How to lose a reader in the first three pages.

A few days ago, /u/eddieswiss [+4] posted his script on reddit asking for opinions. I asked If I could post my notes and he graciously agreed. Eddieswiss is a promising writer and a nice person. He has the rare ability to take criticism, which is surprisingly rare. People who can take criticism develop faster than people who can’t.

Here’s the script . Read it if you like. This post only covers the first three pages.

Synopsis: DAMIEN (12) and RICHARD (11) play with toy swords on a playground. They have an active fantasy life and pretend to be medieval characters. Damien gets his new clothes muddy. He fears he’ll get in trouble. Richard’s mom calls Richard home.

Damien goes home, where he wakes up his MOTHER. His mother is mad at him for ruining his clothes.

Later, Damien has dinner with his mother and FATHER. Damien tells his dad about his fantasy adventures.

1. The formatting is a mess.

I could beat a dead horse, but that’s an easy fix. I’ve commented on the first line elsewhere[3] .

I’m overlooking the style mistakes, but they matter because they cause me, the reader, to withhold the benefit of the doubt. As you’ll see, that starts to matter.

2. Damien fears he’ll get in trouble because of his muddy clothes. The first thing he does when he gets home is wake up his mom.

This is a behavior mistake. We want our imagined characters to seem like they could be real people. We want the illusion of verisimilitude. It’s easy to lose that if you present information that doesn’t feel grounded.

When Damien finds his mom asleep on the couch, he’s lucked out. He’s off the hook. If he wants to avoid getting in trouble, he could throw his clothes in the wash and take a shower. Instead, he wakes her up immediately. That’s like a teen who sneaks out of the house intentionally waking up his parents on the way back.

You want to call out the unusual behavior so the script can justify it. Examples:

  • Damien could consider sneaking upstairs but then get guilty and wake his mom instead. That would say a lot about his character.
  • His mom could point out that he should have snuck upstairs, but be proud of him for being honest.
  • He could be honest because his character in his fantasies is honest.

As a reader I have no way of knowing if there’s a good reason for this behavior, or if the writer hasn’t thought things all the way through. As noted above, the script has already lost the benefit of the doubt. Had the script justified that character choice when it came up, it would have bought a lot of good will from me. Experienced writers anticipate reader hiccups. Developing writers don’t, which undercuts the reality of their choices.

You might argue that no one reads a script this closely, but some people do and you want to reward that attention. Even careless readers will subconsciously pick up on “artificial” behavior. Human beings are very good at recognizing human behavior, if something feels off it’s the behavorial equivalent of the uncanny valley: off-putting.

3. Where are we?

Is the playground connected to a school or a park? How does this connect to the world? Apparently the park is shouting distance from Richard’s mom, so is this a private park that’s connected to a neighborhood they both live in?

What’s the mood? Is it a sad, poor place that’s enlivened by Richard and Damien’s play? Is it a fun, happy place that would cheer up anyone?

Is it a nice playground, one of the modern kinds that’s impossible to get hurt on, or is it one of the cool old kinds, rickety wooden structures, tire swings hanging over gravel?

What’s the climate? Arizona in the summer? Honolulu in the fall? The season matters because there’s mud on the ground. I’d like the context. It’d cost a single line to put in and should be there before description of the characters’ wardrobes.

4. The age of the kids raises some questions.

There’s no specificity to the dialogue, you could make the characters 8 and it’d still work. Damien (12) is the hero of this script, so the inability to write specific dialogue for him is a bad sign, implying that the story is framed around a character that the author doesn’t have a firm handle on.

The age of the kids themselves isn’t arbitrary – it’s actually a defining characteristic. Consider: Damien and Richard are 12-year-old boys. It’s after school, it’s circa 2014, and rather than play video games, smoke cigarettes or talk about girls, they’re playing KINGDOM. They’re in a public place near a neighborhood. That makes them either very brave or very oblivious. Even if they are super-geeks, they’re at an age where non-conformity is mocked.

If this happened in real life, some 13-year-old on a bike might come by and call them a gay slur, or some mean teenagers might beat them up. Showing normal kids will highlight a cultural context for the kids. I’d be willing to give the script the benefit of the doubt, but as stated, it lost that on the first line.

5. The game the kids play raises a lot of questions.

They’re not just goofing around with swords, they’re playing Kingdom. I want to know more about that. You might be saying, “Jesus Christ cynicallad, let this go! It’s just a kid’s game!” But I won’t, because this really matters.

The stated logline is: A boy creates a fantasy world to deal with his cancer. I can only assume that we’re starting with this scene to show off the fact that Damien is imaginative. I’m fine with that, but you need to make sure that his imagination is grounded in reality.

