Why It Matters
If your goal is to land an agent, pique the interest of a producer, or cause an actor to proclaim, "I have to play this role", you have no choice but to come out with guns blazing from Page One.
Agents, producers, actors, contest script readers -- or whomever you are lucky enough to get your script in front of -- will give you ten minutes of their time. In fact, I firmly believe they'll give you five. If you don't hook your reader in 10 pages or less, expect your 100 page masterpiece to be tossed in the trash. I would know. I've done it. Generally, if the script hasn't hooked me in the first ten pages, I'm going to speed read the rest, write up the coverage, and pick up the next script off the pile. A bad first impression sets a bias for how your reader judges the rest of your script -- and if you wrote poorly in the beginning, odds are the rest won't be much better.
Getting interest in your story is a crap shoot most of the time. Here are 4 crucial tips to improve your odds.
1. Draw Your Reader In Immediately
In today's insta-matic social media culture, our attention span for entertainment material has shrunk from hours to minutes, and possibly seconds. It makes sense -- we have access to millions of videos from our laptops, tablets, and phones -- so we judge immediately whether something is worth viewing, and if it isn't, we move on.
I believe this has begun to infect movie culture as well.
This is why trailers have become a crucial advertising tool more than ever before -- companies have learned to create masterpieces in 30-90 seconds to convince viewers they should spend two hours watching their film.
Think of your reader approaching your script the same way you approach a trailer, or a YouTube video that's gotten some buzz recently. If nothing happens in the first 30 seconds, do you stick around? I doubt it.
Set the tone immediately. Let the reader "feel" what your script is about in the first words on the page. This doesn't mean crazy action (though it could be). Below is Page One from the Bourne Identity, Screenplay written by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron.
© 2002 Universal. Source: The Bourne Identity (2002)
This is what I mean by "with guns blazing." The first lines draw you in and don't let you go. At this point you want to read the next 9 pages, and probably the next 90.
That's the hook you must find in order to reel your reader in.
You can write the greatest action sequence of all time, but if you don't connect your audience to the protagonist, no one will care.
2. Keep Them Hooked: How Much Action Do You Need?
A common mistake for screenwriters is to assume that to hook your reader, you need to write an over the top, Michael Bay style action sequence where the world is blown to pieces and your action hero has already escaped death six times. It might be exciting to read, but it's downhill from there if the climax happened in the opening sequence.
As we go further in to the opening sequence of the Bourne Identity, we come to realize that Jason Bourne, our protagonist, has amnesia and has no idea how he ended up in the ocean -- and more importantly, he has no idea who he is. Now that's a hook. We've yet to see an explosion, gun fight, or car chase.
Some films can get away with the big action opener. A perfect example is the famous opening sequences in the James Bond films; each film attempts to one-up the last with incredible action set-pieces. Look at 2012's Skyfall and the first 10 minutes of the film, from the opening frame, is pure adrenaline rocking insanity. And it works. Why? Because we've already been drawn in since the entire world knows who James Bond is. We have a reason to root for him; we've seen him killing bad guys for over fifty years.
But your John Doe is not James Bond. You can write the greatest action sequence of all time, but if you don't connect your audience to the protagonist, no one will care. Jason Bourne was someone the audience connected to immediately -- we can all sense how terrifying it would be if we woke up one day and had lost all memory of our past, much less in the middle of a dark ocean. We want to see him figure out his life again. What is your John Doe going to make us feel? What glimpses into his life will make us root him on to victory in the end?
I am not stating that the opening scenes must be void of all action. Of course not, it's an action screenplay! But in the process of your action sequence, you need to create story choices that make your reader feel a connection to the main character. Focus here first. This will help dictate just how much or how little action is needed to start your script off right.
It doesn't take us long to realize that Riggs is off his rocker.
3. Use Action To Establish Character
The action must be a vehicle for your character to drive. What will hook your reader -- and ultimately your audience -- is not what vehicle he's driving (fist fights, shootouts, car chases) but how your character drives the vehicle.
Take Mel Gibson's Riggs in Lethal Weapon. We recognize quickly that while Riggs is a cop crazy enough to do whatever it takes to be the hero (the cliche), he goes one step further -- Riggs might actually be mentally insane. In his first action scene, a drug bust goes wrong and ignites a gun fight, in which the bad guy eventually has Riggs at gunpoint while the cops close in. What does Riggs do? First he yells at the cops to shoot the guy even though he might get hit himself, and then he turns to the bad guy and screams like mad to shoot him. Ultimately, his insanity turns the tables -- the drug dealer is stunned by the madness and gives Riggs an opportunity to disarm him. And if that wasn't enough -- Riggs is coaxed away by his fellow officers, because it appears he was ready to beat the man to a bloody pulp if he had the chance.
To use the vehicle metaphor, your cliche action hero would swerve back and forth on the road, but Riggs pushes half his car off a cliff, and doesn't seem to care whether it falls or not. We get entertaining action, but we get more. We understand what Riggs is all about -- he's a trainwreck waiting to happen and damn -- we can't wait to see what he's gonna do once the action really ramps up. Now I want to read on. Apparently so did Warner Brothers; it spawned a four film franchise.
"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."
4. Create Questions To Be Answered
This is the case for any genre of screenwriting, not just for action films. Why would the reader desire to keep going through your script if he has no questions he wants answered? Simple answer. He won't. If he has no questions, he's not engaged and not curious about what comes next. And if he's not curious, he's not interested. And guess where you script goes? Yup. In the trash.
Look at Die Hard. After an ominously upbeat opening scene with John McClane riding the streets of sunny California on Christmas Eve, he finds out his wife has reverted to her maiden name, they have an argument immediately upon meeting each other on screen, and Hans Gruber has shown up with his henchmen firing guns like mad and holding Nakatomi Plaza hostage.
All in ten minutes. Now our minds are racing -- why did didn't John and Holly work out? Why is he in New York and she L.A.? Both connect us to the human aspect of his character. Oh, and why the heck has Hans Gruber gone mad and taken over the building, forcing McClane to go rogue without any shoes on? The first time I saw the film, I had no idea. But for the next 110 minutes, my eyes never left the screen.
Make your reader feel this excitement, fear, and genuine intrigue and to say to himself, "I have to read what happens next." If you do this, you have a better chance than most at getting the attention of the Hollywood big shots.