We asked all of our contest judges what makes a great first impression and what makes a bad first impression when they start reading a fresh script. Certainly, as our judges keep reading, there are plenty of times the first impression proves to be wrong, but a strong first impression can help the writer get the audience on their side right away.
We compiled the answers of our judges and want to share the top three with you to make sure everyone starts off by impressing your reader – whether that’s a contest judge, agent, or producer.
Ways to make a GREAT first impression:
1. The writer sets the tone and genre of the story about to unfold. – Mentioned by 55% of judges.
When the writer sets a clear tone, the reader knows they’re in good hands for the story about to unfold. This is a writer who knows their story inside and out and they’re going to deliver on it. This isn’t always easier to do, but it helps if your story is firmly planted in one (maybe two) genres.
2. The writer uses the action on the first page to drive the story or build suspense. – Mentioned by 70% of judges.
It was repeated over and over that it can be a slow burn and still have an intriguing first page – see Bloodline. It can be a comedy and still have a plot that moves on the first page – see Wedding Crashers. Just because your script isn’t an action film doesn’t mean the first page isn’t supposed to be moving. One judge pointed out that if movement is truly impossible for your story, try for a unique and intriguing visual.
3. The writer uses quick action and dialogue lines. – Mentioned by 100% of judges.
When the writing is clipped and the dialogue moves, a reader knows the read is going to flow quickly and the writer is a professional. By keeping your action lines to 2 lines and dialogue lines to 3 lines, you win a friend in the reader.
Ways to make a BAD first impression:
1. The writer uses character introductions that are clichéd, vague, or novelistic. – Mentioned by 50% of judges.
Just like you only have one chance to introduce your writing, you only have one chance to introduce your character. In about a sentence you need to give us a sense of what is special and unique about this character. And never introduce female characters as “broken but beautiful” or the equivalent. Finally, using five long sentences to describe your character may create someone unique, but it will slow down the story.
2. The writer fills up the entire first page without really saying anything at all. – Mentioned by 60% of judges.
This is what happens when your action doesn’t drive the story. Too often the first page of a script is two unnamed characters greeting each other. Sometimes it’s the protagonist waking up as anyone else would wake up. The first page needs to define the character, action, or tone – ideally all three.
3. The writer uses incorrect formatting. – Mentioned by 100% of judges.
Believe it or not, this is probably the most important. If the formatting is blatantly incorrect, it cues the reader that this is a writer who isn’t taking the craft very seriously. Formatting is one of the quickest things to learn in screenwriting and will pay off big when creating a first impression with your reader.