1) The first line implies that the guys have swords they MADE. That implies that at some point they got together, busted out the Elmer’s glue and made swords so they could LARP on the playground. That’s a very different kind of geek than someone who finds a couple tubes in the trash and fucks around with them.

The best way to show what these swords mean to the characters is to show what they do with them after the game. If they throw them into a dumpster with a bunch of other tubes, that says one thing. If they take them home, that says another. If they put them in special scabbards which are made out of Tyvek paper and sequins, that says even more. Specificity is your friend. This is an easy opportunity to illuminate character through behavior.

2) This is the big one: Damien will be king SOMEDAY.

At first I thought the kids were just fooling around. But then on page three, Damien says he’ll be king someday, it says something about the game – either there are actual rules, which we’re not privy too, or Richard is really keeping Damien down, or Damien is so beta that he can’t even assert himself as a king. Any of these are great, but it’d be great if that was explored a little more. Let me see the kids having fun. More than the rules, I want to see HOW they play and what this game means to them. I also want to know how to play KINGDOM. Obviously, I don’t need an annotated rule book, but I want some sense of how it’s played, what it means to the kids.

3) How smart are these kids? I remember being a 12-year-old kid who was super into dungeons and dragons. I wouldn’t have been as “out” about it as these kids are, but kids like this do exist. That being said, the kids like that who cared enough about medieval times to pretend to be knights would probably know that a lowly knight would be unlikely to be in the line of royal succession. Are they ignorant dopes, or budding novelists who have a Jon Snow-like backstory for this Sir Damien character? Again, specifics create behavior, which builds character.

6. Mystery milk

The two CHILDREN are now sitting on a WOODEN BENCH and drinking from CARTONS of CHOCOLATE MILK. The both of them are covered in dirt from head to toe

Wait, where the hell did this milk come from? Am I to understand that they went out from home with nothing but their cardboard swords and cartons of milk, which they then left unrefrigerated for the X amount of time it takes to play Kingdom, and then, parched, went for some delicious, room temperature chocolate milk?

It’s specifically called a carton of milk, cartons have to be refrigerated (there are other kinds that don’t). This milk is one of the many things that takes me out of the reality of the scene and makes me doubt the construction of the universe on the first page. Again, this shows the specificity of location – if it’s winter time, you might have a nice shot of two milks sitting in a snow bank. That would at least make the world feel lived in.

In reality, though, the milk drinking scene is unnecessary. It’d be better to see more of the game of Kingdom and have mom call out just as the imagined game reaches its dramatic apex.

IN CLOSING

The following examples should give you an idea of the gaps in logic that suggest that the writer doesn’t fully have a grasp on the words he’s putting down. This might not register consciously, but it does register subconsciously and if a reader has lingering questions, they’re not fully focusing on your script.

At the end of the day, you’re either careful writing your script or you’re not. If you’re not going to take care in expressing things cleanly and accurately, why should the reader invest time in carefully reading your script?

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:

EXT. PLAYGROUND -- AFTERNOON
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.

Three act structure doesn’t exist, and yet it’s still helpful.

There are four basic elements in screenwriting. You can use them to achieve any story.

  1. Character attribution
  2. Dialogue
  3. Scene Headings
  4. Action description

There are also transitions, and parentheticals, etc. They exist, but one could also go an entire career without ever actually using one. Read here for more on this idea.

Those are the things that literally exist in screenplays. Anything beyond that isn’t reality, it’s a model of reality. This is a semantic nuance that has led to untold hours of hurt feelings and wasted time.

Acts, sequences, etc are theories, they don’t literally exist.

We might choose to see things like beats of a scene, character arcs, acts, sequences, inciting incidents, or any number of other crap, but those are all optional – models of reality, not reality of itself. Even if someone deliberately wrote a script to be a perfect model of three act structure, someone else will see it as an illustration of five act structure, two act structure, hero’s journey, or whatever else is popular.

RELATED: A basic three act structure.

Some will point out that act breaks actually exist in TV scripts, as well as character lists and a few other things. They are correct, but we’re talking about feature film scripts here. I hope no one will take it amiss if I suggest that they avoid act breaks in features because features don’t commonly have act breaks, so it looks amateurish when someone includes them.

The same script could be broken down into three, four, five or seven acts and still be be the exact same story. Even three act structure has a dozen different flavors, they all say about the same thing.

Someone might deliberately write a feature screenplay using a 2 act model. Despite this, someone who’s entrenched in a three act paradigm will find a way to break it down into three acts. Someone who’s into five act structure will do the same. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Use whatever works for you, but don’t be surprised if someone has a different point of view on it. Ideally, your approach is sturdy enough to help you, but flexible enough to allow you to share ideas with other people.

