You Had Me at Page Four

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It doesn’t require a Masters in Creative Writing to know that you have to grab your audience’s attention in the very beginning. When people flip through the books at Barnes & Noble, they don’t say, “The first page is boring, but I think I’ll spend $19.95 on this thing anyway because maybe, hopefully, the other 99.5% of the book doesn’t suck too.”

And in movies, the opening scene has to be, well, awesome, or what’s the point? If you can’t make the first four pages great, what does that say about the rest of the film?

Last night, my husband and I went out to the movies for his birthday. There wasn’t anything playing that we really wanted to see, so we went to 21 and Over, a comedy about college kids and a debauchery-packed night of drinking. The critics’ reviews were terrible, but the fan reviews were pretty good, so we gave it a shot.

It turns out, all the fans who reviewed it were 14 year old kids who think anything with people getting drunk and the word “fuck” in it is a stellar movie.

We did something I haven’t done in years: we walked out. At page 4. The opening was so poorly written that we figured the rest of the movie didn’t have much of a chance. We snuck into Identity Thief, which was just starting in the other theater (also not an award-winner, but it wasn’t total garbage.)

As written by Michael Hauge in his explanation of Story Mastery, “The opening 10% of your screenplay must draw the reader, and the audience, into the initial setting of the story, must reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and must establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.”

Here are examples of some movies have opened:

Varsity Blues: We learn about Mox and the football culture of the town

Four Weddings and a Funeral: We learn about Charles and all the weddings he has to go to

Never Been Kissed: We learn about Josie and how she’s never been kissed

Heartbreak Kid: We learn that Eddie wants a woman.

13 Going on 30: We learn that Jenna isn’t happy with who she is

Bridesmaids: We learn that Annie wants to feel good about herself, but keeps putting herself into situations that get her the same bad results.

An example of a great opening (in my humble opinion).

American Psycho:

This opening not only illustrates almost exactly who this character is, but it sets the tone of the whole movie and its bizarre humor amidst creepy character details.

Considering all of the above, I wonder if my opening to my new script is as good as it should be. This script has three main characters, so I’m using the first 12 pages or so to spell out the situation each one of them is in. While the beauty of American Psycho’s opening is in the words, the beauty in Office Space‘s opening is in the visual:

I think I frequently rely too much on the words for description. This subject really should be its own separate blog post. Food for thought. Back to work.


You Don’t Have Writer’s Block- You Just Didn’t Finish Your Outline

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Working on an outline for a new script. Think Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Anna Faris.

I listened to a teleconference seminar on structure last week that was really interesting. It went into detail on the 15-minute segment method practiced by most Hollywood screenwriters. For those who are unaware, this is a process that divides your movie up into 8 even segments (i.e. if you have a 120 page script, each segment will be roughly 15 minutes.) Each segment has its own purpose, and its own rise and fall. Following this structure is a great way to lay out your script, avoid the second act slump, and more importantly, writer’s block.

cow writers block

As the teacher of the seminar said, “You don’t have writer’s block- you just didn’t finish your outline.”

Here is a (very) brief breakdown of the 15 minute segment method:

  1. Setting up the story
  2. Entering a new world
  3. Learning the new world
  4. The first major obstacle
  5. Things fall apart
  6. The hero hits rock bottom and the villain achieves his or her goal
  7. The hero takes on the villain’s allies
  8. The hero confronts the villain

Bruce Almighty

For people like me who write comedies, these breakdowns of action movies are sometimes a little difficult to translate into comedy-speak, but its doable. For example: “Things fall apart” in Bruce Almighty actually means “Bruce starts getting everything he wants.” I know, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but once you start overanalyzing a ton of comedies (like I’ve done these last few weeks, including Bridesmaids, 13 Going on 30, Bruce Almighty and Horrible Bosses) it starts become clearer.

By the way, overanalyzing movies is a great way for you to simultaneously appreciate the movies more and become totally sick of all comedies all at the same time. (If you ever feel the need to read a scene-by-scene play-by-play of any of those movies, oh yes, I’ve got it in MS Word.)

Some people can write without an outline, but most people (including everyone I know) can’t. I want my outline so perfectly laid out that by the time I open Final Draft, the thing is practically written for me already, and “writer’s block” is a virus I’m immune to.

Day 218 – You WANT to make my movie… YOU want to make my movie… You want to MAKE my movie…

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The script is done. Oh yes. It’s done. And it’s the best screenplay I’ve ever written.

I finally have a script I feel confidently happy with. I’ve had doubts about every script I’ve ever finished. All I’ve wanted was one script that I felt really good about sending out- one I felt I could safely and assuredly use to get an agent. And now I have it. How is it that this is finally that script I’ve been hoping to write? I don’t know if it’s because of impending baby #2 (4 weeks left today), or my work with The Artist’s Way, or just that it took me a few years to really get a grasp on how to write the right script. I’m happy.

So now what? How do you get from awesome words on a page to the film on a screen and money in your pocket?

My husband (who is a DP, cameraman, and video editor) wants to find someone with a lot of extra cash, so we can make the movie ourselves. This idea has certainly worked for a few successful people (including our friend who made the movie Grace.) But honestly, I don’t know if I’m up to that. However, my script is not exactly Transformers or Titanic. It takes place in NYC (where I live) and has regular humans doing regular human things, so it’s definitely feasible that we do it ourselves.

But I’m about to bring an infant into this world to add to our little family, plus we’re broke, so I don’t think it’s the right time to take on a project of this magnitude.

How else do you get a movie made? You get someone else to make it for you. That is, you get a studio to buy it and make it themselves. This is my method of attack today. Studios aren’t interested in 8-month-pregnant-me waddling into their executive offices with 110 pages asking them to make my movie.

But a respected agent calling them on the phone? That’s better.

So I’m going through my teeny tiny list of contacts and asking them to either read my script or give me suggestions on where to go next with it. But one thing I do is make sure I’m being authentic with them, so I don’t finish my day feeling like a career climbing phony (thank you, Holden Caulfield). I try not to be sneaky, or fake. Because at the end of the day, my script doesn’t matter, but my integrity does.

I’m even contacting a couple of people I feel incredibly uncomfortable contacting, as I haven’t spoken to them in years and it’ll be an obvious “Hi… how are you… long time… hope you’re well… please help me?” It’s a sucky feeling, but sometimes it’s what you have to do. These people may end up thinking you’re using them and resent you for it, or they may look at you as lame and desperate… but people do help people and that’s how people get ahead.

So… call them, email them, or Facebook them, and suck it up.