This article follows up on Screenplay: The Importance of the First Five Pages.
In the last batch of scripts I read for one of the screenwriting competitions, I would say about 30% of the screenplays had beginnings that were overwritten. It’s not uncommon. In several cases, the real story didn’t start to pick up until page 20, 25, 30, but this is way too long for the momentum of your story to really pick up speed. A well-written script will catch my attention within the first few pages and by page 20 I will be fully invested, along for the ride, eagerly turning pages.
It is very unlikely that a script can recover once it is meandering at page 20, 25, 30 and on. If the script isn’t humming by page 5, it’s most likely a PASS. However, there are those rare gems that do recover. But, in those cases, I wish the writer had just started the script at page 20.
I have always had a tendency to want to establish more in the beginning. I think it’s sort of a hard thing to outgrow, really. Beginnings are really hard. It’s the part of the script we’ll rewrite the most.
The last script I wrote was about a psychotic mother who kills herself so she can possess her daughter’s body. In its first permutation (this story has since undergone a total overhaul), I thought it was really important to establish the relationship between the mother and daughter, to go into more detail about the mother’s psychosis, firmly establish the B stories with the douche boyfriend and to-be love interest/friend. But, everyone in my writers’ group told me that it was taking too long to get into the meat of the story. They told me to throw out the first 20 pages and start on page 20. They wanted me to kick my Act 1 break up to page 5, the inciting incident. I was resistant. I thought that unless I really established the abusive dynamic between the mother and daughter, nobody would understand their relationship and how crazy the mother was and why the daughter was, to some degree, an enabler. I thought nobody would buy my story unless I had really established all of the emotional dynamics.
Now, after having read all these competition scripts, I get it. Especially when my competition reading simulates reading in a professional environment, where readers are slammed with piles of scripts. When you have 100 scripts waiting to be read, ANY excuse to say no is a good one – and if the no is because it takes too long to get to the meat of the story, that’s a legitimate no. Nobody is going to invest 20 pages in getting to know my characters before hitting the meat of the story – even if those 20 pages are very competently written.
My beginning was grossly overwritten. Nobody really cares about standalone scenes that establish character dynamics. I should be folding those scenes into the scenes that also contain story beats. Basically, it should be about hitting the story hard from the beginning, and the character elements should be nuanced enough to be written into those story scenes.
Think about it this way – when you go to a movie, they don’t spend 20 minutes just establishing. Twenty minutes is way too long to get into the meat of the story. Within the first couple of minutes of screen time, we would already have a very clear idea of the world we’re in, a clear picture of the protagonist and an idea of the character arc, and we’d be on the ground running from there.
This is just another reason to recommend outlining. In an outline, you might include a couple of establishing scenes, but once you hit the page, and especially once you’re rewriting, make sure that by page 5 the stakes increase and the story is moving forward. If not, there is a great likelihood that your beginning is overwritten. In which case don’t be shy about the slash and burn. If the beginning isn’t a fast page-turner, then keep rewriting until it is.