The First 10 Pages – Austin Film Festival

Lindsay Doran

For a new screenwriter trying to break his or her way into the film or television industries, one of the toughest tasks is getting someone to read your script. But even if you can get someone to crack that front page, the job isn’t done. You have to catch the reader’s attention and you may only have 30 or 10 or maybe a single page in which to do so.

At the 2013 Austin Film Festival in October, producer Lindsay Doran presided over a session called The First Ten Pages, which examined the opening pages of five scripts from people who had submitted to the screenplay competition. Below are some of her general thoughts on telltale trouble spots.

1. Boring title: From the cover itself, the title should grab the reader’s attention. Ideally, it will trigger a question in the reader’s mind or play with the reader’s imagination. Can you imply action or hint at something interesting inside. Don’t be vague or boring.

2. Story doesn’t begin: So often, the writer spends the first ten pages simply setting up the real world and its cast of characters that he or she forgets to actually start the action of the story. Without starting the story, you risk boring the reader.

3. Not actually a comedy: Presumably, she is talking here about comedy scripts that aren’t comedic. Funny is subjective, but is the movie actually a comedy or light drama, which Doran described as a bad place to be. If the writer is heading in that direction, perhaps it is better to write a drama that incorporates humour as a form of relief or due to specific characters.

4. Unlikeable main character: Not to say that the protagonist has to be a good person, but that the reader has no reason to root for him or her. Show us the human side of the protagonist that helps to explain why he or she is redeemable or needs the reader’s support.

5. Too many characters: One script Doran reviewed introduced 7 characters on the first page alone, which aside from being a lot to take in, left the readers with little sense of who the protagonist in the story was. As well, it was difficult to determine how these multiple characters related. Even with an ensemble piece, it is possible to introduce the characters more slowly, perhaps only introducing one subplot at a time.

6. Obstacles without stakes: While it is important to present the protagonist with challenges, the rising conflict, for the reader to engage in the story, those challenges must have important implications to the future of the protagonist. Delaying the protagonist from making it to the office is one thing, but make sure the reader understands why it is so important for the protagonist to make it to the office and what happens if the character doesn’t.

7. Confusing: Doran suggests there is a fine line between intriguing and confusing. If the reader finds him or herself lost while coursing through the opening 10 pages, he or she is unlikely to press further into the story.

8. Transparent exposition: On the flip side, make sure that any important bit of information is woven within the fabric of the narrative and/or dialogue and not simply plopped on the page. Clumsy, transparent exposition lifts the reader out of the story simply because it doesn’t flow and almost seems like a side thought.

9. Comedy based on a superficial world: Again, assuming a comedy, does the writer really understand the world she describes or is she simply aiming for cheap, cliché laughs at a well known environment and archetype? The Devil Wears Prada is a good example of a movie that went deep inside the fashion industry and avoided the superficial jokes about models, designers and photographers.

10. The three most terrifying words in the history of the American screenplay: Here Doran was being a bit playful, but wanted to make the point that it is difficult to get people to read a screenplay about a mature woman from outside the United States. Any one of those protagonist features is hard enough to promote, but to have all three is screenplay suicide, according to Doran.

Flight (part two)

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(See previous post for Part One)

The plane vanished from radar screens about 400 kilometers southwest of Bristol. The last report suggested that everything was proceeding nicely. A particularly strong tailwind had put the flight almost 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

The rescue planes first picked up the escape chutes at 10 PM, the yellow bulks bobbing on 6-foot swells. Whatever happened to US786, it resulted in a controlled water landing. And the escape chutes suggested at least some of the passengers had gotten out before the fuselage went under.

It would be an hour or two, however, before the helicopters could get close enough to see.

* * * * *

Jocelyn was cold. Colder than she thought humanly possible as she clung to the surface of the chute.

Time had ceased to have any meaning for her as she had been awaken from a dead sleep by the crash and had no idea if the sun had just set or was about to rise. The absence of a Moon said she might not know for some time.

All she knew was that her left arm hurt like hell and her right leg didn’t feel at all. Whether from cold or injury seemed moot at this point.

