Red Planet Prize: Pace & Interest

The Red Planet Prize is now open for submissions (deadline Friday 22nd January 2016). The Prize is one of the best TV writing opportunities out there, and it’s free to enter. Here’s my 5th and final tip for submitting the first ten pages of your script to the competition (the 1st tip ‘Core Concept’ is here; the 2nd tip ‘The Opening Scenes’ is here; the 3rd tip ‘Set Up Vs Story’ is here; the fourth tip ‘Original Voice’ is here).

5. Pace & Interest

As writers, we need to ‘hit the ground running’ so that the script generates the required pace and interest to get the story underway. Here are some effective techniques to consider:

Dramatic Need: if a character wants something in a scene it creates more interest than just a character talking or delivering plain set-up. Even if it’s a trivial dramatic need it could be useful as a knock-on effect for what happens in the first ten pages. For example, say you’ve got two colleagues chatting about their boss at work as your opening scene. Fine. But how about if one of them is desperately trying to get a can of soda from the drinks dispenser, and increasingly gets angry. When they finally do get the drink, in the next scene they could open it up and it explodes all over them and their boss.

On The Job: introduce the main character by showing us what they do best – a boxer in the ring, a detective on the crime scene, a celebrity fixer, whatever – but after this sequence is done, throw the main dramatic problem of the episode in their way. This sets up clear expectations and story direction.

Teaser/Prologue: establish intrigue or intent (possibly before the main credits), indicating what the story is going to focus on before we get introduced to the main character(s).

Dramatic Sequence: start with one simple and clear dramatic sequence to entice the reader into the world of the story. This helps to create pace and interest, while also introducing character through action (rather than dull scenes or unnecessary exposition).

Subvert Expectations: lead the reader to one anticipated outcome of your opening scenes or sequence, only to twist the story in another direction. This is particularly useful if the anticipated outcome is a familiar trope of whatever genre you’re writing in, only for you to surprise the reader with an unexpected development.

Let’s take a look at Jed Mercurio’s opening to Line of Duty, as he does a veritable combo of the above. Full script available to download at BBC Writers’ Room.

The script’s opening lines of description, over titles: “Eerie dawn light, dark figures moving stealthily into position, vehicles rolling into place.

The script’s first line of dialogue: “Units en route. Flat 56, Regal Court. Vehicles en route. Forward units arriving Regal Court.

The dialogue exchange builds to the moment where “Alpha is in the building“.

The action then cuts to a police raid, but with tight and terse visual description: “A fire door bursts in. Muzzles of high-velocity rifles jab through. Then come 6 burly blokes in bullet-proof vests. They charge up dirty concrete steps.”

Immediately, the script is visual and pacey, and creates little effort for the reader to get into the tone and flow of the piece.

The opening sequence builds the tension of the raid so that Arnott, the protagonist, must make a difficult decision to follow a ‘shoot to kill’ order.

Crucially, tragically, the police get it wrong, and Arnott races to the scene, realising they targeted the wrong flat. “Arnott doesn’t know whether to scream or cry“. Subverting the reader’s expectations.

By the end of page 10, Arnott’s superior officer is already cooking the cover up, but shortly afterwards, Arnott won’t fall in line, which leads him to his new position… (the core concept of the show begins to kick in).

The script’s first ten pages are tense, pacey and visual but mainly focused around one simple and clear dramatic sequence to entice the reader into the world of the story.

We also learn a fair bit about our lead character through his actions without actually being told anything about him (indeed, he’s just described as “DETECTIVE SERGEANT STEVE ARNOTT, late 20s”). Skilful screenwriting from Jed Mercurio. Look at his pleased face.

So there you have it, my top 5 tips for prepping your first ten pages (whether they be for the Red Planet Prize or not). As I type, there’s ten days till the deadline. Better get cracking!

Previous tips:

Core Concept, The Opening Scenes, Set Up Vs Story Original Voice

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