The most important part of any screenplay is the FIRST PAGE, and beyond that, the FIRST TEN PAGES. Here is where you will either HOOK your reader—or loose him or her for good. Your goal may be to get your script sold, shot, and screened in front of enormous audiences, but your first bottle-neck will be a lone READER, most often an assistant or an intern at a production company or a talent agency. Your first ten pages, then, must successfully embody these FOUR ELEMENTS:
1) INCITING INCIDENT
That’s film-speak for the THING THAT MAKES THE MOVIE HAPPEN. It’s an example I've used before, but if E.T. hadn’t been left behind on earth—if he’d made it back to that ship and sailed away with his glowing-heart friends—there would be no movie. No Elliott. No flying bicycles. Nothing. The first five minutes of E.T. sets up the film’s HERO (E.T.) and INCITES a story to unfold. There are some movies in which the inciting incident remains a mystery, or even takes place before page 1 of the script. These are the exception—most movies clearly lay out an inciting incident, and use this setup as a way to hook the reader and introduce central characters. But if you do choose to leave your inciting incident shrouded in secrecy, you must at least provide a FALSE START—a situation that readers will THINK is the inciting incident, even if you ultimately pull the rug out later.
2) PAGE-ONE HOOK
The page-one hook comes down to one thing: If you haven’t “hooked” your reader by the end of page 1—if you haven’t wet their palette and made them ask “what’s next?”—then they might not flip to page 2. Again—page 1 of any script is the most important page you’ll write. My general rule of thumb is to keep the descriptions witty but sparse, and to save as much of the page as possible for dialogue that exposes the personality of your main character (your HERO). Keep the dialogue punchy, but make his or her point-of-view very clear. And if possible, SUGGEST what your inciting incident might be, even if you don't delve into it completely until page 2 or 3.
3) INTRODUCTION OF THE PROTAGONIST AND ANTAGONIST
Your PROTAGONIST is your hero—you good guy—your main character. Your ANTAGONIST is your bad guy—your source of conflict—the shmuck who gets in the way. If it works for your story, try to introduce BOTH of these characters in the first ten pages, and better yet, PUT THEM TOGETHER IN A SCENE. The sooner readers get to know and understand your protagonist, the sooner they’ll start to care about his or her story. And the sooner they get a glimpse into the psyche of your antagonist, the sooner they’ll understand the roadblocks that will SHAPE this story.
4) THE NORMAL WORLD
It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing—the first ten pages of any screenplay must be all about the “normal world” that your characters inhabit BEFORE their lives change, on or about page 10. This is Indiana Jones delivering a boring lecture, Marty McFly interacting with his loser family, or Will Smith in I Am Legend doing the rounds before night-fall. Your hero’s journey will only make sense to audiences IN CONTRAST with where he or she began, so make sure you use these ten pages to paint a CLEAR PORTRAIT of your character’s day-to-day life BEFORE the shitake hits the fan.
The bottom-line is that any screenplay must quickly display the writer’s competency and grasp of screenwriting in a very short period of time, or your script won’t make it past a first-round read. And while your BFF or girlfriend might take the time to read a sloppy first-draft, professional readers won’t. Other than correct formatting, nailing these four points in the first ten pages of your screenplay is the best way to put that nineteen-year-old assistant at ease, and to fill them with confidence that the NEXT 110-pages is absolutely worth the read.