Lecture: Set Up, Illuminate, Launch — or Perish


The first 30 pages of a screenplay break into two primary parts:

Part I: The Introduction
Part II: The Illumination


The first fifteen pages (or less ) of a feature script introduce an audience to the story world and a story dilemma or situation definitely looming on the horizon. And stories that seriously hit the ground running accomplish all of the above in the first five to ten pages.

John Carpenter’s The Thing does it in 7 minutes. We’ll be looking harder at John Carpenter’s The Thing next week when we examine stories that open very fast.

This week, we’re starting with classics that move a little slower, but still move –

Die Hard.

A story problem on the horizon is evident in the first 15 pages of Die Hard. Sinister men in trucks are on their way to the building housing the party the protagonist and his wife are at and those men are infiltrating the building by page 14. The problem is not spelled out right up front, but clearly something sinister is on the horizon. Trucks are on the way. Dangerous looking men are infiltrating the garage and building.


In Tootsie, the story situation appears in the first 15 pages. Michael Dorsey is an out of work actor getting turned down at audition after audition, supporting himself slinging hash in a restaurant and teaching acting classes. And, he’s having a birthday, turning 40. Not perhaps where most actors want to be, turning 40.

THE STORY DILEMMA OR SITUATION A story dilemma or situation does not have to be full blown in the first 15 pages of a script. The story dilemma or situation must be there, making an appearance, but it can just be starting to make its appearance felt in these first 15 introductory pages. And that is actually often a better place to start the story. There is a mystery here, something is wrong, but it is not spelled out.

Wanting to know more is what drives audiences forward, compels them to follow the story and stick with it, and often is what makes audience members want to keep watching.

With that in mind? A writer never wants to just slam out a bunch of information right off the bat spelling out a story problem or situation. This is like a strip tease. You are luring your audience in with the promise of more information — not throwing it at an audience right up front.


There is definitely something happening in the first 15 pages of a script that is causing — or going to cause — a protagonist grief.


Tone & Genre: The story’s introduction works to establish tone, genre, and the parameters of the story world an audience is about to enter. Is the story funny? Then something funny should be happening right up front. Harsh and full of action? Then harsh action should be happening right up front. Can characters die? It is a good idea to make it very clear up front that characters can die in a story. Is this science fiction or straight drama? Again, this should be clear going in in a story’s introduction.

Preamble Introductions: When a story world going in doesn’t tell someone tone and genre? Say the protagonist is some IT guy but going in on him wouldn’t tell an audience the story world is a huge science fiction action story? It’s a smart idea to open on a preamble that brings the genre and story world home before introducing a protagonist.

The Matrix does this. The protagonist of The Matrix, Neo AKA Mr. Anderson, is an office drone by day, black market software peddler by night. Opening on Neo in his office cubicle wouldn’t give an audience any idea the world the audience is about to enter is a world in which the whole universe can bend.

So instead of opening on the protagonist, The Matrix opens on Trinity in the clip at the top of this page — bending the whole world.

Many big action and science fiction or fantasy stories open with a big event and imagery that define the genre and story world an audience is entering before the story introduces a protagonist for exactly this reason.

Introducing the story’s protagonist would not introduce the story’s genre and tone.

Mortality AKA Stakes: Mortality is a very important point above. If it is possible for characters to be physically injured or killed in a story, if it will in fact happen during the course of a story? The story stakes are life and death. This is important to introduce up front. Big stakes usually equals a bigger story. And it is a good idea to make bigger stakes and the possibility characters can lose their lives during the course of the story very clear in a story’s introductory pages or preamble.

This is DOUBLY important if a protagonist can and will die in a story world being introduced. Not just can — but definitely will — die.

In the opening of Sunset Boulevard, the protagonist is floating dead in a swimming pool and his voice over plays over the dead protagonist in a swimming pool scene telling an audience flat out that he is dead before story’s end. This is extremely important in stories in which protagonists die. Audiences get very upset after spending an hour and a half to two hours rooting for a protagonist to succeed — only to have that protagonist die at story’s end.

Likewise, American Beauty opens with the protagonist, Lester, informing an audience in voice over that he will be dead by story’s end. This early announcement removes audience shock and outrage when Lester dies at story’s end. By story’s end, an audience may have forgotten early dialogue told the audience the protagonist will die, but when it happens, the audience will remember and go, “Oh, right. Dead by story’s end. Okay.” But ONLY if the protagonist has informed the audience it was coming – way back when the story opened.

Consider, in contrast, another film, Home Alone.

Home Alone is a comedy that takes place in a story world in which characters cannot and do not die.

Home Alone has a dark concept: A little kid forgotten by his family at the family home over Christmas has to fend for himself and single handedly battle burglars trying to break into and rob the family home. (A lot of comedies work that way, they are dark ideas going in, but skewed to be seen in a comedic light.) The Home Alone story world, however, is one in which characters can have irons bounced off their heads and just get a bump like a cartoon character. This story world would never open on an image of characters with guns shooting other characters. Characters cannot and will not die in this story world.

