by Tim Schildberger, Head Judge
In 2019, I read over 400 scripts. Which means I read over 400 opening pages. The vast majority fell somewhere in the categories of “underwhelming” or “downright dull.” Not because the writing was poor or the story made no sense. It was because the opening pages revealed the writer was playing it safe, leaning on clichés, or focusing on all the wrong things from an audience point of view.
So let’s fix that, right here, right now.
First, a simple reality you need to understand as an unsigned writer:
The people who can launch your career – agents, managers, producers, development executives, even competition readers – are busy. Every single Insider I’ve had on the LiveRead/LA stage has said that, in any given week, they have about 50 scripts they must read. That means you must make your pages stand out.
You can do that in these relatively simple ways.
1. Avoid cliché landmines
I would estimate between 10-15% of all scripts I read start EXACTLY the same way. We see the lead character wake up in bed, roll over, and turn off the alarm. Realistic? Heck yeah. Boring? Oh very much so.
Don’t do that. You have an infinite number of ways to introduce your characters to the audience. Pick anything else. Anything.
2. Do not… and I mean DO NOT start your script with a solid page of scene description.
You’re writing a movie, not a novel
Before I tell you to break it up with some dialogue, I first want you to look at your opening page and justify to yourself why it needs to be all scene description. Then ask yourself why your script is different and why it deserves special treatment. Then imagine reading fifty scripts a week and how you’d feel when you open a new one and get confronted by a black wall of text.
Scene description demands the bare minimum of words needed to keep a reader up to speed. Show your personality in scene description with as few words as possible, and break it up with dialogue.
3. Resist too much set up/backstory
I’m thrilled you’ve spent so much time inventing your world. Good for you. We DO NOT need to know everything at the start. Just the basics so you can dive into the story without leaving us behind. Remember we like a story that moves forward and doesn’t get stuck in the mud, regaling us with what has already happened.
Set up is not story. Backstories and world rules can be filled in as you go — hopefully in new and creative ways – as we get to know who we’re on this journey with. Just like real life.
4. DO NOT get literary in your character/scene descriptions
I know some folks say you can charm a reader with interesting description. Maybe. But please don’t launch into literary prose describing the landscape as it “shimmers in the pre-dusk afterglow of a tired day.” You risk putting your focus on all the wrong things, it’s a waste of words, and you may come across as trying too hard. Save that fancy talk for your novel.
The reader just needs to know broadly what someone looks like so they can picture them and the general location, perhaps with A FEW telling details that reveal character/setting. We like using our imaginations. Don’t waste time with too many specific details unless they are CRUCIAL to the scene. Leave shoe designer choices to the costume folk.
And… this is very important… watch how you describe female characters. Bra size basically never matters. “Beautiful but doesn’t know it” is awful. Respect matters, and the way you introduce a female character speaks volumes about who you are as a writer. Be aware of that.
5. Exert your control
You have total control over the audience. We’re here to feel stuff and to be entertained. By you. That’s a wonderful opportunity. So revel in your power and launch your story and the people in it in ways we don’t expect. Be creative. Understand the clichés and expectations and subvert them. Give us opening pages that show you know exactly what you’re doing – every scene has been thought out, every character is interesting, and all the details have been explored.
Remember – the opening pages of your script are delivering an enormous amount of subconscious information to a reader. They are not only diving into the story; they’re learning who you are as a writer, how much command you have, and whether or not they feel confident you have done the hard work of crafting something worth their valuable time.
Use your opening pages to show them you got this, and they’ll happily keep turning the pages.