I can’t tell you the countless screenplays and stories I’ve edited for my colleagues, where absolutely NOTHING happens in the first 10 pages of their story. I don’t know what it is, but there is an increasing trend to write about characters in cliched environments, usually involving the protagonist explaining ‘out loud’ about how he or she is not happy. The age old rule of screenwriting can apply to remedy this problem:
“If the scene does not reveal something about your character, or the plot, it has absolutely no purpose being in your story.”
So what does this have to do with setting up your story? Well, the problem here is getting people to “turn the page”. What happens by page 10 of whatever you’re writing, to keep me reading to the next page?
THE SET UP
In a really great film opening, take an example of “Jurassic Park” – We are introduced right away into the action, during an ‘incident’ in the ‘raptor cage’. However, the audience is not given all the information. If you’re seeing it for the first time, not a whole lot is explained in this opening scene, other than the following facts:
1- An advanced company is attempting to transport a large reptile (or dinosaur) – which species we do not know.
2- The reptile is very powerful.
3- As advanced as this ‘company’ is, they cannot contain the monster.
4- The unexpected, a man is killed. The company regains temporary control.
After this scene, we are plunged into meeting our protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant. At the beginning of the scene Alan’s world is unaffected.
THE INCITING INCIDENT
In comes the eccentric owner of the ‘company’ we are first introduced to. He allures Dr. Grant and his colleague Dr. Sadler to come ‘inspect’ his island, by promising to fund their archeological dig for ‘a further three years’. Dr. Grant says yes. Alright, so now we know a few more things:
5- Dr. Alan Grant is a paleontologist (Could that giant reptile TRULY be a dinosaur? *curl the mustache*)
6- The ‘company’ is run by a jovial and eccentric old man. (Is he senile?)
7- The company owner says that his island is “Right up your alley” … DINOSAURS?
8- At the end of the scene, John Hammond convinces Dr. Grant to come to his ‘special island’.
Now here comes the page turner…
WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO ALAN GRANT?
The “Payoff” will later arrive in the form of a giant Brontosaurus. However, the question that keeps the audience wanting more, is “Now what?” … but more importantly: I just want to see some freaking dinosaurs … anyone notice that you only get to see the really scary dinosaurs halfway through the movie?
In the case of Jurassic Park, the story begins before page one. There is an entire BACKSTORY that Michael Crichton has written, ‘setting up’ what happens in the actual story. This is a fantastic way to flesh out what happens by the very first page.
All in all, it all comes down to setting up the beginning of your story. If you write yourself a great SET-UP and INCITING INCIDENT … the rest of your story will tell itself … and keep people wanting more.