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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 10: Your First Ten Pages & The Ordinary World

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Take me to a world I've never seen before... Your Protagonist's ordinary world. I want to know as much or more about his or her world than he or she does. Don't just THINK you know all about your Protagonist's ordinary world. Just because you've seen a few movies with a similar ordinary world doesn't make you an expert.

But guess what.

You've got to be.

How do you do that?

Good question.

Any way you can. Movies, screenplays, books, interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, and the Internet. They all work. One of the things that shine through almost immediately within the first 10 pages of a script is the authenticity of that particular story world.

Come on... If you can't even sell me on your Protagonist's ordinary world - how the hell are you gonna sell me on the rest of the story? Remember, this ordinary world is the world YOU created for us. For us to believe in. That means new rules. Not the rules of the world I left behind to read your screenplay or watch your movie... Nope. The new world that sets the stage for your story.

It doesn't matter if your Protagonist's ordinary world looks a lot like our world... Show us something different. Show us the world within the world. The ordinary world could be as small as a clique and as large as the universe but you've got to show us that world. Open it up to us. Show us the characters in that world - good and bad.

Set the stage for me so that when one of your characters does something - anything - I'm okay with it. I understand it. That's the way things are in that world.

Get out and walk that world. That's right, immerse yourself into that world. Your only limit is your imagination. Remember, you're God now so it's time to be in charge. Establish the rules and regulations of your new story world. Let us know what kinds of things can happen there - what kinds of things we can expect to happen there.

Remember this is the world that has helped form your Protagonist but obviously not all the way. Most likely, he or she is unhappy there although he or she may not even be aware of it.

Along with showing us your Protagonist's ordinary world, you'll also be introducing your Protagonist to us. That's right... Within the first ten pages. I recently read a script where the screenwriter didn't introduce the protagonist until page 22. Of course he had introduced other characters before this and to be honest, I didn't even know this new character was the protagonist until I read another 25 pages.

What the %$@*?

Yeah... That's what the writer did. He screwed me. Why? Because I invested my time and energy and generally cleared my head and hoped to my God that I was in for the story of my life.

Nope.

I think all told, I spent at least 40 minutes going back and checking to see if I read it wrong. Does anyone really think anyone else is going to be interested in a screenplay like that?

Nope.

The point is that we expect you to introduce your Protagonist and stay with them so that we understand this character is the character we're supposed to be concerned about.

Speaking about your Protagonist - again, you really should consider introducing them within the first 10 pages. This introduction should be memorable. Remember, this is the character that the story revolves around. This is the character that drives the story forward - or should be driving the story forward.

You owe it to me to make the best first impression you can with your Protagonist. There should be SOMETHING about your Protagonist that sets him or her apart from the other characters - lead me by the spiritual umbilical cord that I should have with your Protagonist.

Your Protagonist's ordinary world shows us his or her current state of mind and like I said - this world could be a totally messed up world but your Protagonist just doesn't know it...

Yet.

Why? Because he or she has yet to enter into the new world you've created for them later on in the story. It's your Protagonist's progress and story pushing in the new world that eventually defines him or her and causes him or her to change from where they originally started from...

Their ordinary world.

This means you've got to do the research because you're the one creating the ordinary world. This means you have to know more about this world than anyone. More than your Protagonist. More than the other characters and definitely more than me.

The ordinary world of your Protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a location either... It could simply be their state of mind. It could be their world within the location depending on your story. If your story's about fisherman, you better fucking know a hell of a lot more about that world than I do. That means absorbing as much material you can get your hands on. That means seeing if you can find a fisherman in a similar world to show you his or her world if that's what it takes to be authentic.

Please don't just watch movies for your research... Doing this tends to create derivation. Read books about it. Stories. Watch documentaries. Experience it if you can. The more information you gain about the world you create for us, the more real it's going to be to us.

And that's what you want.

You desperately want that because doing that helps sell me on getting on board with your Protagonist. Show me a great Protagonist's ordinary world and introduce that Protagonist to me in a way that really impresses - makes me sit up and take notice - and I'm well on my way to investing the rest of my soul into your story.

And that's what you want.

When you introduce your Protagonist to me - shock me. Make it edgy. Make it outrageous. Make it mysterious. Make it cool. Make it extreme. Try to have your Protagonist do something we've never seen before as part of his or her introduction.

Maybe your Protagonist's introduction shows us what's lacking in their ordinary world and again, they simply don't know it yet.

Maybe your Protagonist's ordinary world and introduction hints at your overall theme.

Your Protagonist's ordinary world is going to be compared to the eventual new world you push him or her into so be sure to include that contrast. The more contrast, the more eventual conflict. The more your Protagonist will have to learn to make it in the new world.

Remember, when I say ordinary world - I'm talking about that world being ordinary to your Protagonist. He or she already knows how to move within that world. It's safe but doesn't have to be a safe place. It's what he or she knows. It's what he or she is and has been used to for a while now.

Their ordinary world should not necessarily be ordinary to us. We need a baseline to compare the new world to later on and the baseline is where your Protagonist starts out from.

How much research is necessary? As much as it takes.

Another example... I read a script about a year ago about a salesman who screwed around while he was on the road. The writer spent more time showing us his family and his place of employment when in fact, this salesman really never spent time in either place. His ordinary world was being on the road and all that goes along with that yet by the time the writer showed the salesman's real ordinary world to me, it was almost the same time as the inciting incident took place. The writer should have simply shown us the salesman leaving home to get on the road with maybe a couple of cell phone calls to his place of employment.

In other words, he failed to show me the salesman's ordinary world and the story just never felt right. It felt out of place. It simply became a series of circumstances and events that were written specifically to exploit the genre. The end of the story was the salesman going back home where he started. I never really felt he changed... In fact, I just felt that after a few months, he'd just chalk up his series of circumstances and events to dumb luck and go back to screwing around while he was on the road.

To hell with that.

The writer missed so many great opportunities for a really great story that the entire read just angered me. Did the salesman go back home and change jobs so he could be with his family more?

Nope.

Did the salesman learn anything? Not really. He might have learned to be a little more picky about who he slept with but what he should have learned was not to screw around anymore.

Nope.

Missed opportunities. Don't miss any. Create an authentic ordinary world for your Protagonist and make sure it's the right ordinary world for the story.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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