They just don’t get it,” I remarked
to my husband. For the third time in as many weeks, I found myself
dealing with a screenplay client who insisted that the 10-page
partial she had paid me to review was only the tip of a substantive
iceberg. “Things really get
cooking by page 45,” she insisted, imploring me to let her send
the rest of the script so she could prove it.

I recommended she save the money that a full critique would cost
and put it toward fixing the project’s most glaring detriment:
its first 10 pages. My husband is familiar enough with the industry
to know the
“10 pages=10 minutes” rule. Specifically, if you haven’t grabbed a reader (or
audience) by then, the chance of holding their attention for the duration is
pretty slim.

“Sort of like speed-dating,” he facetiously
pointed out.

Obviously it was a correlation I’d never considered
that, when held up to scrutiny, reveals an uncanny amount of
similarity. The accelerated pace of today’s singles scene is
alien to me, having happily grown up and dated in an era when
couples used to actually invest quality time in getting to know
each other. The approach I used in some of my early attempts
at writing, in fact, followed that same leisurely, onion-layer-peeling
strategy. Fortunately for my career, an editor tactfully explained
that it’s alright for art to imitate life—just as long as the
art version happens a lot faster.

Such is the playing field of agents and producers in search of
new material. The demands on their time dictate that if it takes
more than 10 pages to warm up to a plot, the relationship probably
isn’t going to go anywhere. Just like singles bars, they know there
are enough other available prospects wandering around that it would
be inefficient to linger on the ones that don’t arouse any enthusiasm
insofar as the delivery of immediate or long-term gratification.

So how can you make your script a desirable “catch” in
such a warp-speed market? By applying what you know about the
rules of attraction and making your first 10 pages an invitation
they won’t be able to walk away from.

Don’t Let Your Teaser be the Best Part of the Show

Will the initial chemistry that ignited over
Jamaican music and exotic drinks with little paper umbrellas
be sustained after you learn that your paramour’s golden tan
is fake, that he lives with his mother in a mobile home park
and that he’s a compulsive gambler? Probably not. Likewise, a
come-hither script which makes bold promises at the outset that
it can’t live up to is going to be discovered and discarded fairly
quickly. This is especially true of writers who front-load their
scripts with gadgets, gimmickry and jokes to get someone’s attention—and then have no material left beneath
the surface to parse out over the duration. As a girlfriend of
mine was wont to remark about various men she’d been set up with
on dates, “Flashy suit, empty head.”

Imitation May Be Flattery, But it Won’t Sell Your Script

Have you noticed that most of the singer wannabees
in karaoke bars try to mimic the voice and mannerisms of whoever
made the chosen songs popular? Unfortunately, we as the audience
are not only cognizant of who they’re trying to impersonate,
but also can’t help making comparisons (usually negative). Aspiring
screenwriters who have yet to discover their own “voice” tend to do the same
thing in patterning their storylines after films which were either
box office hits or are part of a transitory “clone movement” to
milk the public’s mood-du-jour for action, patriotism or slapstick
silliness. While it’s hard to find a song or pen a theme that’s
never been done, there’s nevertheless plenty of room for alternative
versions. Let them see from the opening notes that you know how
to put an original spin on whatever rendition preceded you in the

What You See Should be What You Get

A dear friend from the South ascribes to the
philosophy that, “Whatever
it takes to get a man (or a woman) is what you have to keep doing
in order to hang on to them.” If money was the bait, you need to
keep spending. If power was the attraction, you need to keep doing
powerful things. If steamy sex was the lure—well, you get the picture.
The same theory applies to the habit of novice screenwriters to
genre-hop once the story is underway, primarily because they haven’t
really defined what their film’s genre is to begin with. If your
opening pages promise comedy, your audience will expect it to remain a
comedy throughout. That’s what they came for, isn’t it? Compare
this to a relationship that starts out with a set of ground rules
regarding commitment expectations (i.e., “I’m looking for someone
to bear my children”) but then devolves into something else (i.e., “I’d
rather just be friends”). What if that individual returns at a
later date and wants to pick up where he left off? Are you likely
to trust him—or a scripted sequel—if the first time left you feeling
unfulfilled and cheated?

The Foreplay of Foreshadowing

For a movie to be successful, it must effectively
seduce at all levels, stirring the viewers’ senses and anticipation
to the point that they just can’t wait to get to the good stuff.
Like flirtation, however, film foreplay can’t be rushed or come
on too strong. It is instead an artfully crafted path of foreshadowing
that spritzes just enough perfume and shows just enough skin
to turn the pursued into the pursuer—without the former even
realizing that the roles have been reversed. Operating within
our respective frames of reference, we attempt to guess what
these seductive signals mean and, accordingly, keep turning the
pages to (hopefully) affirm how smart we are.
Clues that may not be obvious at the start take on new significance
as the relationship—and the story—advances, allowing the quarry
to appreciate the clever manner in which they became inextricably
hooked. If your opening pages don’t contain a visual or a line
that not only flirts with your reader’s imagination and ego but
will concurrently have profound meaning to your protagonist later
on, go back and put one in. You won’t regret it.

Probably More Than We Wanted to Know

Have you ever met someone new who felt compelled
to tell you his or her whole life story on the very first date?
Makes your head hurt, doesn’t it? Not to mention that there’s
an implied expectation you’ll actually be expected to remember
all these details later on. Authors make this same error in feeling
the need to explain how their characters arrived at the circumstances
around which the film will revolve and—even worse—expecting us
to memorize its alleged importance. Unfortunately, the inclusion
of too much back-story (whether told sequentially or in flashback)
impedes any forward momentum of the current plot. Take, for example,
a past client who wanted to capitalize on the anniversary of
the Lewis and Clark expedition by penning a movie about the forbidden
attraction between Sacajawea and William Clark. While the premise
itself was intriguing, he spent the first half hour on Sacajawea’s
childhood, culminating in her abduction by another tribe as she
played in a stream with her siblings. Considering that such an
opening left him with 90 minutes to have her become a teenager,
marry a French trapper, have a baby, go on an expedition that
lasted several years and return to St. Louis, I had my doubts
about when, exactly, he planned to develop any romance angle.
Bottom line: start your plot at the point of conflict and move
briskly forward.

Are You as Turned On as I Am?

Consider how many people pass through our lives
each day without registering a single blip on the emotional radar
screen. Customers in line at the bank. Passengers riding mass
transit. Pedestrians in the crosswalk at lunchtime. Unless there
is something striking about their appearance or actions—or unless they personally engage
us with a smile, eye contact or an offhand remark—we have no particular
reason to remember them. Likewise with scripts. Unless they reach
out and evoke some kind of emotional or physical response, they
are only innocuous words on a piece of paper. Don’t trust your
own silent reading as a barometer of connectivity. As the author,
you’re already involved and committed. Instead, put those first
10 pages to the speed-dating test of an objective review by people
who don’t know your story. If you’ve been successful at compelling
each of your readers to ask for more, your script has accomplished
the first critical step toward success: distinguishing itself from
the competition and inviting a longer look than just 10 minutes. MM

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is a writer and
script coverage consultant in Pasadena, California. Her publishing
credits to date include 17 books, 100 plays and musicals and several
hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the
US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For further information,
visit her Website at