the possibility that there might be some kind of situation developing.  Over it. Next.

DREAM DATE:             Goodfellas

Goodfellas is often acclaimed for having one of the best movie openings ever, and it’s a masterpiece of quick and stylish definition. The genre and overall tone and identity of the movie are energetically established in under a page.  You know exactly what to expect from the next two hours, who’s driving the story (clue: he’s driving the car in the opening shot), and why we’re going to root for him (that disbelieving look on his face as he slams the trunk shut).  Yes.  Would totally hit that.

Identify What Makes You So Special

When speed-dating, it’s vital to stand out from the crowd.  You have three minutes or less to differentiate yourself from every other desperate name-tagged individual at the table.  Without telling an outright lie, or creating expectations that will later bite you in the ass, you have to open with something unique and intriguing about yourself.  Don’t resort to tired clichés (“Do you come here often?”).  You can’t be too outrageous as you’ve just met this person and now is really not the time to be stretching their disbelief.  Tell them about the time you ran away and joined the circus, met the President, spent 24 hours in a Bangkok jail in a case of mistaken identity.  The point isn’t necessarily to tell a long, self-aggrandizing anecdote or prove you are the nicest person in the room — leave that to the bank managers and dentists — but that you are by far the most enigmatic. Imply that if the datee selects to follow up on your phone number, they are likely to be in for the ride of their life — should they be brave enough to take the bait — or at least an entertaining evening swapping stories over a beverage or six.

A screenplay sludge pile has a lot in common with a room full of speed daters.  Most of it will be dull and uninspiring, but there might be an absolute diamond buried in the middle.  However, unless that diamond reveals its sparkling qualities as soon as you pull it out and glance at it, it will remain forever immersed in sludge, a tragically missed connection.  Bottom line: don’t bury the lede. Your first five pages should be consistently stylish and emphatic, and aim to be fresh too.  Don’t attempt to woo the reader with the same tired chat-up lines everyone else is using.

DREAM DATE:            Trainspotting

Much emulated, never equaled, the opening sequence of Trainspotting is bold, brash and unforgettable. Through two brief anecdotal examples of the lads’ behavior (fleeing the scene of a crime and as the worst dressed 5-a-side team on either side of the Forth), undercut with Renton’s sardonic (and soon-to-be iconic) voiceover, syncopated to Iggy Pop, this is another dynamic introduction to everything that’s to come.  Yes, this is a story about junkies, but they’re not wallowing in stoned misery and self-hatred.  Renton & Co. own their choice.  Welcome, tourist, to their transgressive world. 

Check Your Baggage

Life is nasty, brutish, and even over a short span leaves vicious bruises. The vast majority of adult humans have sustained some level of emotional damage, wounds they carry with them for better or for worse.  There are (allegedly) contented, normal, well-adjusted individuals out there, but they don’t tend to sign up for speed dating events  — or become screenwriters. This is what becomes of the broken hearted.  But it’s bad form to wear your mangled organ on your sleeve.  Save it for your Al-Anon meeting. Speed daters will actively recoil from the prospect who launches their romantic offensive with details of all their disastrous love affairs to date.  In this context, misery doesn’t love company, and the sad sack goes home alone.  For the purposes of speed dating you must pretend to be a shiny, happy person — it’s only for five minutes — and save the story of how your ex screwed you over and fled with the Playstation and the dog for a later date, once secured.

The reader and your screenplay are strangers when they first meet, so it’s always a good idea to save those heartbreaking flashbacks to childhood abuse for later, after they’ve had a chance to become, if not friends, at least emotionally engaged. Everyone has a complicated backstory; if you must include it at all, introduce nuggets sparingly, over time. Remember the primary purpose of a screenplay is entertainment so, where possible, you should start out with the good times even if all they are is a prelude to abject misery.  If you want your audience to empathize with a character, reveal a few of their strengths before admitting to their flaws. If your anti-hero will later be colored in seven shades of shit, start out with that one time she rescued a kitten. If first impressions are positive, the audience is more likely to stick with the story through the negative, rather than giving up on it as just too depressing.

DREAM DATE:           Secretary

The opening of Secretary is downright delicious, and a great way of introducing a protagonist who, as we’ll gradually discover, can barely breathe under the weight of her emotional baggage.  When we first meet Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) she’s weighed down by nothing more than a Mona Lisa smile — and the shackles and suspension bar that connect her hands to her neck.  We watch, fascinated, as she slinks around the office, conducting basic secretarial duties (stapling, retrieving a letter from the typewriter, and making coffee) with her hands rendered immobile and an incredibly satisfied smirk on her face. It’s as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. There’s no doubt that she’s enjoying herself immensely, and, as she saunters out of our line of sight, kicking the door shut behind her, that she has plenty more fun in store. By the time the “Six Months Earlier” title flashes up, we’ve seen her at her satiated, serene best, so we’re prepared to sit through the dismal account of her mental illness, abusive father, helicopter mother and cutting, to find out how she reaches this beatific state. Oh, Mr. Grey (Edward, the original, not the pretender Christian), don’t mind if I do.

