The first 10-15 minutes are the most crucial because if you don’t grab your audience right away, you may never get a second chance again. Here’s what you need to pack into those first 15 minutes of your screenplay.
The first 15 minutes of your screenplay needs to set the stage for your story. To do that, you need:
- An Inciting Incident — This initial incident sets the story in motion
- The hero’s problem — You must make it clear what your hero wants
- Conflict — Show how the hero’s current life is stagnant and can’t continue
- The seed — Introduce some new element into the hero’s life that leads him or her to a new world
The Inciting Incident needs to grab or intrigue the audience, which often summarizes the main story or theme.
In showing us the hero’s problem, we must the hero’s current life and understand why it’s so unpleasant and distasteful. This will make us sympathetic to the hero. Second, we need to know what the hero’s wants, which will get the hero out of his dull, boring, or unpleasant life. Whatever goal the hero wants, it needs to be primal in nature, meaning it can be a basic emotional needs such as to be loved (“WALL-E”), to get a woman or man (“Pretty Woman”), or to prove yourself “The Karate Kid”). Whatever goal the hero wants, we as the audience must know and experience that emotion too so we’ll be sympathetic to that hero. Once we know what the hero wants on a primal level, we can then worry about the specific way the hero hopes to achieve this goal.
The conflict must show us who or what the hero is battling against. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the villain at this point, but something that the villain can personify. In “Milk,” the conflict is bigotry, personified by Dan White, the politician who ultimately assassinates Harvey Milk.
While going through the routine of a boring, stagnant life, the hero must run across a seed that leads towards the hero’s goal. In “WALL-E,” that seed is finding a plant. In “Star Wars,” that seed is R2D2 showing the hologram of Princess Leia. This seed gives the hero a glimpse of the outside world beyond his or her current life, and this seed plays a direct role into leading the hero into the second half of Act I.
Focus on your first 15 minutes because if you don’t write this part of your script well, you won’t get another chance to snare the audience, and the rest of your screenplay might as well be blank.