The Anatomy of a Produceable Screenplay: Page One
Donald L. Vasicek
When you watch a movie, what do you usually see in the first minute? A bunch of people jumping around? Or perhaps running? Or a headstone in a cemetery? A slinky woman’s naked cadaver silhouetted against a light? What about the one that skims you over a body of water with the skyline of a city ahead? Whatever you see, has meaning, at least in screenplays that get produced.
There are at least eight elements that should be on the first page of your screenplay if you want to hook your reader into your screenplay, enhance your chances of selling it and having it produced. Learned eyes look for these elements on page one of your screenplay. If they aren’t there, you’ve already got a strike against you in the mind of the reader. What are these elements and how can you write them into the first page of your screenplay?
If you first come up with a metaphor that describes the main theme of your screenplay, then the seven other elements will drop into place much easier. A metaphor that describes the main theme of your screenplay must be visual since film is a visual medium. You don’t want to bore your audience by unleashing talking heads to the audience unless you can pull it off like Billy Bob Thornton did in his Academy Award-winning screenplay, “Sling Blade” and some excellent acting by Billy Bob Thornton and J. T. Walsh.
For example, on page one in my screenplay, “The Crown”, which was produced, the main character, a gangly boy of 12 with a red kerchief as a headband cleans his mother’s headstone in a cemetery. The inscription on the headstone shows the years of her birth and death. A butterfly flutters about the headstone and main character. A shadow creeps over the main character. The butterfly flies away. The main character looks around. He sees a pretty woman. She frowns at him and says, “You have to let her go, Justin Freeman.”
The metaphor (element one)shows a butterfly flying (element two)(movement to draw your audience into the movie) away from a headstone. The metaphor shows the theme (element three) of the movie which is “letting go” which is also stated by the woman. The main character (element four) is introduced. The main character shows what his foremost problem in the movie is going to be by cleaning his mother’s headstone (he will not let go of her)(element five). The setting (element six) the main character is in is a cemetery. We have a sense of direction by knowing where “we’re” starting out in this movie. The time frame(element seven)of the movie is shown by the inscription on the headstone. Now, we have an idea about when this movie is taking place. The main character’s name is given (element eight)when the woman speaks to him. We know now who Justin Freeman is.
These eight elements, metaphor, movement, theme, main character, main character’s foremost problem, setting, time frame, and main character’s name defines “The Crown.” All of this takes place on page one of the screenplay. Translated into movie minutes, this means in the first minute of “The Crown”, eight elements are shown that hook us into the movie.
The first and second elements, the metaphor and movement, cause us unconsciously to wonder why the butterfly is present, is, then exits, means. Something to muse over. The third element, the theme, gives us a subconcious idea about what “The Crown” is going to be about because we see this butterfly hovering over a headstone and a boy, and then fly away as though the spirit of the body in the grave left the grave. Letting go is something the boy is going to have to do if he is to grow as a human being. The fourth element shows us who the main character is. What does the red kerchief wrapped around his head as a headband mean? Is it some kind of identity statement? Perhaps a social comment? We want to learn more about him. The fifth element shows the main character’s foremost problem, he’s into cleaning his mother’s headstone. We know it’s got to be something loving about his connection to someone in the grave. And we know that he can’t go on like this, he’s only a boy. The sixth element, the setting, a cemetery, also is metaphorical. A cemetery is a place where human beings bury human beings who have died. It is a final resting place for them, freed from the bonds of life. The seventh element, the dates on the headstone and name, give us some idea of the time frame of this movie and who is buried in the grave. Being made aware of that visually gives us a source of reference to the main character. The eighth element, the boy’s name, helps us put a name with the boy and link him to the person in the grave. The last name, “Freeman”, also gives a hint of the theme, letting go.
So, the next time you watch a movie, look for elements that hook you into the movie. Make notes. Analyze them the next day. You’ll be amazed at how subtle, but yet, how informative the first minute of well-written movies are. Write your screenplays with the same art and craft and you’ll increase your opportunity to sell and get your screenplays produced.