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01/12/2002 - Faster, Scribe! Kill! Kill!
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As a writer, you've probably heard time and again how quickly you must grab the reader's attention, often within the first ten pages of your screenplay. That's all fine and good, but such directives can lead you to ham up the action and dialogue right at the beginning, when all you really need is a decent introductory scene.

The reason for this, you've probably also heard, is that if readers aren't thrilled by the opening pages, they will wrathfully hurl your script against the far wall, cursing the writer for wasting ten precious minutes of life. The reality is more that the reader comes across a poorly turned phrase or a dialogue howler and they get that sinking feeling. But they usually keep reading to make sure that there isn't a good story hidden beneath over-elaborate action notes and on-the-nose dialogue.

It's unpleasant to acknowledge that many scripts don't get read all the way through, but it's the truth. There are far too many screenplays to fit into the reading hours. How many pages are enough to fairly judge a script's worth?

Some say 10, some say 30, or 60. It depends on what kind of notes you must be prepared to provide to the development executive. If you have to do full coverage on a screenplay, obviously you must read it all the way through. Full coverage lists the plot points, characters, themes and resolutions. If true authorship is ultimately determined by premise, character, character arc and plot development, then a record of all these elements can be valuable documentation for a production company.

Because it is time consuming however, full coverage is tempting to avoid. Half coverage is a one-pager that outlines everything without following every character and subplot. Half coverage (or no coverage, just a simple recommendation) is most often employed at smaller companies, who have less staff readers and less cash to spend on freelance readers.

While judging a screenplay contest I had the unique luxury of nixing a screenplay at any point, even on the first page. In this particular contest the finalists had to read well from start to finish, so any script that goofed badly in the first few pages could be canned. Despite this I found myself wanting to read a little further to give the contestant extra time to be brilliant. After all, every script is somebody's baby.

How many pages do you have to involve the reader? Turn on the T.V. tonight and watch a show you don't usually see. Time the opening scenes and see how long it takes you to decide whether or not you're going to flip the channel. Or next time you go to see a movie (one you're ambivalent about, not LOTR!) see how long it takes you to start rolling your eyes, or become involved.

That's how much time you have to catch your reader. One minute = one page. They may keep reading after they've rolled their eyes, but you won't have them experiencing your story. You don't have to put a battle on page one, but to waste time at the beginning of the script is the worst place to do it. Better to waste time around page 60-90, when readers have to go to the bathroom or get more coffee.

People who love the written word, who live and breathe movies may be vocally nasty about bad writers, but they will read as far as they can in a mediocre script. They want the screenplay to be good. They read enough to be sure that they see the entire plot, the depth of the characters. They need to make sure that they are saying no with justifiable cause.

My suggestion is instead of worrying about whether you've "got ?em" by page 3 or 15, or 30 or 60, worry instead about whether you've got a good story. Then launch that story by page 3 or you'll frustrate the reader. Crystallize your opening. Make every word count, and the reader will thank you for it.

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