The First 30 Pages
You probably have a ton of questions from Day 1.
It’s okay, they are the same ton everybody has. What we’ll do is give you the answers you need at the moment. The other questions will answer themselves as we go:
Q: What if I go over ten pages?
A: That’s okay. Somewhere in the last three pages will be a page-10 declaration; that is, you will have stated what the hero is going to pursue.
Q: What do I do with exposition? I’ve got to explain some things. I can’t show it all.
A: Look to see if you have the character walk in and say, “Well, here we are in Paris because we won that vacation because I was top salesman.”
Show not tell. Ask yourself, “Can I show this? How can I show this?”
Action/adventure movies often start with incredible hijinx, then cut to the office scene, where the plans are laid out. (Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Action, then the classroom. James Bond? Action, then the London office). If your characters need to lay out the plan, that’s fine, but be forthright about it and actually call a meeting. Preferably after an action scene.
Q: How can I tell my story without revealing too much right away?
A: Reveal as much as you know as soon as you know it. Don’t keep secrets from us. Don’t hold back and don’t try and trick your audience. You’ll lose them. Too much too soon can be fixed, but too little too late rarely works.
When the audience comes to see your movie, you enter into an agreement with them. They are willing to accept the world you present to them if you agree to make it clear what they’re supposed to understand about that world.
Q: Mine’s a love story. It’s about two people, not one, how do I tell both their stories?
A: The story can be about a twosome or three or a gang, but it is conveyed through one person. Gone With the Wind was a huge epic that told many people’s stories and, in fact, it set out to be the story of an entire South, but it was conveyed through one person, Scarlett O’Hara. So ask yourself, “Whose story is this?” Whose point of view (P.O.V.) is the story told through?
Q: I’ve got lots of action. My main character is off the plane and in the cab and on the freeway and arrives home as the main credits finish. But when he opens the door I can’t get him to talk.
A: There’s a difference between action and movement. It’s fine to show movement if it means something to your story. Is it building towards the story? Does it give information? If you have the character just spin his wheels because he can’t get on with the story, create a device for yourself to get him to sit in the chair and deal with what he needs and wants.
Q: I’m writing a mystery. How do I plan the clues?
A: Answer this: Are you personality type X or type Y?
Do you make lists, make plans, and enjoy knowing the events of the day before you get them? Then you are type X. Get a stack of 3X5 cards in colours. Decide what event leads to which suspect. Write the crime on the first card, and write the ending you want on the last card. Fill in between with cards giving clues that lead from the crime to the payoff. Use different colour cards to track each path of the labyrinth you want to send us into. Then work out the 9-Minute structure of your story and drop in the clue cards along the way. In a mystery, the story tends to turn on events of the crime. If it is turning on a relationship or the growth of a character, ask yourself, “Do I really want to tell a mystery or is there a relationship story here that’s more important to me?” If you want to tell a mystery, then just stick to the facts that cover or uncover the crime.
If you are personality type Y, you probably enjoy reading mysteries and want to write this one to find out “who done it” along with your audience. So don’t have a plan; just have a crime and a strong crime solver. Do most of your story preparation fleshing out the character of your investigator, then have confidence that he will solve the mystery for you. Now start with a “what if.” Show us a dead body. Have a vague idea how you’d like the payoff to come. Have a surprising, outrageous conclusion and see if you can write your way from crime to payoff by just stumbling on clues as they appear on the page. You will write the first draft fast – as fast as it takes to read a good mystery.
Since you are solving this as you go, some of the leads you follow will be dead ends. Do this: when you read through, before rewrite, notice that you will have three variations of the same clue. Let’s call them good, better, and best. Take elements from each and make the best one even more powerful and eliminate the other two. Keep building suspense and jeopardy. Scare yourself. Have your character dare to try the cellar door. If you can sustain your own excitement, you will sustain it for the audience as well.
ENOUGH TALK – ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS
Let’s move on to Day 2 by reading Day 1.
This is how to read your speed pages from Day 1:
No judgements. You are allowed to ask yourself any questions except “Is it good?” or “Is it bad?”
Answer these questions:
What’s the story?
Who is it about?
What does the hero need?
What does the hero want?
Does it tell the story I wanted to tell?
Somewhere in yesterday’s pages, did you tell us who and did you tell us what?
Can you restate the logline here?
(If you can do all that, great. Skip the next section. Go right to new pages.)
If you can’t answer these questions, if you are depressed, overwhelmed, and/or confused, it’s okay. Don’t go back. Even though you feel you “should” go back to Day 1 and start again, don’t Go back. Always go forward. That’s what the random draft is for, to find out what the movie is about. Keep moving forward.
Now. How do you do that when you don’t know the story or the logline or anything? Remember your eight-minute exercise on what your story is about? Re-read it. Then write for eight minutes again.
Underline what jumps out at you. There will be a three-word phrase that crystallizes what your movie is about. Look at your visual aid. Rekindle your initial feeling of what the story is saying. Remember, you’re writing the random draft to find out what your movie is about. You now know more than you did before you started. The next twenty pages will reveal even more.
HOW THE FIRST 10 PAGES LEAD TO THE NEXT 20
We already know a huge amount from your first ten pages. Whatever world you have set up you now build upon. Remember where you need to get to by page 30. That is where an event will happen that forces your hero to react.
We know what the story is about and we know who the story is about; now what other elements do you need to introduce to us in order to further your story along?
Act I is the place to set up everything you want us to know. Each scene should show character, advance the story, give information, build the situation, and express the viewpoint that you want us to understand.
Have you introduced us to the characters? What do we know about them so far?
What information have we gotten?
Notice the dialogue on the bottom of page 3. Does it tell you your attitude about doing this draft? Can you connect this attitude to a central question in your life that will tell you more about the story?
Now how do you get your hero from where he is on page 10 to where he needs to be on page 30? Stay with him.
Each scene advances the story and tells us something we don’t already know. We’re finding out more about this person, his world, his point of view, his problem. What does he want? What does he need? What are the obstacles? What else needs to be set up before page 30? Who else do we need to be introduced to?
If you feel yourself getting lost, it’s because the main character is offstage. Bring him back to the centre of action. Stay with him.
Turn on your inner projector. Let’s do an exercise to bring your brain to the alpha state. Look at your visual aid, then close your eyes and roll them upward until your eyelids flicker. Picture your movie playing. Intensify the colours and the images. When you are ready, open your eyes and go.
Write for three hours. Follow your hero to the Act I event on page 30.
©Andrea Nicola Dodgson, 1971.