A couple of articles ago, we talked about how, in many ways, the most important pages in a script are the first-10. Now let’s talk about the single most important page in any screenplay: page one.
When the reader first opens the screenplay, they are starting from zero. A fresh slate; a human being who knows nothing except they are ready to be razzle-dazzled by a new script that they hope will carry them off of a magical cinematic adventure… and maybe lay the track for a movie that gets produced and makes everyone some money.
If that first page blows the reader away, they’re tearing into the script, and ready to forgive bumps or flaws. But if the first page slips, then it’s like a runner who trips over the starting line. The reader thinks “Uh-oh,” and carries that perception into the rest of the script.
That “Uh-oh” might be turned around; perhaps, maybe. But keep in mind that this is an industry in which, for the most part, people only read if they have to, and read only as much as they must. If that page one stumbles, there is a non-zero chance the reader just says “Nah” and dreams up a reason to pass and that’s it. Done.
Let’s avoid that. Here are a few common “Uh-oh” slips…
Page number. That simple little number can be the first clue a script is in trouble. For example, if the page number is anywhere but in the upper-right-hand corner, or if it’s in non-Courier font. Or if page one is anything besides “1.” I have seen a lot of scripts that assign pg 1 to the title page, and the first page of the screenplay is “2.”
A gigantic brick of description. Older-school screenwriting used to be a much more dense affair. Contemporary writing is much more often about a lean, efficient style. A script that leads off with a massive brick of description is a) begging for that paragraph to be skimmed or skipped; b) opening itself up to a “Nah” pass. It’s better to show the readers right on page one that the script is going to be a fast and easy read.
Typos. Nothing say “Uh-oh” quite like a typo right there in line one at the top of page one. I’ve seen typos in the first slug. I’ve seen typos in the title. Nobody expects scripts to be 100% perfect, but we should strive for perfection on the first page. As the saying goes, there is only one chance to make a good first impression.
Bells and whistles. The more formatting bells and whistles on the first page, the bigger the “Uh-oh.” By that, we mean stuff like scene numbering (in a spec), CONTINUEDs all over the place, CUT TOs and other transitions on every tiny change, and so on. Newer writers sometimes don’t know what to add, so they put in everything.
Nothing happens. We need something to happen on page one.