THE WEEKEND READ

Why your script's first page has to be the last page you write. (Trust me.)

You've done it. You've fleshed out realistic, compelling characters with conflict-driving dynamics, you've beat out and outlined a solid story based on that work, and your treatment urges the reader forward, eager to know where the protagonist is headed. (It even propels you forward, and you already know what happens! Or so you think...)

You've just opened your screenwriting software and confidently typed up your title page. It's time, at last, for page one. One of two things is about to happen, and there's a fix for both:

  • Unbridled "World-Building." After being deep in your head for (ideally) months, you are finally facing a wide-open screen. All of the rules and contemplations and craft of character, story and structure are behind you. Now you can type what you want! Elaborate skylines are constructed, people bustle on detailed streets, extremely specific music floats from your mind to the page (sure to convey to every reader the emotion the song has always evoked in you). The characters that have been living confined in your brain are having casual conversations, their voices peppering a page that finally has slug lines in glorious caps. The weather, the neighborhood, the vibe of your creative vision pour effortlessly forth. You confidently fill page one with paragraphs of descriptive text and audio and visual references, believing you are providing critical context to the reader before your story begins.

You confidently fill page one with paragraphs of descriptive text and audio and visual references, believing you are providing critical context to the reader before your story begins.

  • Blank Page Syndrome. After working out the specificity of your awesome characters and bandying about the many possible storylines and episodes you could take them on (ideally 100!), you have no idea where to start. None. Anything, literally, is possible; how can you begin to choose? You've studied craft, so you know there needs to be a Set Up. But that's the start of your actual plot, and something seems like it would be missing. Or, or...you didn't do any of the pre-work to build characters and related storylines — and you're still in the same position, facing that ruthless blank page. Anything could happen...but what exactly should?

When you're in "Unbridled 'World-Building'" mode, this is what you see:

And, gently, this...is what your reader sees:

Of course, when you're in blank page syndrome, no one's seeing anything. Even a tumbleweed rolling across the page would be welcome. Maybe you could make it a Western!

Breathe in, breathe out. The answer to both dilemmas is simple. You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4 (or 5 — we see you, genre, fantasy and period pieces). If you've enjoyed exercising your craft to get here, you have a clear storyline that's ready for the page. That's what you'll begin writing. And, as you know, once you type that first character's name, they're going to take over. They're going to sound like they want to sound, thanks very much. They're going to spar with the antagonist in a surprisingly different...unexpected...wait, are they flirting with each other? Anyway, they're going to snatch the keyboard away from you and bring you along for their ride.

You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4.

Congratulations! You've entered pure creative, channeling mode.

If you haven't entered script stage with strong character and story development already in place, this may still happen, but it won't make the remaining pages any better than the first one that you're struggling with. Shut down your screenwriting software and do the preparatory work that will make this part easier and delightful and sometimes fascinating and often, honestly, still terrifying. Let's just focus on the "easier" piece and call it a win.

The time to write your real page one, and the rest of your 1-4 page Set Up, is after you've typed the very last word of your script, stepped away, revisited a few times and adjusted, and shared with a trusted reader. Is the character consistent on the page? Do they arc in the course of the story? Is there a single theme? Do the relationships evolve; does the tension keep escalating? Do you care what happens and feel driven to find out what does?

Once all those answers are yes, it's time to, literally, start your script. And now you have the building blocks you need for a memorable and effective set up, one that clearly establishes your main character's core, governing trait and why it works for them in their current world. You absolutely cannot know that until you finish the script. Believe me! Your characters will take on lives on their own. Let them. Then capture that lightning in a single moment that helps us understand why they are accepting of their "old world," no matter how awful it may be, and why, as a result, they are going to reject the "new world" that's about to be sprung on them in a few pages. As I write in "Write It, Pitch It, Sell Your Screenplay":

"The Set-Up establishes the normal existence and expectations of your Main Character.  But not every minute and action and person in every typical day! Just the specific values and relationships necessary to give meaning to the upcoming Unexpected Change." — DMA Anderson

If you save the Set Up for last, you will find yourself facing a wide world of possibilities again, but this time, they come with a clear, filtering purpose: prepping your protagonist and the reader for the ride ahead. And this time, it's based on establishing your character to center your story in their change, rather than establishing the physical environment to center your reader in the location. Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no? That's what makes them want to know how you're going to organically force your protag reluctantly into that journey anyway. (And not because someone is going to die and grant them an inheritance if they say yes. Remove that beat!)

Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no?

Of course, there's a third possibility as you face that blank screen: you've done all your foundational work, you know exactly how you want to kick off the story, and you're ready — and prepared! — to begin. Still wait. Let your characters have their day and their say and their way with what will soon become their words. You may end up using the same Set Up at the end; you may come up with several more. But you'll have all the insights you need to make an impactful choice that draws a delightful, indelible line from Fade In to Fade Out.

Now take a moment to revisit that title page. Are you suuuure that's the best name for your script?

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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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