Body Language, Body Language, Body Language

Most people decide whether they’re interested in a speed date within three seconds. They base that decision on appearance and nonverbal cues, and will respond in kind. The topic of conversation is irrelevant. Eye contact, mirroring, hair twirls, smiles and even laughter are all more important when it comes to reeling your target in.  The most accurate measure of the success of the encounter isn’t what someone’s saying, it’s the look they give you while they’re saying it — and the manner in which they cross and uncross their legs.

Character is action, not dialogue. From the very beginning, it’s wiser to focus on what your characters do, rather than what they say.  Sometimes this involves letting them roam for a few pages with minimal or no dialogue.  Sometimes the focus is on the discrepancy between words and actions: whatever benign intent your character might be proclaiming, we can see they are going their own sweet way.  If you’re going to use voiceover it’s useful to go in a different direction to the action (think of the ironic distance created by Lester’s sneering commentary over the opening scenes of suburban bliss in American Beauty).  Characters should never launch into explanations of who or where they are in life (“Gee, in the six months since my husband died I’ve become a hoarder and now my three children won’t visit for Sunday brunch”) because, as in speed dating, we won’t necessarily believe what they say.  Nonverbal cues are a different matter entirely.

DREAM DATE:           A Clockwork Orange

There is no more terrifying prospect than sitting across the speed dating table from Alex DeLarge – but he’d certainly make the other candidates look dull by comparison.  A Clockwork Orange begins with one of the most potent gazes in all of cinema history.  Alex’s unflinching, single-eyelashed stare, his boots on the belly of a naked lady coffee table, and his jock-strapped, drooling buddies are introduction enough.  There’s no need for him to say a word. When the voiceover does kick in, it’s light in tone, chatty, friendly, welcoming us into Alex’s circle, but, o my brothers, our gut instincts are already churning.  His subsequent actions – kicking the crap out of a drunken, defenseless tramp — speak louder than his convivial words.  Still, from behind the safety of a movie screen, we want to know how his story pans out — it’s more exciting than being bored to death by the balding insurance adjustor to the right.

Develop An Aura Of Mystique

Speed dating isn’t about getting to know another human being.  If you can manage to probe the depths of another’s personality within five minutes then either you’re Hannibal Lecter or they’re the shallowest single on the planet. Rather, it’s about offering a taste, one that will set your target’s mouth a-watering and make them hunger for more, a mere soupçon of what’s in store. The best speed dates are enigmatic and don’t give up their secrets too soon.  They give you just enough information (“I can’t really say much about my work as a robot engineer — it’s classified”) to make you want to get to know them better.  Again, this shouldn’t involve telling lies, or bragging, but be a declaration of complexity that draws prospective dates in — deep. 

Less is more in a screenplay.  Deftly handled, fragmented clues are always more appealing than straight-up information. One of the best ways to launch a narrative is with an enigma, by raising a question that isn’t answered immediately — and which may not be satisfactorily resolved until Act Three, if at all.  Human beings are curious by nature, and, if intrigued enough by a problem will keep investigating and exploring until they find out what’s behind it.  In other words, they will keep reading your script, as long as those first five pages contain an enticing enough hook.

DREAM DATE:         Jurassic Park

While Spielberg (rightly) gets much kudos for the opening of Jaws, Jurassic Park also kicks off in tantalizing style. The enigma is simple: what’s in the box? The audience has no real clue — the box is a bit on the small side for the T-Rex emblazoned on the poster — but every grim-faced taser-wielding guard knows exactly what they’re up against  — and they’re not looking forward to this part of the job.  We can hear the creature but not see it. Given the elaborate security arrangements, our best guess is that she’s majorly badass. As the crate is lowered slowly into place, and the men tighten their grips on the weapons, we suspect something bad is going to happen. When chaos erupts we still don’t discover what exactly has the gatekeeper in her teeth, or how big or fearsome she might be, as we catch only the briefest glimpse of an eye. But we have to know. We’re hooked, we’re committed.  Get your coat love, you’ve pulled.

Screenwriting and speed-dating are equally harsh worlds, mired in rejection and missed connections.  In order to stand any chance of success at either, that first impression has to be golden. So, when you’ve finished the latest draft of your current screenplay, sit down and look carefully at those first five pages, and imagine that you’re meeting for the first time — as part of a high pressure, ticking clock countdown, onto the next scenario.  Does it possess instant appeal? Does it pique your interest from the top?  Does it charm and beguile without putting too much out there? Or do you want to toss it back in the hope that something better comes along?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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