When readers open your script, they’re opening a map to a destination. Page one tells your reader the general direction they’re driving. Each successive page gives them enough information to remain on course, while engaging them with enough mystery to stay on the road.
Without a clear, compelling open, your reader becomes disoriented. Without a discernible path to follow, they crumple the map, forfeit the drive — and put down your script.
Your reader must trust you in order to keep reading.
With that in mind, here are 6 CRUCIAL ELEMENTS to put on page 1:
1. Tone: The most under-emphasized and most crucial aspect of screenwriting. Whatever event you open with – and how you unveil it — creates an expectation in your audience of what kind of story they’re reading.
Simply put, tone is genre. More specifically put: Tone is feel.
If you’re writing comedy, your first page should be funny. If you’re writing horror, your first page should unnerve.
Within each tone, there are micro-tones: Some comedies are slapstick, some are droll. Some horrors are supernatural, some are existential.
Feel is not isolated to an event. Feel is woven through every single element on your page. Feel is word-choice, pace, description and dialogue… Feel is setting, time of day, location, weather. Sound.
On page one, clarify your story’s feel. Let your passenger know where you’re taking them.
2. Your main character: Your reader is following directions, but who’s giving them? Who’s the navigator the reader trusts to keep them on course? While your main character doesn’t have to be introduced on page one (and if they aren’t, your antagonist often will be) your main character needs to be the first person we begin to follow.
We need to know: This quest is theirs.
Your order of events creates your reader’s focus. Begin your focus on your main character.
3. Your world: Where is your movie going to happen? A beach? Space? An elevator? The setting reinforces the tone and creates an expectation in your audience. If JAWS had opened in a bar, how would that have changed the audience’s expectation? How would it have undermined suspense? How would it have disoriented the reader?
4. An event of impact (that begins to unveil (or tie-into) the main story): Often intertwined with the main character’s central theme/quest, this event sets the stage. In a thriller, it’s often a literal or symbolic death. In a drama, it may be more subtle (though equally important): a job loss, a break in a cold case, a divorce. This event should eventually dovetail into your main character’s quest and thematic arc.
5. A mystery: Simply put — Raise a question. This is on you, Writer. This is about your spin. How can you incite your reader’s curiosity? At the end of the day, the single most important thing to put in page one:
6. A reason to keep reading.
Don’t expect your reader to do you favors.
Don’t expect them to be kind.
Don’t give them an excuse to put down your script.
Give them a clear, compelling roadmap.
Make them turn to page 2.