Showcasing Your Screenplay: Stun them on page one

Stephanie Schellerup
4 min readApr 15, 2020

Alright. So you’ve got your first (or second) draft of the 14 Day Script ready. Are you feeling ready to show off your work to friends and family? Or have you maybe been contemplating submitting your work to a screenwriting competition?

Thankfully, there are quite a few ways you can absorb a reader’s attention with just one page — and keep their interest burning all the way through to your script’s end.

Photo by Nathan DeFiesta on Unsplash

Ensure professional grammar and formatting

It should go without saying. Unfortunately, experience has shown me that instead, it bears endless repetition: check your work for basic grammar, spelling, and formatting errors. I know, we’re all on deadlines, and we all think we have to finish our next big thing RIGHT NOW because if we don’t, all of our creative energies and talents will blow away on the wind like so many dandelion fuzzies. However, if a reader has to psyche themselves up for battle just to wade through a mess of mangled formatting and unpunctuated dialogue, I can promise that all of your talent and creativity is going unnoticed. In these admittedly more dire (but not unheard of) situations, all the reader can see is a script written entirely in the present participle, where margins have no meaning, and where one character changed names on page 50 without explanation. Yes, I have reviewed a script with all these flaws, and yes, they were harbingers of much deeper narrative issues.

I never completely write off a script for poor grammar (even when I probably should — some of the screenplays that have landed on my desk have had me scrambling for the Advil bottle). Minor errors usually don’t obscure the best parts of a screenplay, and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. In my view, a substandard English language education, lack of access to screenwriting resources, or time constraints that prevent a person from perfectly polishing a script shouldn’t disqualify someone from having their story taken seriously. But industry gatekeepers are mostly human too, and it doesn’t take many mistakes before we start to question whether a writer is taking their work (and themselves) seriously.

Say something interesting- and say it fast

You don’t need to lay out your entire premise in a page. You do need to quickly show off something fresh, eye-catching, or peculiar about your story. Take one of your favorite elements of your script — whether it’s a character, a style of dialogue, an arresting visual image — and serve it up to the reader with a flourish that whispers keep reading for more of this.

Too many writers give in to the temptations to explain everything to the reader as quickly as possible, fearful that they will confuse (and subsequently alienate) the audience. They are scared that readers won’t be able to distinguish mystery from outright confusion. The resulting scripts are usually plodding and thick with humdrum dialogue; they are boring.

Starting your script in media res is one way to avoid drowning your beginning pages in the exposition. For those of you well-distanced from your high school English years, in media res is Latin for “in the middle of things.” Think about many of the Star Wars films: after the iconic crawl, the narrative starts up right in the midst of the drama. Darth Vader has basically already boarded the ship, so to speak. Exposition and backstory tend to be filled in later.

If you’ve ever gotten feedback along the lines of, “Well, it really started to get going around the middle,” I personally think a major rewrite that employs in media res could be a winning strategy. Toss the first half of your script, and assess from there what ‘blanks’ need filling in. Sometimes a first draft isn’t about writing a story so much as finding it; it’s ok to trash huge chunks so that the best parts can shine.

Pacing, pacing, pacing

The best scripts pay serious consideration to pacing from the very beginning. Good pacing, of course, is somewhat subjective; rapid-fire action and character introductions might work for an action or thriller feature. Slower pacing that spends time drawing out small nuances might be appropriate for a more character-driven piece.

For the beginning screenwriter, it’s easier to throw out rules for avoiding ‘bad’ pacing — the kind that makes readers whisper obscenities at their computer screens. If your script introduces a dozen characters in the first two pages, your supersonic pacing is probably preventing readers from understanding the narrative. Conversely, a long conversation between unnamed diplomats about the origins of the French and Indian War might be too achingly slow to continue earning page-turns.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken. You could probably get away with introducing a baker’s dozen characters right away if you then take the time to flesh each one out and continue weaving their individual stories together throughout the script. If instead these characters meet their doom twenty pages later, you’re setting up readers for a terrible time trying to cultivate any degree of emotional investment.

Hard truths

Screenwriting how-to guides often tell writers to pour extra energy into the first five or ten pages of a new script. This advice is predicated on a fairly solid premise: you theoretically have that long before a producer/reader/other industry person decides to keep reading or toss your script into the dusty attic of Hollywood dreams.

Sometimes, however, this advice is misconstrued to mean that the first five or so pages should be the best part of your script. The truth is that every single page of your script must range from good to excellent, with the whole tending more closely to the latter. A good opening can’t save a slogging middle or uninspired finale.

Ultimately, each page feeds into the overall quality of your screenplay. So yes, page one should be stellar — but so should pages two through 100.

--

--