THE WEEKEND READ

Does your script’s page one indicate your script's a “page-one” (rewrite)? Here’s how to fix that.

Text on a white background reads "When your page one equals 'Page-One'," with a top and bottom border of torn paper edges.

Every week, the hardest part of reading a script is flipping from the title page to Page One. (Unless the title page itself is awash in various fonts and images. Or has a typo. In which case, much of my hard work already is done.) When I take the plunge and turn to that first page, I know what I’m excited to see: an intimate, distinct — and if it’s a comedy, laugh-out-loud funny — character reveal. I want to eavesdrop into a micro-moment in the main character’s day where they make a micro-choice that clearly demonstrates their core trait…and teases two upcoming things:

  1. What imminent Unexpected Change, what applecart upset, will thrust this character reluctantly into a New World where their core trait absolutely cannot succeed; AND
  2. How will this core trait, which they invariably lead with and cannot turn off, constantly cause them to be the Architect of their Own Demise (ideally for 100 episodes)?

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star. First, your New World is defined by its diametric opposition to your main character’s central, governing trait. If your protagonist can succeed in the New World exactly as they are on the first page, then I have nowhere to take them. Survival in the New World won’t require them to learn lessons, grow, fall down, and pivot, so there’s no basis for conflict or character arc in the story. Second, your secondary characters exist only to create friction and growth opportunities for the main character. Their roles and traits must put pressure on your main character, so if there’s no core trait, there’s no magnetic center to build your other characters in reaction to. And finally, the thing that makes main characters both authentic and relatable is that they feel real. And real people have real dominant traits that really inform the really awesome to really awful things they really do. Those traits are why we really love, despise, long for and run from the people we encounter in real life. For real.

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star.

Some glorious examples of classic page one protagonist gold include:

  • 30 Rock pilot (2005). Liz Lemon battling the guy who steps out of the hot dog line and breaks accepted cart protocol. Her choice? Liz buys “allll the hot dogs.” Liz controls environments. She keeps the order. (Of course, she’s a showrunner!) So I know her New World reporting to the Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming is going to be mired in chaos. Control vs chaos? That’s a clear, relatable, organic core conflict.
  • Abbott Elementary pilot (2021). Janine wrangling a roomful of students that clearly have more understanding of the real world than she allows into her own sunny POV, and fixing in the moment — or noting to fix in the future — any deviations from that optimistic world view. Janine controls environments. She fixes what needs fixing. So we know that her just-begun year two in the classroom will be even more chaos.
  • Leave the World Behind screenplay (2022). Amanda announcing to her still-sleeping husband that in the midst of his potential employment woes, she’s booked an expensive house at the beach. Which is why she’s packing for him and, shortly, their still-sleeping, equally unaware kids. She…well…she (cough) controls environments. She takes no input. So I know her New World is going to be the ultimate chaos.

All right, we’re going to leave the deeper conversations about controlling female protagonists (and about the ending of LTWB — LOVED IT! FIGHT ME!)  to another post.

What I want to, long to, cannot wait to, am always thrilled to see on your script’s page one…is a small, simple, human moment in the main character’s familiar old world that showcases how they move, innately, through a space. What trait they lead with and fall back on the most. When I see that, I settle in for the read.

But I rarely see it. Instead, I see a lot of text on the page. Paragraph-long action lines. Sometimes detailed descriptions of shots, camera angles, posters on walls, and music lyrics. Always skylines for the city, and, inexplicably, quite often scenes of the character brushing their teeth. Pause on all of that for now. Just open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear? If so, do they make a character-revealing choice on that page? If so, does that revealed character trait directly inform and propel the rest of the script?

Open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear?

If not, that’s the opportunity for infusion of craft that lies immediately ahead. If you have a completed script, ask yourself what your character’s single, dominant trait is (or might be, if you’re not sure). Then go scene by scene through the script and precisely note which scenes are driven by that trait, which characters are in friction with that trait, and how the character shifts regarding that trait, however infinitesimally, near the end of the script. Make no assumptions or adjustments for things that don’t perfectly match. It has to be that exact trait in action on the page. And ideally, it shows up and starts driving the story on page one. In the course of this review, you will most likely find that your main character has absolutely no dominant trait that’s informing anything…or you might find that the character you thought you wrote became their own person on the page by the end of the script.

For example, if you saw LTWB, you’ll notice Amanda’s core trait is repeatedly articulated on the page/screen as “misanthropy.” So the new world would have to introduce human connection (and, spoiler alert, it certainly does), which would be a clear, organic core conflict. No misanthrope wants to be forced to intimately connect to others. However…to me, her choices and conflict most frequently were rooted in controlling outcomes. So, maybe she hates people as a consequence of not being able to control them? That’s why reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

Reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

One final note: your main character’s dominant trait-revealing choice doesn’t always have to appear precisely on page one. In sci-fi, fantasy and period pieces, writers first might briefly establish the culture and mores of their world or times, or briefly establish the “before-times” to give context to the new order and, more importantly, to provide necessary information to understand how the core trait of the character fits in this world. Then we narrow focus to a character-revealing moment and choice to anchor the story and hook the reader. In these genres, you’ll still need that choice to appear in the first three pages of a script, but please feel free to wow your reader by getting right into it on page one.

And if it’s not on page one? What I’ve learned from reading, literally, thousands of scripts, is that the script itself most likely is a Page One rewrite. Because if the most essential element of character — their core trait — isn’t yet on the page, none of the other elements of story and structure are anchored in anything. The script may be entertaining to read as a one-episode sample, but it’s not yet a 100-episode story…because those are guided, always, by a clearly drawn character with a central, core, dominant, governing, go-to, North Star trait.

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DMA is a veteran entertainment and tech executive and strategic consultant. She is the author of Write It, Pitch It, Sell Your Screenplay and The Show Starter Reality TV Made Simple System, both taught in media programs nationwide. DMA is a career-long member of the Producers Guild, TV Academy and American Mensa and is the founder of Korgi, digital "superboards" with the templates, training and tools you (and your team) need to succeed.
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