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The Aspiring Screenwriter's Guide to Page One

by ScreenCraft on May 23, 2016

There’s a moment in the development process that separates an idea from a screenplay. A single moment that starts a journey of self-discovery, creativity, frustration, and joy. The truth is, everyone thinks they have an idea for a great movie but not everyone takes action like screenwriters do. It takes courage to dive into a concept and discover what’s possible. You need passion to build a convincing world that’s never been seen before. None of it is possible without the dedication needed to craft something amazing. All of it leads to one moment and that moment starts with the letter F.

FADE IN

Write those two words on a blank page and you’re a screenwriter. Better than that, you’re a screenwriter with a purpose. A screenwriter committed to a story worth telling. Typing FADE IN is an extraordinary moment in the development process. It confirms your willingness to challenge yourself and craft the best screenplay possible.  It tests your ability to make every single word count. It’s a single moment that opens up limitless possibilities for you to create memorable moments for others to enjoy. Unforgettable characters, unexpected twists and unbelievable worlds are all possible because you typed FADE IN.

But it’s only the beginning.  There’s an overwhelming amount of inspiration hidden within your words on page one alone!

The Anatomy of Page One

1. The First Scene

Choosing a location for any scene is important, but the first location is absolutely crucial. There’s a big difference between an argument taking place in an office or dangling from a plane. Just keep in mind you aren’t looking for a perfect location. You’re looking for a location that is perfect for your screenplay.

2. The First Moment

You’ve established a location. We know where we are but what do we see? What’s happening in your screenplay? This is your first BIG moment. The first time you describe this wonderful new world buried deep within your imagination. Remember you’re trying to create images the reader will remember. You’re crafting the moment that sets your story in motion. Grab the reader’s attention with something unforgettable.

3. The Language

This is your moment as a screenwriter. The words you choose tell a story, but it also tells another story. Your story. The words you choose reflect your feelings as a writer. Do you find this story funny? Scary? Your mindset influences the words on the page.

This is where you establish your control of the craft. How will you pace this story? Short paragraphs? Long dialogue blocks? Will your writing be playful or serious? Fast paced or suspenseful? Scientific or spiritual? What is your screenwriting style? Set the tone for your screenplay.  Getting the language right on the page helps you convey the images you want the reader to imagine.

4. Character Introductions

Your characters are your friends and enemies. They are real. A real person has a history. A real person has opinions. Every individual has a specific energy you HAVE to unleash. Every individual is unpredictable.

Introducing your characters should reflect their personality. Who is this person? What do they want? What/who do they love? What is their purpose? You can learn a lot about someone through their actions but this knowledge is enhanced when you factor in their personality and their one-of-a-kind life choices. 

Every first impression is an opportunity. Know yourself. Love yourself. Know your characters. Love your characters.

5. Voices

You’ve introduced a new character. Someone the reader will care about. Now they need a convincing voice. Dialogue is important to tell a story but each line should also tell the story of your character's journey. Where have they been? Who broke their heart? What do they fear most? What excites them? All of these questions influence the words they choose to speak. That’s important. When you know a character it shouldn’t feel like you are speaking through them. Your characters can speak for themselves. You’re just there to write it all down.

6. The Power Sentence

Every sentence matters. You have to be economical when you write screenplays. Every script for a feature film usually lands somewhere between 90-120 pages. It varies depending on the script but length governs every choice you make. It may seem like a lot of pages but they fill up quickly when you are inspired. If you can craft a sentence that achieves multiple goals, you’re well on your way to achieving creative perfection on the page.

7. Creative Freedom 

Your choices are unlimited. Your creativity is boundless. So set your imagination free! Imagine a world and then imagine a better one. Your first idea may be great but give yourself a chance to come up with something better. Sometimes, your first instinct is right but thinking about every moment from multiple perspectives gives your screenplay depth. You have complete control over every detail so why not make each moment perfect?

The circle of inspiration can be endless. You feel inspired. You write down an idea. You develop that idea and find the best possible way to express it on the page. The moment you write something amazing, you feel inspired all over again.

8. The Flow

The flow of a screenplay is alive in you. You create the momentum your story needs. If you succeed the reader won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. Finding the perfect flow for your screenplay can be difficult to identify but you’ll know it when you find it. Hours will pass and you won’t notice. In what feels like an instant, you will write countless pages and when it’s over, you’ll be amazed at what you’re capable of. Scenes will build on each other separated by natural transitions that keep your world moving forward. Finding the perfect flow and rhythm to tell your tale can have a tremendous impact on the reader’s experience.

9. The Beauty of Page One

A big component of writing a well-paced screenplay is structure. White space isn’t just blank thoughts on the page. White space can be one of the most valuable tools in a screenwriter’s toolbox. Use it to your advantage especially when you are trying to create suspense in your work.

You don’t often see large blocks of description or dialogue in a script. Short concise paragraphs look better. Your script reads easier when you break up large chunks of text with relevant information, action, etc. When every element comes together in perfect harmony on the page, it’s beautiful.

10. Story Balance

Needless to say, if you give away a major twist on the first page, the reader will be bored sooner rather than later. You have to keep them guessing. They need a reason to turn the page. Of course, you can unleash a major twist on the first page but it has to pay off in surprising ways later on.

A good story is like a puzzle. Some people put the pieces together faster than others but don’t put it together for them either. Don’t hold the readers hand by writing scenes filled with exposition and ‘convenient’ dialogue. Everything that happens in your screenplay has to be carefully planned. You determine when key information is revealed. Achieving balance in your screenplay can be difficult but it’s one of the most rewarding elements of the development process. You have to earn the right to write the ‘big’ moments by building your story piece by piece.

11. Fall in Love

If screenwriting feels like work, you aren’t doing it right. Love every moment. Cherish the process. You’re lucky to feel the irresistible pull towards screenwriting. It’s an amazing experience to take an idea from pure inspiration to FADE OUT. The journey between those steps will make you a better person whether your script succeeds or fails.

Don’t think about where your screenplay is headed when the dust settles. Love your story and your passion will shine through the very first page and beyond.

12. Page Two

So you’ve written the first page of your screenplay. That’s an accomplishment in itself. After all, you aren’t a screenwriter until you sit down and write a screenplay. It sounds simple enough but cracking a story you love can be challenging. 

The bad news is, the challenges get harder the deeper you delve into your story. A simple challenge like creating the first big moment seems easy when you have to introduce your main character for the first time. What if you can’t create a unique voice for that character? How will you find the rights words, structure, momentum and balance to create something wonderful? For every challenge you overcome, there is another waiting to challenge you in ways you never thought possible. What makes you a great screenwriter is your willingness to take on ANY challenge in order to tell your story right.

So turn the page, tell a great story and embrace the limitless possibilities. Be the screenwriter you’ve always wanted to be. Write!


Jason McKinnon is a ScreenCraft guest contributor.  He is the creator of The Screenwriting Spark & co-founder of Nerd Infinite.

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