As part of our Script Consulting Service, we now offer feedback on the first 10 pages of your script. But why is it so important to get those first few pages right? We asked Script Reader, Nika Obydzinski, to tell us more and share her tips for hooking the reader in those vital opening pages…
Say what you want about Shakespeare – he (or the company of actors that devised the plays attributed to his name) knew how to grab an Elizabethan audience’s attention. Witches, ghosts, street brawls: Shakespeare knew how to divert the groundlings from whatever they were up to in the pit, and focus their attention on the stage. The first ten minutes are always packed with action, information, and theatricality.
Needless to say, audiences and writers have changed. Modern day audiences sit patiently and quietly when the lights go down – the writer doesn’t necessarily need to employ ghosts and thumb-biting to get their attention. Instead, writers – particularly emerging writers submitting to playwriting competitions and unsolicited channels – must make a quick impression on a different kind of audience: literary department personnel, agent’s assistants, and freelance script readers. There is fierce competition for attention in today’s playwriting market, and it comes not from noisy groundlings, but from the piles of scripts that mount on every reader’s desk.
Before I continue, I feel I should take a moment to point one thing out. What follows is tailored largely towards full-length plays with what we might call a classic, linear structure: they have a beginning, middle, and end. They might have characters, who have things that they want and are working to get. Or they might have characters who are telling us a story, and that story usually has a beginning, middle, and end, populated by motivated characters. I will not go into great detail about concept-driven work that eschews this model, largely because most of the work that lands on my desk is conventionally structured. I will add a short message at the end of this post addressing how a script reader such as myself might respond to concept-heavy pieces.
Back to your play, in and amongst many others in a script reader’s inbox. I must be frank here – if your play is there through an unsolicited channel, or is in the first round of a competition of any kind, then it is highly likely your play will be put through a sifting procedure, such as the one BBC Writer’s Room employs, in which a reader will read ten pages before deciding if it is worth keeping to read in full later on. Not everyone works this way, of course – many playwriting competitions guarantee the first thirty to forty pages will be read. But not everyone can be so generous this early on. Fully funded literary departments in this country are very much in the minority, and many readers receive little to no pay for the work they do – so they must use their time wisely. Similarly, an agent’s assistant has a myriad of other tasks to be getting on with, so they will likewise be looking to prioritise reading plays in full only if they start out promisingly.
This economic line of thinking runs in parallel to the other, perhaps more vital, reason why your first ten pages need to shine: if you can’t get the reader’s interest in the first ten minutes, then you won’t get it from the audience, either. And if you don’t get the audience from the start, you’ll lose them entirely.
So, how do you ensure your play gets a full read? As I’ve already noted, we no longer exist in a theatrical culture that demands a bit of spectacle to get things going. But within the first ten pages, I would hope to see the following:
- Establishment of the Dramatic Question: What is the problem that needs to be solved? What is the journey the lead character(s) will undertake?
- Introduction to the Leading Character(s): Whose journey are we joining? Who is solving the dramatic question? Why should we like them (or not?) What are they like? Which of their characteristics are relevant to their dramatic journey?
- Establishment of the Theatrical World: Is this naturalism, set in the present day? Are we in the past? Are we in an imagined future? Are we in a non-naturalistic, liminal space? What are the parameters and rules of this theatrical world? How are these rules being communicated to the audience? What is the relationship to the audience?
Most of all, at the end of ten pages, we should want to keep reading. Find a way to hook us in, without getting side-tracked by exposition – remember, we don’t need to know *all* the information straightaway. Just the essentials, to understand the starting point. It also doesn’t hurt to ensure your layout is clear and readable (nothing is more confusing than shifting margins and indents,) and that your spelling is on point. They may seem like minor details, but it’s easier for us to take you seriously if you take your presentation seriously.
Lastly, to the intrepid writers crafting ambitious, theatrical, concept-driven worlds: my hat is off to you. The ten page challenge can be very tough on conceptual work. I would even suggest that script-reading processes are, by their nature, biased in favour of linear, narrative-driven work because they rely largely on words, whereas conceptual work will usually incorporate elements that are more visual, auditory, and traditionally theatrical – these elements can be difficult to access for a reader. My advice, almost always, to writers of ambitious work like this is: perhaps instead of, or in addition to, sending a copy of a script, find a way to get the piece on its feet, and invite us to *see* your work. All you need is a room and some performers – then send us an invitation.
Remember: we want your play to succeed. We want to read plays that excite us. The ten page cap is in place simply because our time is limited. We are in an elevator, with you. You’ve got until the tenth floor (I hope you’re with me in this metaphor) to give me your elevator pitch. When I get off the elevator, I want to turn around as the door closes, and to think, ‘I really want to know what happens next.’
Find out more about our Script Consulting Services here.
Nika has been part of the literary team at Theatre503 for several years, presently as a senior reader and reader for the 503 Playwriting Award. She previously managed the King’s Head Theatre literary department, where she also project managed the Adrian Pagan Award for new writing, produced a series of rehearsed readings at the Hope Theatre, and twice served as a judge for the Stella Wilkie Award.