The opening five pages of your screenplay give me a ton of information about the breadth and scope of your project. As with the opening of a novel or any other literary work, the opening of your screenplay should be a microcosm of the world of your script. It’s the first taste – but as they say, the first bite is usually the best. It must clearly and competently contain all of the basic elements of your project – enough so that they’re teased out. Any good produced screenplay does this well.
Five minutes is a lot of screen time. I should clearly know your genre, tone, location/setting, who your protagonist is and have a wonderfully resonant sense of who that person is, the basic character arc, get a firm idea of the basic premise of your story, and understand generally what kind of journey the protagonist will undertake and where the “finish line” is.
In a well-written screenplay, I will have a great idea of this within the first ½ page. The essence of your protagonist should come through in their first line of dialogue.
Younger writers generally assume you need one scene and one beat to communicate each piece of story and character information, but you would be shocked in a well-written screenplay how much gets communicated within the ambience. For example, I read this script about a likable but rather bumbling guy, down on his luck, strolling down the sunny street in Manhattan. His opening monologue was hilarious. This first ½ page was enough for me to know that this was a broad comedy and exactly what the journey of this loser would be. It was clear, concise and well-written. That’s the thoughtful level of detail we should all aspire to in our openings.
What I need to know within the first 5 pages:
Protagonist: Clearly defined and likable character, the trajectory for the character arc should be firmly planted and the weakness should be clear
Basic premise of your story: what type of journey the protagonist will undergo and where the “finish line” of that race is
If I don’t have a very solid, clear grasp on all of these elements by the time we hit the inciting incident, or before, I’ll be seriously annoyed and will probably already be thinking PASS. It is the very unusual script that is compelling enough for me to keep reading into page 40 and have things pick up then and be able to recover. I will admit that I read a family drama set in a futuristic/sci-fi world within my last pass and this was the case, but I kept looking for the no, and the script kept getting better, and so I did eventually recommend it. However, that is the only one I have read with this unique circumstance.
The opening should be evocative of the entire piece, and usually is. If you take 7 pages to establish one character beat (and I see a lot of this), that is way too long – you’ve wasted 6.5 pages already. Screenplays can’t recover from that kind of lost pagecount.
Tighten, tighten, tighten. Use your pagecount wisely. And really work your first 5 pages!