How to lose a reader on the first line of a script.

DISCLAIMER: I take script confidentiality incredibly seriously. I will never talk about the specifics of someone else’s script to anyone else because I’m being asked for discretion as much as my opinion. The one exception is if someone posts a screenplay in a public forum like Reddit to solicit free opinions. In that case, I’m delighted to have the opportunity for a teachable moment.

                                              Fade in:

Two very YOUNG BOYS are seen playing around various bits of the PLAYGROUND. They’re playing war and swinging SWORDS made of TOILET PAPER ROLLS around.

I’m going to ignore the right justified FADE IN*: and discuss the first scene description/action line about the two young boys.

I actually like the implied opening IMAGE of this script, it’s vivid and relates to the theme. my problem is chiefly with the way the line is WORDED because the verbiage makes it harder to see the image, not easier.

Your first line is a first impression. As a reader, all my brain wants to do is convert the written line into a mental picture so I can imagine stuff happening, and yet the language in this line precludes me from doing that.

  • I have no idea what a VERY YOUNG BOY is. Why not just tell me their age?
  • “Are seen” is unnecessary here. Implicitly, everything in scene description is seen.
  • What are various bits of a playground? Are we starting with a montage? Even if it was, why not just tell me they’re in the sandbox? Or by the swings? Or on the monkey bars? Your first sentence is filled with two variables. I don’t want to think in variables. I want to be presented with a picture. Don’t trust the reader to imagine. Make them see what you want to see.
  • What is playing war? Is that a different game from swinging around a fake sword? If it’s not, why include it at all?
  • How does one you make a sword out of toilet paper rolls? I’m trying and failing to imagine how you could connect toilet paper rolls in a way that would enable a kid to swing it around. I guess you could glue them to a stick, but then why not just use a stick. Did the writer mean a cardboard tube, like you’d ship a poster in?

The toilet paper roll sword is me being pedantic, but it’s an example of a line that raises questions. Details are great, but you don’t want the details to be confusing. If the boys are swinging cardboard swords, I’ll trust that they’re sturdy enough to swing. If the boys are swinging swords made out of macaroni/kitten whiskers/or human sadness, I’m going to have some questions.

You don’t want the reader to have questions this fundamental, especially not on the first line. You want them paying close attention, and they can’t do that if a lack of clear details is nagging at their subconscious.

It’s entirely possible that the remainder of the script is brilliant, but the first line doesn’t augur well for that possibility because the vague writing suggests that he hasn’t looked at the form from the point of view of another human being who isn’t, y’know, the writer. That’s a bad sign, because it’s a failure of imagination (the reader is important, consider their needs and POV).

The lines waste a first impression. Writing is a seduction. You want to hook the reader with your first line and keep them hooked till the end. First impressions matter, you don’t start a stirring speech with the word “Um…” The passage here communicates that they don’t know that or don’t care, neither answer gives me confidence in there wherewithal to keep me entertained for the next 100 pages.

Professional readers will grimly read the entirety of a script because it’s their job. Even execs might give it a couple pages before they toss it aside. But a weak first line is like the guy who shows up to a date with spinach in his teeth – he can overcome that misstep, but he hasn’t put himself in a great position to succeed.

Write strong first lines that show your confidence and skill. Ably communicate a clear picture and mood. It’s much easier and it positions you for success.

* Footnote:

I hate the fade in, too. It’s formatted like a transition, but now I’m running through my memory trying to remember if there’s any rules on whether that’s supposed to be left justified or right justified.

And you know what, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s going to chime in with a screed about how there are no rules. But what does matter is it’s a line that doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter if we fade in, start with a picture, or hear the kids playing over black. It’s an arbitrary choice so why are you making me read it? It’s like starting a stirring speech with a phlegm-clearing cough.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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