Written by Cameron Cubbison from ScreenCraft
One of the questions I get asked all the time is “do readers really only read the first ten pages?” In my experience, the short answer is yes. It happens… but it depends on the reader and the kind of reading they’re doing.
READERS WRITING COVERAGE
Readers writing coverage for agents and executives are required to closely read scripts in their entirety because they are tasked specifically with synopsizing the full story and holistically analyzing all of the core elements and mechanics; there is no way for them to complete their task unless they read the whole tamale… no matter how rancid it may be and no matter how much it may make them want to do a Peter Pan off the nearest rooftop or bridge.
Now keep in mind, your script will only be officially covered if it gets submitted and accepted to the story department at an agency, production company or studio and assigned to a reader. That really only happens if: your agent or manager (if you’re lucky enough to be represented) has the juice and relationships to get it done; you’re one of the .0001 writers that ever manages to pen a “hot” spec that starts a frenzy all over town; or if your platinum blonde girlfriend with the doe eyes, haughty attitude and the ridiculously stupid only-in-L.A. name has somehow conned her way into a development assistant position at a major studio and can circumvent the official channels for you.
If you’re a preexisting client at an agency, pretty much anything you write will get covered there, but disconcertingly enough, it likely won’t be by anyone who works there… it’ll get farmed out to a freelance reader who never sets foot in that office. I know this because I am one (of many) of those readers.
So bottom line, when you submit to a contest or your script gets submitted to an agency, production company or studio, it’s an act of faith/desperation on your end. You’ll have no control over whether or not your script gets read, let alone read properly. You’ll have no control over who reads your script. And you’ll most likely never see the coverage that gets generated.
That’s why purchasing coverage from a reputable screenplay consultancy is valuable: by the very nature of the transaction, you will see the coverage, and thus get a direct window into how your script would likely fare at an agency, production company or studio. The key is to make sure that the company you are using has the reputation and background to provide accurate, professional and market-honed coverage.
The same holds true in terms of purchasing contest evaluations, consultations and development notes. It’s worth it, because in that context, readers have to be able to comprehensively discuss the scripts that they have been tasked with and prove that they closely read them or risk being exposed as lazy, unscrupulous, self-important frauds and… well… all-around turds.
The truth may proverbially set most people free, but for bad readers the truth renders them unemployable pariahs because they give committed and diligent readers a bad name. The world of professional readers who are really making a living… if not a particularly good one… doing the job is very, very small, and as wise (albeit fictional) street stage Rocky Balboa once said, “they don’t remember you, they remember the rep.”
READERS JUST… READING
Now readers, contest judges and executives that are simply reading scripts one giant stack at a time in the often-futile hope of finding good ones… that’s a different story.
In that case, readers are actively looking for an excuse to throw your script away as quickly as possible. That sounds awful, but it’s not because readers are miserable, vindictive bastards with drinking problems who regularly don’t bathe or leave their apartments for days at a time (though some readers burn out and become those people right before they hang it up and/or have a psychotic episode). It’s really just a numbers game: there are too many scripts to read and not enough hours in the day.
So when you hear over and over again that your first ten pages will make or break you, it’s true. And while it may be maddening to think that your script is being given short shrift and that the last ninety pages are being shunted aside like a nerd at prom, you’ve got to follow Dirty Harry’s lead and ask yourself one question: how many movies can you think of that sucked in the first ten minutes but then rebounded extraordinarily and became fantastic? Probably not many.
Crafting a strong first ten pages isn’t easy. You have to establish a core premise and tone, introduce your protagonist(s) and make us care, show us their ordinary world and the catalyst/inciting incident that rips their ordinary world to shred and starts them on a high-stakes journey that will forever the change the course of their lives. The encouraging news is that if you can do those things, you’ll hook the reader and earn a bank of good will… meaning you’ll have to make some baffling (or at least really ineffective) creative choices that nosedive your script in order to lose them again.
Readers want to be hooked, but they need a sharp first ten pages to shake them out of apathy. So if you ever find yourself spending energy getting fixated on readers as fickle foes and archenemies, flip the switch and instead focus on crafting your first ten pages so painstakingly that you kick the reader’s ass. And should that phrasing sound too combative, don’t fool yourself: you’re at war with the reader. If they dump you, they win. If you hook them, you win… and more importantly, your script stays in the game.
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