Jocelyn slowly unclenched her left hand, letting the key chain and keys dangle from her palm, the key ring encircling her ring finger.

In the darkness, she could really see the inscription on the plate, but she knew what it said: Best Daddy. A token of remembrance, perhaps, of the man who’d forced her onto the chute as she floundered, drowning after the crash. She’d felt it press painfully into her arm as she scrambled atop the limp plastic. By the time she’d finished spewing water from her lungs, though, the man was gone and her hand fell onto the keychain.

For now, the pendulous weight gave Jocelyn some deep comfort as she felt the keychain rock on her finger as she rocked on the waves.

* * * * *

Captain Teresa Wei strained her eyes, searching the darkness for the yellow blobs she knew were down there. Somewhere.

The roar of the helicopter rotors had ceased long ago to be a distraction for Teresa. Her attention was focused and intense.

“We don’t have much time left,” the pilot called.

“A few more minutes. The current was strong but steady,” she replied. “They have to be somewhere around here.”

Before the last word even dissipated in the rotor wash, Teresa’s second spotter tapped her shoulder.

“Over there!”

Teresa turned just in time to see a glint of yellow roll down the backside of a wave. She took a deep breath and willed one or more people to be attached to the chute. This wouldn’t be like the last fiasco. There was no way she would leave people to die like she had on her last flight.

* * * * *

A flurry of fish roiled the water around the chute as Jocelyn’s vomit dispersed on the current. She wondered if there could be much left in her stomach as she hadn’t eater much more than a canister of Pringles since the airport.

Her tongue could feel her lips as they pruned from the salt. The light was only now cresting above the horizon, so she couldn’t have been out too long, but those lungs full of brine hadn’t helped.

And the only thing she wanted more than a bottle of water was a blanket.

“Oh, to be warm again,” she thought to herself. “Snug in bed or under a throw in front of a fire.”

Jocelyn felt a sudden downdraft, which sent a wracking chill through her, and caught a furtive movement and splash to one side.

Shark!

Something was moving toward her in the water. Something big and dark.

Jocelyn did what she could to move from the edge of the chute, but all that accomplished was to sink the middle, filling it with icy water.

She considered her rubberized platform and quickly surmised whatever was approaching could easily puncture the chute, submitting her to the ocean’s swells and its own appetites.

Her terror pounded in her head, pulsating as the downdraft continued.

* * * * *

Teresa manned the lift herself, hauling the woman achingly toward the hovering helicopter, knowing she’d repeat the process with the rescue diver. Step one, however, was getting the woman stabilized and hydrated.

* * * * *

Jocelyn felt as though she were an angel ascending to heaven, although her real angels were above her and still down in the water.

She was serene, at peace, and oh so tired. But she wasn’t about to release her grip on the guide wire, despite the pain in her left palm where her grip was embedding the keychain into her flesh.

If you looked really closely at her palm—even months later—you could just make out the faintest of words: Best Daddy.

Jocelyn was marked for life.

(Images is property of owner and is used here without permission because I float that way)

Flight (part one)

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His shoulder kept throbbing and it seemed there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted little more than to sleep, the flight to New York having left ridiculously early and his sales meeting having ended quite late, if you call a cab ride from bar to airport ending.

Terry’s body wasn’t as young as it used to be and he seriously started to wonder if 32 years in sales was 2 years too many. The awards that lined his shelves said no. Salesman of the Year. Millionaires Club. Best Daddy.

The last one had come from his daughter Ronny almost 25 years ago and it was the one he cherished most, perhaps because it helped him forget that it was a lie. Terry had been a terrible father and an even worse husband, but no one could say he’d been a bad provider. The family wanted for nothing, save perhaps for time with Terry.

He tried to convince himself that he’d spent so much time on the road for them, but he knew better. He wasn’t cut out to a husband or a father, the marriage had been a mistake of hormones and responsibility.

Terry looked up to see the flight attendant awaiting a response. Apparently, he had zoned out.

“Can I offer you a beverage?” she repeated, her smiling eyes betraying no sense of impatience. She would wait for him as though she had nowhere else to be.

“Coffee, please. Black, no sugar.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Terry watched her as she located the carafe on the cart, the way she slid the cup from its tray. Her hands were delicate but purposeful.

Her hair was short, brown, tucked behind her ear to expose the tiniest stud earring. Just a hint of down along her jawline and the back of her neck, which was paler than her face. She’d recently worn her hair longer.

Just a touch of makeup, to accentuate rather than disguise.

Rather than let her place the cup on his tray, Terry took it from her, his fingertips grazing the backs of her fingers as the weight shifted from her hands to his.

She smiled at him as she released the cup and quickly followed with a tray of biscotti. Terry took two, despite abhorring the stone-like biscuits.

His eyes lingered on her as she served the passenger on the other side of the aisle. She was shapely without being too curvy and her calves said she worked out. A regular spin class, perhaps, or a runner. Again, fit but not muscular.

At another time, he might have ended his flight with her number and managed a bit of exercise of his own during his business trip. Despite being confident he still could, Terry was presently content to sip his coffee and let the caffeine revive his sense of humanity. Besides, he needed to keep his focus if he was going to make this his last flight.

* * * * *

Dave could feel the eyes of the other passengers on him as he laughed raucously, but he didn’t care. Just like when he was a kid, Rocky & Bullwinkle made him laugh. He couldn’t help himself. The moose was just like his younger brother and the squirrel his mother, right down to the voice.

As Dave tapped the volume button on his arm rest, his seat mate smacked her book closed in annoyance and shoved it into her seat sleeve. She unbuckled her seat belt, and stared at Dave to let her by. Reluctantly, he yanked his ear buds and unclipped his seat belt, pulling himself to his feet using the seat in front of him. Navigating the narrow aisle, he let the woman pass to the back of the plane.

The row now empty, Dave shuffled to the window and gazed into the abyss. The sun was nowhere to be found as the plane sped toward morning. The sky was largely cloudless, so Dave could only guess how high they were, lines of waves barely visible on the ocean below.

This was Dave’s first time over such an expanse of water. He’d flown the Great Lakes and the length of the Mississippi, but an ocean was something else, indeed. A vast expanse of nothing. No boats. No land. Dave didn’t even see another plane. It was like that Kevin Costner movie.

“Water?” a voice asked over his shoulder.

“And plenty of it,” he responded, before turning and realizing it was the flight attendant with a stack of plastic cups and a two-liter bottle of water.

With a sheepish grin, Dave slid back to his seat and reached for a glass. If this was going to be Dave’s last flight, he wanted to grab all the amenities he could, even if it was only free water.

He wondered what the boys would say back home to see him living it up. Free drinks and free movies. Riley’s Pub may be cheap, but this was like an open bar.

He could still hear his boss’s voice: “Don’t embarrass us over there!”

His boss had always treated Dave as something of a retard, so Dave played along. If nothing else, it meant he had pretty light duties and medical insurance. His buddies wanted him to stand up for himself, but he didn’t see the point.

By the time the plane reached Europe, all of his problems would be over.

* * * * *

Jocelyn slept fitfully, her head and arms resting on her tray, memories of her last fight with her fiancé rousing her with a jolt. Turning, she found the bear in the next seat was still snoring for all he was worth. That the plane’s fuselage hadn’t disintegrated from the sonorous vibration was a surprise, but that wasn’t the way things worked for Jocelyn. No, her pains had always been slow and lingering.

She had hoped to be an Art Director for a magazine or ad agency, her art teachers had always said she had the talent, but an indiscrete moment in the back of Jake Bentley’s dad’s Camry had changed all that. Despite a quick visit to the next State, Jake’s parents insisted that they get married and weren’t the type to support a woman who had more than their boy.

Within a year, they had their first two grandchildren—a boy and a girl—but not from the same mother and neither of those women was Jocelyn. It would seem that Jake specialized in indiscretions.

Even with all that, it still took Jocelyn more than two years to get her freedom, but it was too late to reclaim her life. Her family was more invasive than ever, and her dad made sure she got a job in his factory.

That’s where she met Darryl, the dick.

Life had been bearable until Darryl started to get serious. Suddenly, every man who talked to Jocelyn was trying to get into her pants and every woman was trying to talk her into leaving him. The pressure was on to cloister her in the house so that he could feel more secure.

The slap was the final straw. But alternative plans take time, and Darryl’s growing aggressiveness didn’t give her much. Luckily, Jocelyn was pretty good at makeup and just looked like she hadn’t slept much, which was true.

The only thing Jocelyn knew about Sweden was Ace of Base, ABBA and those horse meatballs from Ikea. That, and it was thousands of miles from home.

Today, Jocelyn’s world was going to change.

* * * * *

Part Two to follow in next post

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I grabbed it on my last flight)

Doug – a stupid short story

Holey hat

Doug had never been aware of his third ear, but it did help him understand why his hats didn’t fit very well. That he had a third ear wasn’t really the problem, though. Rather it was the shape of the ear. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Where it attached to his head, it was cylindrical, but not smooth. A series of concentric rings ran perpendicular to the cylinder and whenever he would touch one, he would hear a mild, not unpleasant tone.

As the rings disappeared, however, the cylinder branched into a series of flower-like appendages. Tulips, if Doug was pressed, but gardening wasn’t really his thing.

Doug stood in front of the mirror, watching his reflection in the mirror mounted on the opposite wall. He had installed that one specifically for this purpose.

Over the course of the past hour, Doug had discovered that he could control the opening and closing of the ear petals with his cheek muscles. A strong squint and they all closed. More modest inflations and they would open and close in groups.

What use this new skill provided, he couldn’t tell. At the moment, it was just helping him occupy a Thursday afternoon for which he had no other plans.

“Gotta pee.”

The sound came out of nowhere. Doug just heard it, or at least thought he did.

“Gotta pee.”

Whatever the source, it was insistent, particularly as Doug had no real urge to pee.

Claws scraped against a metal sheet, snapping Doug from his thoughts.

“Gotta pee!”

Doug left the bathroom, following the scraping noise, and eventually ended up in the kitchen.

Beulah, his basset hound, turned slowly toward Doug as he entered the room, her tail wagging gingerly.

“Gotta pee!”

“Beulah?” Doug barely whispered.

“Peeing.”

Beulah looked sheepish but relieved as the amber puddle spread across the floor.

Doug raced to the door, stepping carefully over the dog, and threw the door open to the backyard. Beulah just looked up at him.

“I’m good.”

She waddled back to the den and her bed, trailing a pattern of damp footprints behind her.

Doug felt the breeze come through the open door.

“Licking myself clean.”

That’s it, Doug thought, that third ear had to go.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I heard nothing from them)

The Shoe – a short story

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The shoe just sat there in the middle of the platform, taunting Joanne. A slight wearing of the laces through the eyelets and a long black scuff mark to the left of the toe, the only signs that it didn’t just arrive there by some act of God. Whoever had owned the shoe hadn’t owned it for very long.

Joanne wondered if he or she was limping down a road somewhere or if the shoe’s partner was lying somewhere nearby, alone or perhaps still connected to a dormant leg.

Inserting a pencil into the shoe like she’d seen done on TV a thousand times, Joanne held the shoe in the light to get a closer look.

A sneaker. ASICs. White with blue stripes. Size 9½. The wear pattern uneven, more pronounced to the outer edge. The owner pronated. Or was it supernated? Joanne would look it up later.

“What do you think?”

William always asked the obvious questions.

Joanne did her best to replace the shoe exactly as she’d found it, before turning to face William.

At four foot two, William wasn’t very imposing, and the green baseball cap didn’t help, skewed slightly to the left on his head.

What William lacked as a brother, he more than made up for as an investigative assistant. Today was no exception as his pen sat poised above a tiny flip pad.

Joanne was the brains of the operation, while William provided the…penmanship. Brawn was still a few years into the future.

William wasn’t stupid. He played dumb way too well to be considered stupid. But he was frugal with his intelligence, saving it for answers shouted full volume at Alex Trebek. He had yet to get an answer right, but you had to admire his tenacity.

Joanne scrutinized William as she formulated her response.

“We’re looking for a man wearing one shoe,” she said slowly, giving William time to write. “A white ASICs with a blue stripe. New. If he’s not dead, he’ll walk with a limp.”

“How do you know it’s a man?” William asked, as he finished his notes.

“Because the shoe is too big for a boy,” Joanne responded with an unspoken “gawd”.

William wrote this down too. You never knew what would be important later.

“I meant, what if it—“

“I know what you meant,” Joanne snapped.

That was good enough for William.

“The shoe points East,” she added. It did. “Meaning he was waiting for a Westbound train.”

But whether he was travelling west or awaiting the arrival of someone from the east, she could not tell.

“He may also have owned a dog, because I detect the faintest odor of dog poo,” Joanne noted, wrinkling her nose even as she took another deep whiff.

“That’s probably me,” William offered, lifting his right foot forward to expose rivers of brown slurry coursing through the grooves of the shoe tread.

It was all too much for Joanne.

“You’re contaminating my crime scene,” she bleated. “Mo-o-om, William is contaminating my crime scene.”

“Get over here, both of you,” Mom replied. “The train is coming. And leave that shoe.”

She was right. The train was indeed pulling into the station. It would mean playing the odds, but Joanne was going to bet the man with one shoe was travelling west.

As the train stopped, Mom herded first William and then Joanne onto the train.

“Why do I smell dog dirt?” she asked, sniffing the air.

This must be where William learned that annoying habit.

Joanne ignored the question, immediately scanning the car for anything suspicious.

Typical commuters. Some talking quietly. Others immersed in a book. Still others faking sleep but clearly listening to music through ear buds. And all wearing two shoes, except…

There, at the other end of the car, was a man with only one shoe. A white ASICs with a blue stripe. Joanne couldn’t be sure from her vantage point, but everything screamed it was size 9½.

On the man’s other foot was…nothing.

Not even a foot. Or shin. The man only had one leg. Ingenious.

Joanne swatted at William to get his attention, but caught nothing but air. Mom had apparently taken him to the second level of the train car. Joanne was on her own.

Slowly, she slid into the first available seat that gave her an uninterrupted view of the man with one leg.

How he’d gotten off the earlier train and onto Joanne’s was something she still had to figure out, but clearly this was a cagey customer. She would have to watch him closely.

At least until Port Credit, when she, William and her Mom would get off the train to visit her grandmother.

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(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, but please don’t tell Joanne.)

Blind – A nightmare

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Just before 5 am on October 14—Thanksgiving morning—I had the sudden feeling that I’d gone blind…in my creative centre. I could think of things, objects, but I could not “see” them in my mind’s eye.

Just moments earlier, I had been asleep, dreaming of the typical nonsense one dreams of when suddenly lines of darkness spread across the dream, at first like large lightning bolts but then growing in width to eventually swallow the entire picture. It was as though the picture tube in my head was failing and then extinguished. .And stranger still, the static was accompanied by a slight clicking sound, and then the screen was blank, black, empty.

The sensation was strange enough to wake me up. I lay there in bed wondering what it was.

I wasn’t literally blind. Even in the near pitch darkness of the bedroom, I could make out shapes—the storage racks in the closet, the dresser, the bedside lamp. So, what was happening?

I tried to close my eyes to go to sleep, but all I saw was darkness, the flashes of light that one sees when closing the eyelids but continues to look. Have I had a stroke?

I tried to think of a duck—I don’t know why a duck, but it was a duck—and couldn’t see it. Still can’t, really, at 5:10 am.

This may sound ironic, but I immediately wondered if my imagination had died. I tried to tell myself a story, in my head, and the words came hesitantly at first, but soon began to flow.

I imagined a man being thrown from a car—again, I don’t know why that topic—and while I could narrate the event, I couldn’t really visualize it.

The door swinging open as the car veers. The man tumbling sideways through the opening, his body crumpling as it hits the pavement, limbs flailing as it rolls. He was already unconscious or dead when he fell out, it would seem.

Even now, as I write out the scene I created earlier in my head, the picture is tentative, furtive. I am somewhat relieved that I get any picture at all, but am still bothered about how fleeting it is.

I’m not struggling for words, which is some solace, but then this is my analytical mind that is speaking, telling the story of what I am experiencing, rather than my creative mind, telling a story of events completely synthetic.

If the thought of having lost my visual imaginative centre didn’t scare me so much, I’d be amused. For the last couple of weeks, as I complained to Leela yesterday, I have found it difficult to get to sleep because my mind has raced with ideas—ideas for scenes and rewrites in my latest screenplay, ideas for the DDNews article I have due shortly, ideas for social media, ideas for my blog.

Hell, I’ve even taken to seeing events in my life as a screenplay.

I am just getting over a cold, and while waiting for sleep the other night, I realized that I was thinking about my symptoms and my experiences with them as though they were written as a screenplay. I would consider them and then try to rewrite them for more dramatic effect. It was odd.

I wasn’t dissociating per se, pretending that it was happening to someone else, stepping out of my body. Rather it was more like I had morphed my reality into a printed page. It’s hard to explain, especially at 5:26 am.

And now, my mind races for exactly the opposite reason. My inner video screen has gone out. The bulb is shot. I don’t see what I think. And that terrifies me.

I have often told people that my writing feels like it is less about my creation and more like I am simply transcribing a movie that only I can see. The movie, story, idea already exists in the cosmos and is merely using me as a conduit through which to express itself.

This is not to denigrate my talents as a writer—or at least, I don’t think it is—but I think the talent is in not preventing that flow, not ignoring the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings as they move through me and eventually out of the nib of the pen or fingertip on the keyboard.

What if that flow just got turned off? What if that nexus of creative spirit just moved on to someone or somewhere else? This doesn’t feel like the standard “I’m a talentless hack” anxiety. I am a very talented hack.

This feels more like a switch has been turned. Like I have gone blind.

Maybe it’s the cold medication taking its toll. Maybe it’s my brain’s way of coping with the recent hyperactivity. Maybe it’s nothing and the switch will turn back on, the system will reboot in my sleep.

I hope so.

Because this is one nightmare I couldn’t live with.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission)

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part Two

Available now stamp

In the last post, we talked about the challenge of finding someone to critique your work in a way that was actionable; someone who was neither too hard nor too soft on you. Below, we continue the conversation by address the need for that person to be available for ongoing discussion and the limitations of options like coverage services.

Availability: A lot of screenwriters rely on coverage services to get feedback on their screenplays and there are a number of reputable organizations and readers out there.

The challenge, I find, with these services is that they tend to be unidirectional and/or very brief. You send your work, you receive a written report, you may receive an oral report—which allows you to ask questions—but ultimately, it’s “here you go”.

You can get more, you can have follow-up, but it’ll cost more.

As well, I think you really miss out on improving your own skills, knowledge and understanding of story through the critiquing of the work of others.

I also worry that the use of a professional service when your work and skill sets are at a nascent level is largely a waste of their time and your money. The feedback you receive will likely be so broad, so sweeping that it could easily overwhelm you. As well, any minor change you make at one stage is liable to make any of the remaining feedback moot.

Better, I think, that you find someone who is also trying to grow their skills, who understands and shares your needs and fragility. They want and need your help as much as you want and need theirs, and so you’ll be more apt to make time for each other.

Again, it is about building a relationship of trust.

Transient state: Unfortunately, no two people develop at the same rate, and even if you find yourself in a trusting artistic relationship, you will likely find that one of you is ready to move forward faster than the other. It happens in all facets of life.

As your Art develops, you will find that your needs change, and that the partner that got you to one stage of development cannot get you to the next one. It is time to bow to your partner and move on to the next one.

If you’re lucky, both of you recognize this and move on without acrimony. Not everyone is lucky. But for your Art to flourish, the move is necessary.

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy way to make the transition, but in my experience, it is like the end of a marriage and the need to start dating again. The footwork is shaky and the verbiage is awkward, but you won’t die of embarrassment.

The key is to remember why you’re doing this, why it is important to you, and then to simply move forward.

You’ll be okay.

 

Coverage services I have used or have had recommended to me:

Marsha Mason at Why The Face

Terry Zinner at A Film Writer

Scriptapalooza Coverage

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because it was available now)