There's a difference between writing a screenplay and writing a spec script — and screenwriters need to know it.
Perhaps the biggest difference lies in the reality of writing a spec script. Since the screenwriter hasn't been hired to write the script, they have to deal with the fact that their script is one of thousands in the spec script market. And because of that, you need to do whatever you can to engage the interest of the reader (agents, managers, producers, development executives, script readers, assistants, interns, etc.).
And you only have a few pages to do this. This is what makes a spec script different from a regular screenplay — the need to structure the script to engage quickly. Readers have a lot of scripts to read and their filtration process is those opening pages. It's not 10 pages. It's not 15 pages. You've got just a few pages to wow them enough to truly engage them.
With that in mind, here we share the fastest way to accomplish that within your spec scripts by:
- Capturing the attention and interest of the reader as quickly as possible.
- Showcasing the concept as quickly as possible.
- Communicating the genre as quickly as possible.
- Introducing the protagonist as quickly as possible.
- Throwing the protagonist into the conflict of the concept as quickly as possible.
Throw Your Protagonist into the Concept Within the Opening Pages
That is how you engage the reader quickly. You see, the reader needs to see five things in the opening few pages.
- An attention-grabbing moment or visual. Some call it a hook.
- The introduction of the concept
- The genre
- The protagonist
- The protagonist thrown into the conflict of the concept
If you can introduce those five elements within the opening few pages (not 10, not 15) of your spec script, you're a mile ahead of the rest of the pack.
There are two ways that you can accomplish this effectively.
Start with the Concept, Not the Characters
Throw your characters in the fire. Yes, you can briefly introduce them within their ordinary world. But only in the briefest of ways (a page at best).
Let's take a look at some proven examples.
We open with a wolf being chased by a helicopter. But it's more than that. Those within the helicopter are shooting at it. Are they hunters? Is this for sport?
Within half a page, we're engaged by that question. It's a slight engagement to start, but it gets better.
So the wolf is chased to an arctic outpost. As the helicopter quickly approaches, the small group of men working at the outpost reacts to the gunshots and the sound of the helicopter.
Keep in mind that we haven't met any of these characters yet. We haven't even had a glimpse into their ordinary world. The first image we see of them is them reacting to the wolf, the helicopter, and the gunshots.
But here is where the reader of the script (and the audience of the film) is truly engaged. The men watch as the gunman exits from the helicopter as the wolf jumps helplessly towards them. The pilot follows, ready to throw a grenade towards the wolf. The grenade slips from his hands. The gunman runs away as the helicopter (and pilot) explodes.
The gunman pleads to the men in another language until he points and shoots towards the wolf, hitting one of the men in the leg. The authority figure within the outpost building has been watching from inside. Upon the shooting one of his peers, he breaks the glass and fires his sidearm, killing the gunman.
Within just a few pages, we've been:
- Given a compelling hook
- Introduced to at least part of the concept (a mysterious wolf is introduced into a secluded arctic outpost)
- Shown that the genre is, at least, a suspense thriller
- Introduced to the protagonists
- Thrown into the conflict of the concept
All in quick fashion.
Don't worry. It works for dramas too.
The Big Chill
We open with a couple of characters. No details. Just a moment in their life. Then Glen Close’s character is crying after answering the phone. We don’t know why until in the next shot, we see a body being dressed, followed by additional quick moments in the lives of our main characters as they react to the news and are on their way to the funeral.
Within a few brief minutes, we know the concept, story, and characters — and we want to see how these characters will come together. We’re engaged.
What about horror scripts?
The phone rings. The teenage girl, alone at home, answers. Freaky voice. Slight flirtation. Pop culture dialogue about horror films. The girl gets scared. She's in danger.
Within the first few pages of the script, we've covered the five elements that readers are hoping for. And the moments that follow extend that amazing introduction and show us that the stakes of the script are high, and anyone can die.
Starting with the concept over the characters is the fastest way to engage the reader in spec scripts. Don't be afraid to throw your characters into the fire in the opening few pages. In fact, understand that this is what you likely need to do to capture the reader's attention. They'll thank you for it.
And then the great thing after that is you can use the conflict they are facing to introduce their characters through actions and reactions, as opposed to falling into the temptation of traps like overly expositional openings.
Can't Capture it All Quick Enough? Begin with the Ending
If you think that your script needs at least a few more pages to get to all of those five elements, there's a workaround.
You can use what is commonly referred to as the Fabula/Syuzhet Structure, which usually entails showing the ending of the beginning of the climax of the story first.
- Fabula is the meat of the story.
- Syuzhet is the narration and how the story is organized.
This specific structure, employed by American cinema, often utilizes original organization by showing the near-end first and then jumping back to the beginning of the story to view how the characters got there.
The story is then about the journey and focuses on the how as opposed to the what.
And the anticipation for every oncoming plot point and character is elevated.
This example is unique because Quentin Tarantino opens with one of the ending scenes but through the perspective of different characters.
This scene engages us because it introduces the tone and theme of the film. The next scene is Vincent and Jules in the car talking about random things. But because the movie opened with this robbery scene — with two different characters nonetheless — we know that this movie will not hold back any punches. It’s going to center around crime, and it’s going to showcase unique character dynamics.
This is a more straightforward “beginning with the end” example. We open with the protagonist with a gun in his mouth. The narration drops the names of Tyler Durden and Marla — two characters that we meet as the script goes on. The dialogue states that both characters changed the course of The Narrator’s life, so we know that something big will happen.
And we’re also given a plot point about explosives below the building, ready to bring it down.
The script then flashes back to introduce The Narrator in his Ordinary World. We meet Marla. We get to understand the world he lives in. We get a glimpse of his character traits. And then we eventually meet Tyler Durden, who at first seems like a sensible, free-spirited guy that gives The Narrator a better perspective on life.
But we’re left wondering how all of it goes wrong.
The opening of this film portrays the end of Gandhi’s life — his assassination and the world’s reaction to his death. The whole film after that portrays his life leading up to that point. Why show the end at the beginning?
It gives us a context of how important this man was, which enhances the experience of watching him rise to where we see him at the end of his life.
As we mentioned, “beginning with the end” works in all genres—even drama.
Beginning your script with the ending — or at least part of the final act or climax — is a powerful structure that many screenplays can use. It’s not a trick. It’s not lazy. There’s purpose to it.
It offers an engaging hook. It builds anticipation. It buys you some pages for necessary character introduction and development. And it works in every genre when developed and delivered well.
Spec scripts are different beasts. You're using them as a way to get your writing noticed. They often work as samples for potential assignments. And, sure, you're trying to use them to launch your screenwriting career with a big sale.
Because of the hurdles that you need to overcome, you need to realize that you have to write your spec scripts in a way that engages the reader as quickly as possible.
So, remember: within 1-5 pages, you need to:
- Offer an attention-grabbing moment or visual (hook)
- Introduce the concept
- Communicate the genre
- Present the protagonist
- Throw the protagonist into the conflict of the concept
And you can do that by:
- Starting with the concept, not the characters
- Beginning with the ending (near-end or the beginning of the climax)
Try it out!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies