They say that a studio reader only gives a spec script TEN PAGES before they know if it’s worthy enough to be shown to their boss.
I don’t find this fair.
But life’s not fair and neither is screenwriting.
So I decided to turn the tables a bit. Instead of judging the first ten pages of a spec, let’s judge the first ten pages of a script that has already been sold.
This week: “Avatar” written by James Cameron
At this point, there’s been plenty of opinions throw around about this colossal movie. Both good and bad, everyone has something to say about Avatar.
I don’t want to rehash what has already been said. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the screenplay as professional as we can and pretend like James Cameron had to send the script out to studio readers (like that’ll ever happen).
The Link - http://www.mypdfscripts.com/screenplays/avatar
[If you wish, you may read the first ten pages of the script before reading this blog. There maybe many versions of this script floating around the internet. I chose this one.]
* “WE ARE FLYING through mist, a dimly glimpsed forest below.”
“We are very low over the forest now, gliding fast, the drums BUILDING to a PEAK --”
Two “we sees” on the first page. Neither of which is needed. These are two of the many examples of the use of “WE SEE” in the first ten pages.
Two “we sees” at the beginning of a script may very well bring up a red flag for the reader.
* Jake Sully’s name is in bold. Never bold anything in your screenplay. It just looks wrong.
* “The room is a tiny CUBICLE, prison cell meets 747 bathroom. Narrow cot, wall-screen droning away in the B.G...”
I really like that first line. It’s a good use of a simile.
The second however needs a quick fix. “B.G.” is another one of those “fourth wall breakers”. It’s hard to keep a story engaging when you’re constantly being reminded that you’re just reading a screenplay.
* The “PERKY NEWSCASTER” part can be cut for pacing. We already get that it’s the future, and if not yet, we’ll get it in the next couple of pages.
* “Jake laboriously pulls his pants off -- rocking to one side, pushing the fabric down past his hip, then rocking to the other, and so on.”
“Jake laboriously pulls his pants off. It’s not an easy task.”
Something like that. On page 2, there is no luxury of dragging things out.
* “INT. ROWDY BAR -- NIGHT
Not the kind of place you’d bring your mom.”
Here’s a nice quick description of a setting that works. It builds a picture in your mind easily and is exactly what you should strive for in your description.
However, I’ve read this line a good fifty times in amateur screenplays before reading it here. If you can modify this line to make it a little bit different, you’ll have descriptive gold.
* “CU JAKE, watching what he can’t have. Expression stony.”
One, “CU” is never a good thing to use in a spec script. Another “fourth wall breaker”
Two, “Expression stony”? This is one of those times where it’s best to use the pronoun or at least a colon, “Expression: stony”.
I think anyone reading “Expression stony” will understand the intention, but quickly realize the mistake.
* “Let’s get it straight up front. I don’t want your pity. I know the world’s a cold-ass bitch.”
I know I said that I was going to treat this as professional as I could, but I have to comment on this personally.
Wow. Just, wow.
* “TIGHT ON JAKE’S HAND as he starts pushing the wheel of his chair. TRACKING WITH HIM as he rolls forward.”
No one gets impressed by your knowledge of camera work. Not the actor, not the reader, not the executive and especially not the director. Here’s a quick rewrite:
“Jake rolls himself forward. His eyes fixed on his target.”
What happened to the close up shot of Jake’s Hand? Simply put, you don’t need it. As the writer, you don’t get to chose the way your story is going to be shot.
The original sentence is like a slap to the face for the director. The rewrite let’s the director start thinking of ways to shoot it. Gets the director excited about the possibilities.
Also, if you can forge two sentences into one, do it.
* I like the “save the cat” moment presented here with Jake saving a woman from being beaten. It may seem cheap, but so far he hasn’t done anything for me to like him.
It’s hard to connect with someone who thinks that life is a “cold-ass bitch” (again, wow, just... wow).
Seeing him jump out of his wheelchair to protect someone helps.
I hope you realize you’ve just lost a customer!”
This doesn’t need to be underlined.
* By page 4 you really start to feel a disdain for Jake’s voice overs. They try too hard.
Pulling off a good voice over is one of the hardest things a writer can do. These first ten pages show why.
* “JAKE’S POV -- A TECH in medical scrubs FLOATS WEIGHTLESSLY toward us. Wherever we are, we’re not on Earth.”
This is the ultimate “we see”. There are so many other ways to be drawn into this mystery. You don’t need to break the fourth wall.
* Our first page without any dialogue.
Zoom this page out and study the blackness presented.
Do not do this.
* There is no need to bold the planet names, just put them in all caps. And I’m really not sure why “shuttles” is in bold.
* “EXT. RAINFOREST - TWILIGHT”
For a spec script, it’s DAY or NIGHT.
Unless it’s important to the story to know what exact time of day it is (in most cases it’s not), let the DP light it how he wants.
* “FLYING OVER A LANDSCAPE of massive cliffs and towering mesas carpeted in rainforest.”
Here is an excellent way of drawing a reader in without using “we see”. He could have easily wrote:
“WE ARE OVER massive cliffs and towering mesas...”
But he didn’t. He drew us in by putting us right there in the thick of it.
If I was James Cameron's script consultant (yeah, right) I would tell him to replace every “we see” with something like this.
* “ A BLUE INHUMAN HAND reaches INTO SHOT, parting the foliage to reveal the shuttle hover-taxiing across the compound.”
Our first big story moment. The mystery of the Navi. Page 7 is a good place for this moment.
* “Everybody except JAKE, who’s turning his this way and that trying to figure out the straps.”
How about just:
“Everybody except Jake, who struggles with the straps.”
* “Remember people, you lose your mask you’re unconscious in 20 seconds and you’re dead in four minutes.”
Here we have one number spelled out and the other not.
Be consistent with spelling out all numbers in a screenplay.
* Again, only underline dialogue that is IMPERATIVE to the story.
* “Beyond the tractor, two VTOL vehicles take off. Armored and heavily armed, they are AT-99 “SCORPION” GUNSHIPS.
MITSUBISHI MK-6 AMPSUITS -- human operated walking machines 4 meters tall -- patrol the perimeter. They are heavily armored, and armed with a huge rotary cannon called a GAU-90.”
Here we have some unfilmables. How will the audience know that it’s a “AT-99 Scorpion” gunship? Or that the ampsuit is a “Mitsubishi MK-6 with a rotary cannon called a “GAU-90”?
Unless this information is printed on the sides of these machines, the audience will never know. And why would they care? It doesn’t move the story at all.
When writing a sci-fi screenplay, this is a mistake that I’ve found is made by most writers. Too many “futuristic” details.
It’s always best to just describe what it is, and not give it a name (unless the story demands it).
* “The MAN raises his masked face to look at the sky. He eyes are an icy steel gray.” - his eyes
* “You are not in Kansas any more...”
Much like “say hello to my little friend”, this is a phrase you can never use in a screenplay again.
* Quaritch’s speech may seem corny, but it actually works. The threat of Pandora is established well (although a little reworking of the dialogue wouldn’t hurt).
The Verdict: would a reader continue to read past page 10?
I would say no. Sci-fi movies are a tough sell. In the first ten pages you have to hit them with something big to keep their interest. There’s just not enough here to do that.
This is a 152 page script (the number one reason a reader won’t read the whole thing) so the big stuff won’t happen until much later.
My suggestion to cure this problem, not just for a sci-fi screenplay but for any screenplay, is to make sure you have a setpiece in your first ten pages.
It doesn’t have to be a whole setpiece, even just half of one should be enough to show the potential of your story.
You can argue that the bar fight was the half setpiece used in the first ten pages of this script, but that was more of a showcase of his character. Not a showcase of the world, theme or concept.
There’s a reason why that scene never made it into the movie.
Overall, this is a screenplay written by one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. He hasn’t worried about readers since the 80’s.
Plus, he directed the movie, so all those “fourth wall breakers” seem natural to him.
But we as spec writers can still learn from this script. The lesson here is: leave the camera angles to the director. And if you are the director, leave the camera angles to yourself.
Just focus on the story.
Next on the First Ten: A legendary script for the 90’s. With an opening page that gave new meaning to “inciting incident”.
If you’d like to get the first ten pages of your script Reader Proofed, email your script to firstname.lastname@example.org