All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.

Let the ensuing commence!

mountain climber 2
That was when our heroes realized things were about to get a lot tougher from here on in…

When I write out a scene, I have a pretty solid idea of what needs to happen in it; how to make it follow the one before it, and lead into the one after it.

Sometimes it ends up the way I intended, and sometimes it needs a little more punching-up.

And a lot of the time, that punching-up involves making things more complicated, which does a simultaneously effective job of upping the conflict, which was already a necessity.

This whole process most recently came into play while working on a scene in the pulp spec. I’d planned out what was supposed to happen, and on the surface, it seemed okay.

And then I wrote it, but it wasn’t the same as I’d envisioned. It was still missing a vital component, and I couldn’t determine exactly what.

Did it successfully connect the scenes before and after? Was there conflict? Did it advance the necessary elements?  Yes on all counts, but it still seemed off.

I read through it again. It was tight and efficient, and did what it was supposed to. But this second read also revealed the hidden problem that was nagging at me.

It was too tight and efficient. The protagonist accomplished what they were supposed to, but it needed to be tougher for them to do so.

So back I went to the planning-out stage, tossing in a few more wrinkles to make it that much harder for my hero. Although they still achieve their goal within the context of the scene, this time I made sure they really earned it.

Plus, the new complications really emphasized the overall nature of the story, which is always good.

This isn’t to say that every scene has to have some kind of monumental obstacle to your protagonist, but the journey towards their goal shouldn’t be an easy one. It might not even be a physical thing; maybe your hero has to overcome an internal or emotional problem.

It may be easier for you to keep things simple and straightforward, but unfortunately that makes for dull storytelling. Making things more complicated for your protagonist may complicate things for you in putting it all together, but it will definitely make for a better story while also improving your skills as a writer.

Don’t hold back. Put both yourself and your protagonist through the wringer. You’ll both be better for it.

Trying to unlock a key moment

skeleton-keys
One of these HAS to be it

I was hoping to wrap up the polish/revision of the comedy spec this week. Everything was going quite smoothly until I hit a bit of snag when I got to the end of Act 2 – only one of the most important parts of the story. Where things are definitely at the lowest point possible for our hero.

The general consensus of my readers was that the hero was too passive, and therefore needed to be much more active and stand his ground, yet still end up failing. Some suggestions were made, and I’ve been working on making it stronger and more effective.

Which brings us back to right now. As it reads, it’s just not working.

And that’s kind of frustrating.

I know there’s a solution to this, and my creativeness has been working constantly to come up with one that not only works with the context of the story, but seems plausible and believable.

As I said to one of my readers, I tend to overthink this kind of thing. To which they responded with “Remember, this is a story that’s supposed to entertain.”

And that’s pretty important, too.

Hopefully when all is said and done, it’ll do all of it.

-I ran the Giant Race half-marathon on Sunday. Got a small rock in my shoe around mile 7 or 8, but opted to keep going rather than sacrifice the time to remove it. The rock eventually was a non-issue and I managed to just beat my ongoing goal of 1:55 by one whole second – 1:54:59.

And you want to take over the world because…?

Not just the villain, but a key part of the whole story
Not just the villain, but a key part of the whole story

So you’ve got your protagonist’s story planned all the way through. Beginning to end. You know what they want and what they need. That character arc is firmly in place.

What about your antagonist?

Have you put as much effort into developing their story? Do you explain why they’re doing this? What do they seek to gain from their actions?

A lot of the time, the bad guy is the more interesting character, so why wouldn’t you make just as much of an effort on fleshing them out?

The character we identify as the villain should see themselves as the hero of their story, with your protagonist the one standing in their way of achieving their goal.

Maybe there’s a previously-existing connection between the two, which can be gradually revealed as the story progresses.

How often has a writer explained the “why” behind the antagonist with a casual “Because they’re bad”?  Readers and audiences want a little more depth than that.

This isn’t saying you need to come up with an extensive backstory about their past and what led them down this path.  A few lines of dialogue can be just the thing to provide the reason why they’re doing this.

You’ve already spent a lot of time developing your hero’s journey. It only makes sense to do the same for the villain.

Caught in the ripple effect

It starts a chain reaction you just can't stop
A chain reaction you just can’t stop

When I work on pages, I make a point of adhering to the story as it’s written in the outline. There may be some slight alterations here and there, but that’s not an uncommon thing.

At the moment I’m in the middle of a sequence, that, according to the outline, was all planned out. No problems.

Little did I realize that over the course of the pages before this, all of those slight alterations would drastically change the circumstances surrounding my protagonist’s situation in that sequence.

Without knowing it, I had made things much harder not only for him, which is how it should be, but also for myself, which isn’t exactly the greatest of news.  Most of the details now had to be thrown away.

And because I’m such a glutton for punishment, this sequence was slowly becoming way too similar to one from about 20 pages before it. How I didn’t see this while outlining I’ll never know.

So it’s not necessarily back to square one, but I’ve got some work to do. Looking at this from the silver lining perspective, this is actually some pretty good stuff:

-My protagonist now faces bigger challenges, which still advance the story, theme and character development.
-I’m forced to come up with better, more creative ways of depicting how things play out.
-Recognizing and handling the domino effect those earlier changes have made and will make on the rest of the story.

Fortunately, we writers are a hearty lot and not easily deterred.  Time, experience and constant rewrites provide us with the determination and intestinal fortitude to work our way through this sort of thing.