Red Planet Prize: The Opening Scenes

The deadline for the next Red Planet Prize is Friday 22nd January 2016. The Prize is one of the best TV writing opportunities out there, and it’s free to enter. Here’s the 2nd of my top 5 tips for submitting the first ten pages of your script to the competition (the 1st tip, ‘Core Concept’, is here).

2. The Opening Scenes

A reader will usually know after page 1 or page 2 whether a script is going to be good and/or if the writer knows what they’re doing. So the first ten pages is a luxury, really, to show your bones.

Don’t hang around, get to the story quickly. This doesn’t mean that you have to start with a fast-paced action sequence. It’s more to do with establishing the right tone and pace, and to pique the reader’s interest. When the reader is given too much information to work out – characters being introduced left right and centre, the action cutting between various plot strands, or there’s just drab scenes of introduction with no real drama or conflict happening on screen – then the first ten pages become very heavy lifting indeed.

Avoid all this: keep things clear. Clear doesn’t necessarily mean simple. You’re the storyteller, feel free to introduce characters left right and centre, and intercut between various plot strands if that’s the only way you see the story beginning. The trick is to make the script detail clear and engaging rather than creating an indulgent sense of ‘stick with it, this is just the set-up’.

The reader has probably read your core concept/logline before they open your script. This means they know (or think they know) the genre of your script. The genre then raises basic expectations of tone, and perhaps certain story elements to occur. For example, if it’s a murder mystery, then the opening scenes may be someone discovering the dead body. A perfectly fine if familiar start to this kind of story. To set it apart from the others in the pile, is there anything original you can do to make the discovery more interesting? Or something to subvert the reader’s expectations but still moves the story forward in a clear and compelling manner?

I’m reminded of the start of an episode of Cracker where a man pursues a woman through the woods with dark intent only for the action to reveal that the couple are role playing as flirtation, but the woman discovers a dead body hanging from a tree.

Remember, storytelling is an interactive experience; the reader/audience likes to work things out as the action unfolds rather than having their hands held all the way with dull exposition or excessive detail. Keep your description short. Create a sense of visual action unfolding on screen rather than scene description that tells us non-visual information.

If something interesting and/or original is happening, and the writing is clear and engaging (even if it’s just mum and dad in a domestic exchange), then the reader will be more likely to give the script a go past the first ten pages.

Next on the top  5 list: Set Up Vs Story

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