Script readers — whether they’re assistants, interns, or dedicated paid readers — are often seen as gatekeepers, or the first obstacle a screenwriter must get past in Hollywood. But here’s what you may not realize: readers want to love you.
Okay, maybe I can’t speak for all readers across the board at every company, but I think these sentiments are true for the majority of people who read screenplays as part of their job.
People who are in the position of reading a lot of screenplays are there because they love stories, and they love movies — just like you. They crack open each new script with the hope that they’ll be entertained and find the next hit movie, or at least a script or writer they can recommend.
Readers start out on your side. But how do you keep them there? Beginning with the first act, of course. We’ll look at three areas:
- Page 1: Make a good first impression
- First 10 pages: Win them over
- Act 1: Build trust
Page 1: Make a good first impression
Whenever a reader picks up the next script in their assigned queue, the real question is: Are the next two hours going to feel like entertainment, or work?
A quick glance at the first page gives some indication. It’s a visual impression of the script to come. Is there a lot of black on the page? Dense paragraphs that read more like a novel than a screenplay? That looks like work. It makes the air start to leak out of the reader’s hope balloon.
Okay, but lean description isn’t the only consideration. What else can you do on Page One to impress a reader?
Aim for clarity. This is one of the biggest distinctions between amateur and professional scripts in general, and a quick way to lose your reader. If it’s necessary to re-read the description in order to understand what’s playing out on screen, that’s a red flag.
Make fresh choices. If your opening scene is the first version that came to your mind when you started writing this script, it’s probably something that other writers have come up with too. Which means the reader has probably seen it before, many times. You’ll have to dig a little deeper in order to stand out from the crowd.
Emphasize the visual. Whether your story is big and flashy or small and intimate, there must be a reason you’ve written it as a movie. Show that you know which medium you’re writing in by conveying the story visually from the very start.
(Find out more: Why the First and Last Visuals of Your Screenplay Matter)
First 10 pages: Win them over
You’ve likely heard the first ten pages referred to as “the hook” of the screenplay, and you know it’s supposed to grab readers’ attention and not let go. But where a lot of writers go wrong with this advice is by loading up the first ten pages with action that doesn’t mean anything.
An exciting set-piece opening is great, but if it’s not deeply and clearly connected to the story, it will feel like a waste of readers’ time. And if you want to turn readers into fans, they’re going to need to have a more emotional reaction than, “Wow, that’s a lot of explosions.”
How do you hook readers into your story?
Introduce someone fascinating. Whether it’s a classic hero or someone they love to hate, the main characters must be compelling in some way, starting with strong character introductions. Main characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting enough that readers want to spend time with them.
(What makes a great character introduction? 10 Character Introductions Screenwriters Should Study)
Establish a vivid world. However similar or different from our own reality it might be, firmly establishing the world where readers will live for the duration of the story should start right away.
Make them feel. Showing readers what’s at stake does double duty, as it makes them care about and begin to invest in the story, and also adds interesting layers to the main character, which helps further engage readers.
Act 1: Build trust
Getting readers to trust you comes down to providing everything they need, and nothing they don’t.
That means setting up the context necessary for the rest of the story to play out, e.g. where and when it’s taking place, who wants what, why they want it, what’s standing in the way, and what will happen if they fail.
And what don’t they need?
Cookie-cutter characters. Characters should be multi-dimensional and distinct from one another. This extends to their dialogue, too.
Fat scenes. In some ways, readers have the least amount of patience for the first act. Because it’s all setup, so there’s a sense of, “Just get me to the good stuff!” You can keep readers on your side by keeping your scenes moving, and knowing when to get out and onto the next one.
(Here’s another way to approach your scenes: Why Screenwriters Should Think Like Film Editors)
Tonal changes. A consistent tone helps hold everything together and conveys what kind of movie the reader can expect, a consideration that’s often overlooked by beginning writers.
Think of it like this: A reader is a passenger in your car. They’re hoping for you to take them on a fun and surprising ride — but first they have to trust that you know how to drive. When you provide a strong, consistent setup in the first act, readers relax — confident in the fact that you are in control and have the skills to take them on that exciting ride.
Despite what you may have heard, readers really are rooting for you. If you can capitalize on that and turn them into fans, then you have help on the inside, on the other side of that gate they’re keeping.
Naomi is a long time script reader and screenplay contest judge, and former development exec-in-training. She’s lived and worked in L.A. for about a decade, read thousands of scripts and worked with hundreds of writers. She’s also a screenwriter and has been hired to write and rewrite screenplays, treatments, pitch documents, and director’s statements. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.