Opening Imagery: Another important element to consider, opening a screenplay and introducing the story world, is imagery. Is there one strong image that can be used to open the story that will imply something intrinsic, either plot or character or theme, or all three, about the story world and story to come?

Take a look at the first images in Larry Gelbart’s Tootsie:


Only one are in focus. It is an actors’ character box. We SLOWLY PAN to see: a monocle, different pairs of eyeglasses, rubber appliances, various makeups, a collection of dental applications, an assortment of brushes. A hand comes into frame and removes a small bottle. WE FOLLOW to see it is spirit gum. The other hand enters frame and uncaps the bottle. FOLLOW one hand as it applies the spirit gum to a cheek. We see only a portion of the cheek. Now the hands apply spirit gum to a rubber scar. Again we FOLLOW the hands as they place the scar upon the actor’s cheek. The ritual continues as we watch a moustache being applied. The hands then search out the dental appliances and pick one. We study the movement as the appliance is inserted into the actor’s mouth. Throughout the above we HEAR someone mumbling, but we cannot make out the words. Suddenly we HEAR:

Tootsie is a story about an actor, but more than that, a story about a man who transforms himself through costume and disguise. This visual opening on an actor’s character box and a man transforming himself through costume and disguise? Visually encapsulates everything about the story to come.

Here’s the opening imagery from Peter Benchley’s Jaws (screenplay by Peter Bechley and Carl Gottlieb):


Sounds of the innerspaces rushing forward.

Then a splinter of blue light in the center
of the picture.  It breaks wide, showing the
top and bottom a silhouetted curtain of
razor sharp teeth suggesting that we are
inside of a tremendous gullet, looking out
at the onrushing undersea world at night.
HEAR a symphony of underwater sounds:
landslide, metabolic sounds, the rare and
secret noises that certain undersea
species share with each other.

Jaws opens on the underworld of the sea, a predator’s view and the sounds of that world — and the flash of teeth. An audience may not know exactly what it is seeing there, but the impressions are being absorbed and the world is introduced in water and this is a story about a water predator.

And by page 3? Watch the story dilemma being introduced:

Her expression freezes. The water-lump is
racing for her.  It bolts her upright, out of
the water to her hips, then slams her hard,
whipping her in an upward arc of eight feet
before she is jerked down to her open mouth.
Another jot to her floating hair. One hand
claws the air, fingers trying to breathe,
then it, too, is sucked below in a final and
terrible jerking motion. HOLD on the churning
froth of a baby whirlpool until we are sure it
is over.

It’s pretty clear, in the Jaws story world? Stakes are high and characters can die.

Imagery opening a story world can also be completely thematic.

Working Girl opens on imagery of the Statue of Liberty. Working Girl is, thematically, a story about a commoner trying to work her way up in a business world rigged against the “little people.” The “little people” are mentioned several times in the story. The Statue of Liberty, a symbol of rising above one’s origins, embodies what Working Girl, thematically, is about.

Protagonists: The protagonist must show up in the first 15 pages of the script. The protagonist does not necessarily have to open the script. Sometimes the story world opens first. Like in The Matrix. Or in Jaws.

When the protagonist does appear, however? The protagonist should be doing something — hopefully physical that can be filmed — that tells you who that character is in terms of his or her world and place in it — and in the story world.

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey is the character with the actor’s chest putting on costumes and disguises in opening imagery. And that imagery cuts immediately to Michael Dorsey repeatedly auditioning and failing.

Tess in Working Girl is on a ferry traveling to work from the wrong side of town looking at the Statue of Liberty.

Neo, from The Matrix, when he is first seen, is at his computer. Which he is about to enter in more ways than one. And the computer is messing with him.


“Nobody Will Hire You,” Tootsie, 1982


The second fifteen (or less) page section of a script illuminates the extent of the story dilemma or story situation. This is when just how big the story dilemma or situation a protagonist is going to face off with becomes clear. And when the question that is raised in the first fifteen pages is answered: “What is the problem? This is the problem. AND — here is how big the problem is.”

In the first 14 pages of Die Hard, sinister men are infiltrating the building John and his wife are attending a Christmas party at.

In the second 15 pages? Those sinister men seize control of building communications, replace guards with their own people, take party attendees hostage, and murder the boss. There is no question there is a very big problem in play and the only character who can do anything about it is the protagonist John McClane, who has escaped capture and is still free to roam the building and fight back.

The Die Hard story can now launch because the scale of the story problem — bad murderous men have taken over the Nakatomi Plaza tower and are holding everyone hostage and only the protagonist can do anything about it – is illuminated. And the story will launch with the protagonist trying to fix the story dilemma.

