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When it comes to the beginning of your screenplay, I’m a firm believer in letting the ending dictate the correct beginning. If you know your character dies in the end, it makes sense to use that profound piece of knowledge to structure a suitable journey (both for your protagonist and your audience) to that tragic end.
To think of writing a story as a discovery to the unknown is for the novelist, a quality that sets the novel apart as a different form of artistic achievement, but when it comes to screenplay structure, the screenwriter has little business sitting at that table of the unknown.
The reality is that the screenwriter faces a lot of limitations. Only has so much time. Only so many pages. Can only write what we can see. And the audience expects a lot – and at very specific plot points, whether they realize it or not. And it’s true that knowing your ending is a key component to deciding on how to start your screenplay, but the first few pages of your script carry more weight than most of us can possibly imagine.
Screenplays have to be read by somebody, and in most cases the reader, whether they’re professional or not (and there are professional readers, and assistants, and secretaries, and interns, and friends of friends of friends), knows whether the screenplay is of any worth within those first pages. Sure, you have approximately 24 to 30 script pages (depending on the genre) to lock your protagonist in, propelling him or her or them into the second act tension, but a legitimate studio reader, one that holds the lifeline of your screenplay with a simple pass or recommend, is looking for a lot in those early pages.
At the beginning of a screenplay, you’ve only got about 10 pages to accomplish these five major rules:
- Establish the tone/genre (is this a comedy, fantasy, spoof, etc.)
- Introduce your main character: interesting, flawed, and if not likeable, at least empathetic… somebody we can hope and fear for.
- Clarify the world of the story and the status quo.
- Indicate the theme or message (Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, etc.)
- Set up the dramatic situation – that is, what the story is going to be about.
So don’t waste time. Never wander. Maximize script economy and get into your story quick – at the last possible moment – so you can move the story forward immediately, while always staying creative with character, world, and situation.