“THE FIRST TEN”
People ask me all the time how to write a good horror script. The same rules apply as in writing any good screenplay. I’m happy to share some screenwriting tips that have always worked for me in the horror genre.
Let’s talk about the first ten pages. I’m not the only one to point out the importance of them, but given how many poor scripts and badly written movies are out there, it bears repeating and has always been key for me.
As a screenwriter, you have 10 pages to hook the reader or you’re dead. The First Ten are the most important pages of a screenplay. Why? Because if you haven’t hooked the reader–be it producer, director, star, development executive, script reader or anyone else down the film business food chain—-you’ve lost them. They will probably put the script down and not read any further, and not buy or make the script. You want to start your story, particularly a horror movie, with a bang.
Set up a situation in the first ten minutes that is interesting where people want to know what happens next. Establish the main characters in an exciting way. Avoid cliches particularly in working in established genres like vampire and zombie films where instantly the reader knows if they have seen it before. Give those first ten pages a spin on the genre people haven’t seen before. Then they’ll go, “this is cool” and want to read more, which is what you want as a writer.
Stars, when you submit the screenplay to them usually with a firm offer, will read ten pages. If the leading character you want them to play hasn’t been set up interestingly in those first ten pages, they will pass on the project. Always. So be sure your main character is properly introduced in The First Ten.
Think of first ten pages as a movie in itself.
Check out the first 10 pages of my script “THE HITCHER.” The entire first encounter between the hitcher and the kid–played in the film by Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell—happens during the opening 10 minutes. It’s just two guys in a car on a lonely highway, in a claustrophobic thunder and lighting storm with a lot of terse cryptic menacing dialogue as the kid slowly realizes the guy he gave a ride to is a psychopathic murderer who is going to kill him. The kid throws the hitcher out of the car at the end of the sequence and the movie begins.
Also, the kid picks up the hitchhiker in the rain on page 2. There was no back-story needed with the kid. It wasn’t important this early where he was from or going. All that mattered was he sees a hitchhiker in the rain with his thumb out and stops to give him a lift and we go, “don’t do it!” His first line, “My mother told me never to do this” said it all. In the opening ten pages, start situationally with action, and explain it later. If you can, hook the reader on page 1 or 2.
In “THE HITCHER” remake–I read the script but didn’t see the film-–the protagonists pick up the hitchhiker more than 20 pages in! The remake writers slowed the whole thing down and lost the instant tension of my script. Talk about taking steps backward. They did all the things I intentionally avoided in the original.
All good storytelling comes down to people wanting to know what happens next. Then being surprised with what happens next. Remember that as a storyteller you can’t take the audience anywhere if they don’t know where they are. You don’t want the audience confused, particularly at the very beginning when they are eager to get their footing and get some idea who this story is about and where they are going. Then you surprise them and take them somewhere they didn’t expect.
How do you know if your first ten pages are any good? Tell the first ten pages of the script to people. You can see whether they are interested or not by the look in their eyes. Simple as that. Next time, I’ll talk about high concept and how if you can’t tell your story in three to four sentences, you don’t have it.