WAIT, IF ACTS DON’T EXIST, WHY DO YOU SPEND SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT THEM?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Though they don’t literally exist, they are useful thought structures that sometimes aid in crafting and analyzing material. Some people use them, some don’t

The three act structure is a model of reality, not reality itself. The map is not the terrain[1] . That being said, it’s a useful model.

I talk in three act structure[2] because it’s how I learned, because I like it, and because in my experience it facilitates communication more often than it hinders it. It’s an approach, one of many, good as any, better than most.

There are many good reasons to think in terms of beats and acts and the like, but like any approach there are weaknesses behind the strength. It’s always useful to remember that there is no one right way to write a screenplay, but that there are many approaches, and many of them have value.

On Passive Voice

To write well is to clearly communicate your thoughts to someone else.  Unless you are writing poetry, in your diary, or some other creative type of writing – your goal should and probably is so that others read and understand it.  The passive voice confuses traditional object/subject classifications.  It can cause readers to become unsure as to who is acting, and who is affected.  This prevents you from achieving the clearest form of communication – which is usually the goal!

Or, to paraphrase Stephen King:  With a hammer he killed Frank = bad. He killed Frank with a hammer = better.

A quick, useful screenwriting lesson

No line of dialogue or description really ever needs to be longer than four lines (feel free to break this rule 5 times per script, more is just pushing it). Most elements in a first draft are at least one line too long.

BAD: Josh reaches in his desk drawer and pulls out an envelope and slides it across the desk.  Michael picks it up.

BETTER: Josh hands Michael an envelope.

Basic guidelines for a good sample script.

A common misconception in writing is that you are writing a spec so you can sell it. This is not the case. A sale, while nice, is unlikely in the current climate. My advice is to write a sample that communicates your ability to work in a given genre.
My advice for beginning writers can be summed up thusly:

  1. Your story should be between 95-115 pages.
  2. Your story should have a likable star part with a clear and recognizable arc.
  3. Your story should hit the familiar beats while paradoxically feeling fresh and original.
  4. Your story should be a strong example of a single, commercial genre.
  5. Nothing in your script should be longer than 4 lines. You can break this rule 5 times.
  6. It should explore cynicism, but reaffirm optimism (unless it’s a horror movie, in which case kill everybody).
  7. Don’t world build too much – if your universe begins to resemble Warcraft or Star Wars, you might want to write a novel.
  8. You must give a shit about what you write. If you can’t give a shit within these rules, then mainstream screenwriting might not be for you.

It’s not that this is the best way, or the only way, or even the right way. There is no right way, but there’s nothing egregious in this advice (again, so long as you give a shit).

IS THIS A BY THE NUMBERS FORMULA?
No. A common misconception with Save the Cat and other Mad Lib-type approaches to movies is that they’ve done all the thinking for you, and you just need to fill in the blanks. If it were that easy, they would have software to write screenplays. The great challenge of screenwriting is to take a familiar form like this and find a way to make it personal. Find what you’re trying to say, then use this story to say it (this topic merits 10,000 words on it’s own, but for now just remember that there are no easy answers). You have to give a shit (for more on this, see below).

IF EVERYONE DOES THIS WON’T THIS APPROACH LOSE VALUE?
Absolutely. No approach works forever, but for now, given that most people can’t internalize simple advice like this, if you do try it this way, it’ll help you stand out. Screenwriting advice is like rock, paper, scissors. There’s no best approach, the battlefield is always changing.

IS THIS GUARANTEED TO WORK?
Nothing is guaranteed to work. Being a professional screenwriter is like making it to the NBA. There’s a hoop on every playground, but only 350 NBA players in the world. This is just some simple advice that represents what I think gives you the best shot of showcasing your ability to write to the average reader.

HOW DO I DO THIS?
There’s no best way. You will find your method. I have my ways, which are listed on my website.

REALLY, WHY ARE WE DOING IT THIS WAY?
There’s a kind of sameness to most movies. This isn’t due to a great conspiracy, it’s because humans are particular in terms of the kind of culture they will accept. A good story tends to have some sense of unity, causality, and obedience to some kind of theme. The most successful writers are the ones who find joy in what they do. There’s a misconception that Michael Bay or Brett Ratner are some kind of sellouts. Not so, they love the kinds of movies they make as much as Tarantino or Scorcese do theirs. If this advice makes you gag, don’t follow it. If you see the sense of it, try writing within these parameters. It’s an approach that’s as good as any, better than most.