The Theory of Chaos

Monday, April 23, 2007

MSK - The Killer 10

So I took the weekend off. I don't think too much guilt is called for.

But today, so far, has produced only two pages, plus I cut another 1/3 of a page from what I have so far. I'm now on page 10, and still not out of that first party. This is a hurdle - I have a rough list in my mind of every bit of information that needs to be established for the audience's sake, and just about all of it needs to be done in this party. And yet the party must also be quick, and funny, and flow naturally enough that it doesn't feel like straight and obnoxious exposition.

This may explain why I'm getting stuck in the mud. Everything I add just makes the party, well, longer, and I know I need to make cuts and condense bits to accommodate it, even when there's more left still to add. So perhaps the next day or two will produce less pages of progress. But any guru will tell you that the first 10 pages are the most important in the entire script, and I'm sure I'll be revisiting them many times both in this draft and re-writes.

In terms of audience impact, these pages are when you have the most latitude with them. You can get away with just about anything in these pages, because the audience accepts the convention that you're laying the ground rules for the story and feeding them what they need to know to understand what's to come. Think back on the first 10 minutes of
The Matrix, and what it did to introduce us to the world we were going to be in for the next two hours. Think about those vital first ten minutes of The Lord of the Rings, how it had to convey theme and mood and the history of an entire made-up world, while simultaneously introducing key locations and characters and teasing us with some epic battle action. Just because, at this point, you have the audience's attention without even trying doesn't mean you get to slack off. You must take maximum advantage of that patience and willingness to stay with the story; because the further in you get, the more they will peel away if you haven't grabbed them solidly.

There's a colder purpose to having a killer first 10 pages - in many cases, it's all any of Hollywood's gatekeepers are going to read. Different companies have different standards for how much scrutiny a script is going to get, and much depends on the writer's reputation, his relationship with the company, and the individual work ethic of the executive whose desk it lands on. But if you're a struggling writer, the burden is on you to make it IMPOSSIBLE for a reader to stop after those first 10 pages. There are many methods of trying this, almost all of them boil down to the same thing -
promise to take us somewhere interesting.

You may have noticed a number of movies in the last ten years or so that open with a fantastic piece of explosive violence. It then freezes, and we flash back to what got us there (e.g.
Swordfish). This is a direct consequence of writers knowing they have to front-load their stories just in case no one ever reaches that amazing action sequence they wrote on page 70. It's still there, we just now get a supermarket-sample bite to tease us up front. Many of the common problems with Hollywood movies is that they're not written to film well, they're written to make them more exciting for executives to read. I still remember one of my favorite stage directions of all time. It read:

Suddenly the most almighty motherfucking cocksucker of a firework fellates the entire sky."

The script never got made, but notice how I never forgot that description?


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