The first thing you have to understand as a screenwriter is that you’re not really writing for yourself. You’re writing to entertain the reader, the producer, the director, etc. I’m hoping this will cause a tiny explosion in your head which will make you cognite what you’re actually trying to do – surprise and delight your audience.
Because that person you want to impress is incredibly smart and savvy, he or she reads many scripts and wants something far and above the first draft musings of a writer who is not taking the care and artistry of writing something truly great. And that doesn’t happen in a first draft or second draft. It takes great pains and knowledge and even poetry.
Another way to look at it – you’re going on a first date with your public, it’s just like any other date and first impressions are everything. So I (your potential date) am looking for greatness and I will know it immediately on the first couple of pages. That’s right, a skilled reader of scripts can see really professional writing on literally the first page.
When I read a script that delivers that quality immediately a huge relief comes over me, because I know I’m on a great first date and I can relax, not count the minutes until I can get the hell out of there (i.e. throw the script into the reject pile). I don’t want to just like you, I want to fall in love – don’t we all?
So you put your best stuff on those first 5 pages, your best dialogue, your best character descriptions, etc. You go over those 5 pages a million times because that will set the mood on your literary encounter with the person you want to wow. Make sense?
Screenwriting Tips: Let’s give some examples:
You will naturally have a number of character descriptions in your first five pages because that is when you’re introducing your main characters. They have to be great. Especially your protagonist and other important supporting characters:
This is from a very talented writer in one of my private screenwriting workshops:
“JACK FORD, early 40′s, tall, white, with stress and exhaustion in equal measure – Police badge clipped to his belt – bulge under his jacket – he’s a cop and he’s hungry.”
“BABY, barely dressed, barely educated and barely legal, bulging in all the right places.”
From Face/Off: “Jon Archer… older…unshaven…fatigued…his EYES reveal a man in the grip of obsession.”
This is from the pilot episode of Dexter: “And we see DEBRA (20′s — Dexter’s outstanding looking foster sister) dressed as a classic cheap whore, her shapely body shrink wrapped tight in a pink neon tube top, mini-skirt, fishnet stockings and high heels, talking into her cell phone.”
I love that part about shrink wrapped into skimpy clothes – this resonates even more when you find out how Dexter likes to dispose of his victims.
You will notice most of these descriptions include age, nothing too specific about how tall they are, color of eyes, etc; but still very colorful and visual. This is really good writing, it creates images in your mind. That is what we’re doing as screenwriters, we’re painting pictures – in our narrative, in our dialogue, etc.
You get the picture. If your first draft isn’t good enough, and unless you’re Mozart or someone of that ilk, you find great feedback whether it’s from me or someone else — to help you rise to the level of this work. To win those medals. To go for greatness. Because nothing less is really going to allow you to grab that brass ring.