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Take another look at the photo of Greg Beal of the Nicholl Fellowship surrounded by over 6,000 script submissions (http://photos.oscars.org/listanevent.php?events=50). Now imagine you're the reader sitting in the middle of that avalanche. How much patience do you have for a story that doesn't grab you right away? I'm betting not a lot.
"Readers are overworked," says producer Hal Croasmun. "Your job is to make it impossible for them to put your script down."
Hollywood's short attention span can be infuriating to writers who have poured their life's blood into their work. "Unfair!" they cry. "If a reader puts down the script after 10 pages, they'll miss the award-worthy love scene on page 53. And what about the fantastic twist at the end?" Unfortunately, by then it's too late.
It's the business of readers and producers to know what will hold their audience's interest. "I've asked over 25 producers, 'At what point in a script can you tell if it is written by a professional screenwriter?'" says Croasmun. "Many said, 'Within three pages,' and more than half said, 'On the first page.'"
Don't think the public will be more generous. Several years ago, famed editor Sol Stein conducted an informal study on book-browsing habits in mid-Manhattan bookstores. He found that most people read about three pages before either buying the book or putting it down to pick up another one. In his book On Writing, Stein says, "Thereafter, whenever a novelist told me that his novel really got going on page 10 or 20 or 30, I had to pass on the news that his book in all likelihood was doomed."
The first 10 pages need to introduce us to the story, the setting, and the characters. They need to establish the hero's "life as usual" and to show us the event that catapults the hero into a different life (inciting incident). By the end of the first 10 pages, we need to know what the story is about. All this needs to happen in a fresh and entertaining way. Many novice writers stop the story to establish the characters and the setting and to unroll "life as usual." But experienced writers reveal character and establish relationships and setting and get the story rolling by giving us conflict from the get-go, saturating every line of dialogue with meaning, having their characters interact with the setting, and creating intriguing story questions that pique curiosity. The best way to learn how to write great openings is by studying the first few pages of some of your favorite scripts.
When you grab your reader on the first page, you've just made a promise to tell him a great story. Live up to that promise on every page that follows, and your reader won't be able to put your script down.