In Tootsie, there is a problem going in. Michael Dorsey crashes and burns on audition after audition. He’s clearly good at what he does, he teaches and is the go to guy for help when someone has an audition. But he’s forty and not getting jobs at his craft so making cash as a waiter.

In the next 15 pages, the Tootsie problem is illuminated. Michael’s agent tells him flat out, “No one will hire you.”

Story dilemmas and situations will not cease to escalate and be further illuminated during the rest of the story. Story dilemmas and/or situations will escalate more and be illuminated more during the course of the reset of a film story, but they CANNOT wait to be defined until late in the script as a clear and defined problem or situation a story’s lead(s) must face off against. Story dilemmas or situations must be strongly defined at the end of or before the end of the first 30 pages in a script. Otherwise, a feature story cannot launch with a protagonist trying to contend with a story situation or fix a story dilemma.

THE FINAL ELEMENT: LAUNCH: Until we know what the protagonist wants? We don’t know what the story is about. Until we know what the stakes are? We don’t care.

Film stories can only launch when the story dilemma or situation has been defined and is clear.

In Tootsie, that’s Michael in drag on a job. Michael Dorsey’s agent tells Michael no one will hire Michael. To prove him wrong, Michael dresses in drag and lands a soap as “Dorothy.” And that’s the central story situation: An out of work actor “no one will hire” impersonates a woman to land an acting job. And gets it. But now he has to live with it. Oops. “I’ve got a soap, George!”

Here is a less situational, more plot driven story, Die Hard, ready to launch:


Hans slowly takes out his Walther and his
silencer. He feels his silencer a moment, as
if making a decision, then slips it back into
his coat pocket.

          (weighing the gun)
       The code keys, please?

       It’s useless to you! There’s seven
       safeguards on our vault, and the
       code key is only one of them!
       You’ll never get it open!

Hans lifts the gun.

       Then there’s no reason not to tell
       it to us.

           (aside to Karl)
       I told you.

       It’s not over.

Hans gives them both a look like an annoyed
schoolmaster, turns back to Takagi.

       This is too nice a suite to ruin,
       Mr. Takagi. I’m going to count to
       three. There will not be a four.
       Give me the code.

He cocks the gun:

       I don’t know it! Get on a Goddamn
       jet to Tokyo and ask the chairman!
       I’m telling you! You’re just going
       to have to kill me –


BANG!! He pulls the trigger:

The story stakes in Die Hard just became very clear. An audience knows how bad these men the protagonist is going up against are. The story can launch.

YOUR ASSIGNMENTS FOR WEEK ONE: You have four assignments this week:

Your first assignment is, in your individual assignment topic, name the script you will be working on and include its title, genre, and a one sentence logline.

That will look like this (I’m using Tootsie as a model):

Title: Tootsie
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Logline: An out of work actor impersonates a woman to get a job on a soap opera.

Your second assignment is, below the first assignment, (in the same post or in a new post), fill in the following:

Opening Image:
Does the Opening Image Include the Protagonist:
If Not, Why Not:
Is the Opening Image Setting Tone/Genre:
How or Why:
Stakes: Are Stakes, Especially if Characters Can Die, Clear:
What is the Protagonist Doing Physically When First Introduced:

That should look (again using Tootsie) something like this:

Opening Image: An actor’s box and someone putting on a disguise.
Does the Opening Image Include the Protagonist: Yes
If Not, Why Not: N/A
Is the Opening Image Setting Tone/Genre: Yes, a story about disguise opens on disguise
How or Why: A story about a character living life in a disguise
Stakes: Are Stakes, Especially if Characters or Protagonists Can Die, Clear: Yes, But. There are no big story stakes, nobody dies.
What is the Protagonist Doing Physically When First Introduced: Putting on a disguise.

*Don’t panic if some of the answers to the questions are feeling empty. We’re here to discover what is hitting home and what could be stronger.

Post assignments 1 & 2 by 11 PM EST tonight.

Your third assignment is to read the first 30 pages of Tootsie. Tootsie is in the library :::HERE:::

While you are reading Tootsie, pay attention to:

Opening imagery.
Opening audition scenes.
Page 16, Are you anybody?
Page 17, Terry Bishop.
Page 21, No one will hire you.
Page 30, I’ve got a soap.

Read Tootsie before Thursday night chat.

Your fourth assignment is to read and review each other’s posted assignments. Written reviews are not required before the end of the week but please read or at least skim assignments and my reviews on assignments before Thursday night chat.

*Recapping that time line: Post personal assignments in personal assignment topics today BEFORE 11 PM EST. Read the first 30 pages of Tootsie before Thursday’s chat. You have the rest of the week to post reviews of each others’ assignments but please read the posted assignments and my reviews of them before Thursday night chat.

*There is an Extra Thread assignment this week.

AFW Course Lectures are © Max Adams & The Academy of Film Writing