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First 10 Pages: The 5 Elements

By Patrick Kirkland · October 3, 2011

You've got only ten pages to get your reader’s attention. And sometimes, not even that. The truth is, a lot of scripts sit on top of those desks– the same desks you’re having to send your screenplays to. There’s some recent college grad, or an intern, reading your hard work and beloved story, and truthfully, if you can’t catch their attention, they probably won’t get through it. 

A lot of people say that you need something big to happen in the first ten pages, and that's true. But that doesn't mean a big explosion or a monumental terrorist attack. As great as those can be, not every opening sequence has to be the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. In reality, the first ten pages simply have to hold the weight of the story, and get the reader interested in flipping pages.

As a reader, if a script lands on your desk and the next three minutes are a Paul-Rudd-style convo where the characters shoot the shit until page 5, chances are you won’t get to page 3. (It turns out that Paul Rudd style dialogue really only works when it’s actually Paul Rudd.) But say you get Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds ten-minute conversation between a milk farmer hiding Jews and a eloquent Nazi soldier asking for a glass of milk, and the reader will probably get to page 90 before he even realizes it. 

Why? Because the conversation tells us exactly the story we're going to see– an educated, entertaining, eloquent, f*cking crazy Nazi soldier chasing Jews who has to be taken down. And, it pops with the shooting and letting the one girl go free. Raiders of the Lost Ark brings us in the same way. It’s a slow, methodical, tense archeological find, and it pops with Indiana running away from a giant rolling boulder. 

William Goldman's fairy tale The Princess Bride takes a different route. Its love story and quirky characters bring us into the picture. Its first ten pages is simply a setup, but it's a damn good one.

A young boy lies sick in his bed, coughing up half a lung, playing video games. His mother comes in, and he hopes for the comfort of chicken soup, movies, and games. And instead he gets… Grandpa. Who came to read him a story. 

But Goldman is a pro. In his quiet opening, he shows us it’s going to be a fun journey of farm hands, pirates, rhyming giants, and thieves. And all with a sense of humor. To learn what your first ten pages should include, let’s take a look at his. 

 

1. Establish the Tone and/or Genre. 

Grandpa:  Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles….

Grandson:  Doesn't sound too bad. I'll try and stay awake.

Grandfather: Oh. Well thank you very much. Very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.

Notice how, written in the script, True Love is capitalized, even though it’s the ninth item on the list. Because that’s what this story is really about. True Love. True Love between Westley and Buttercup, but also between the Grandfather and the Boy, who will be our eyes into this fencing, fighting adventure. The Princess Bride is a love story. And, as Grandpa says, a fantasy. And, with all the smart ass comments being thrown around, it’s a comedy as well. 

 

2. Introduce the Main Characters. 

And what a fantastic list of characters he has. A stubborn young boy that doesn’t like kissing scenes:

Grandson:  Hold it, hold it! What is this? Are you tryin' to trick me? Where's the sports? (gravely) Is this a kissing book?

A Grandfather that’s resolute. 

Grandfather:  Keep your shirt on, let me read.

A Farm Boy that only says “As you wish”, and actually means “I love you.”

A brilliant plotting Vizzini, who uses words like “Hippopotamic” and “sot”. A revengeful Inigo, and a rhyming giant: 

Inigo:  You have a great gift for rhyme.

Fezzik:   Yes, yes, some of the time.

Vizzini:   Enough of that!

Inigo:   Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?

Fezzik:   If there are, we all be dead!

Vizzini:   No more rhymes now, I mean it!

Fezzik:   Anybody want a peanut?

 

3. Clarify the World of the Story.

The sick boy– that’s something we can relate to. The grandparent taking care of us– again, we can relate. We know the world in which we live, but when Goldman takes us into the story of Westley and Buttercup, he takes us one level deeper. For the majority of The Princess Bride, we live inside the minds of Grandfather and Grandson. This is how they see the story, and they’re taking us along for the ride. 

 

4. Show the theme. 

As I mentioned before, when the Grandfather tells his Grandson what the story is about, True Love is capitalized. It’s capitalized again when Westley tells Buttercup: 

Westley:  Hear this now: I will always come for you.

Buttercup:  But how can you be sure?

Westley:  This is True Love. You think this happens every day??

It’s subtle, but it’s not. This is not Blake Snyder’s “state the theme on page XX.” These are subtle, but flagrant hints that this story is about True Love– a thing so powerful that it deserves capitalization. And then, Goldman: 

 

5. Illustrate what the story is going to be about. 

Westley:   Hear this now: I will always come for you.

Buttercup:  But how can you be sure?

Westley:   This is True Love. You think this happens every day??

Grandfather:  "Westley didn't reach his destination. His ship was attacked by the dread pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered,–"

Grandson:  Murdered by pirates is good….

Grandfather:  "She went into her room and shut the door, and for days she neither slept nor ate."

Buttercup:  I will never love again.

This story will be about the response to this setup. Will Buttercup ever love again? Will Westley come for her and keep his promise, even through death? Even though Westley is supposedly dead, we’re willing to watch to find out. 

But again, Goldman is a pro, and there’s no telling the amount of rewrites he went through to get all of these elements in. But here’s something to think about: while you need to hit it all in the first ten pages, Goldman hits all five points in the first three. We, the audience, and the reader, are in– fast. No explosions. No dead bodies– well, sort of– and no war scenes. And we want to keep reading. 

So while you’re writing your script, think about how you’re going to cover off your five elements. Because you get one chance to impress your reader, and that chance lies within pages 1 through the amount of time until he or she gets bored– and hopefully that’s WAY after they’ve finished your script and dropped it in the GO pile.