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The Perfect One

The significance of a screenplay’s first page is vital. It sets up the main story whilst establishing character, the genre and tone of the film.
In a good screenplay, the reader’s expectations of the script are cleverly signposted by the writer.

A great example of an effective first page is that of William Goldman’s Misery. To download the draft which I refer to, click here. Please also note that the rest of this article will contain spoilers of the film’s ending.

Page one of Misery foreshadows the film’s dramatic climax. In fact the very first images we see on the page are the biggest clues as to how the protagonist (Sheldon) defeats his antagonist (Annie) in the end. The single cigarette, the unlit match and a specific brand of champagne in an ice bucket represent the very tools, which Sheldon uses to embark on his final battle against Annie.

When we first encounter these objects however, they merely indicate a cause for celebration. Later, we discover that this celebration is actually Sheldon’s ritual every time he finishes a novel. The reveal of this information provides Sheldon with a strategy that leads him to his triumph.

The next image we see is Paul Sheldon, the writer, at his typewriter. This image tells us straight away who the protagonist is and what he does. The profession of a character is a common dramatic device to help the reader gauge the character quickly but in Misery the protagonist’s occupation has greater significance: Paul Sheldon as the writer is the driving force of the overall plot. If Sheldon were not a writer, we would have no story and there would be no antagonist. Annie is defined by her obsession with Sheldon’s novels. And whilst Sheldon’s goal is to escape, Annie’s goal is to be as close to the fictional characters which Sheldon has created, as much as possible.

Page one of Misery foreshadows the film’s dramatic climax.

Furthermore, the introduction of the typewriter is also an important factor in the foreshadowing of the dramatic climax because it anticipates the heavy object, which Sheldon uses to knock Annie out with.

The next image on the page is Sheldon in the foreground of an impending storm. Not only does this image set up act one’s inciting incident (the car crash) but it also gives the scene a sense of foreboding that indicates to the reader that they are in for a rough ride.  This script isn’t a romantic comedy; it isn’t a drama; it is something much darker – a thriller perhaps.

Next is a close-up of Paul Sheldon himself. This is the reader’s opportunity to scrutinise the protagonist and to see how he works. When Sheldon is forced to write because his life depends on it, we know that Sheldon is capable. He is an intelligent and successful writer and words fly off his fingertips.

The penultimate image is Sheldon rolling the last page of his novel out of the typewriter and writing ‘The End’ in a childlike way. This image foreshadows the final scene of the film: when Sheldon finishes his next book he becomes the author and in turn the man that he has always wanted to be.

The final image on page one is a close-up of the manuscript. The manuscript is the engine that drives the conflict between Sheldon and Annie and this is what the film is fundamentally about: Misery, Sheldon’s creation.

-Mina Zaher

Mina Zaher spent five years working in script development, from literary assistant at The Agency (London) Ltd. to being a freelance script reader/script editor. Mina holds an MA in Film and Television Studies and an MA in Screenwriting. She is currently working on a number of writing projects, which are at various stages of development and regularly writes for her blog, Journey of a Screenwriter. Mina is also the EURO moderator for #Scriptchat on Twitter.
About the Author

Mina Zaher

Comments 4

  1. The writing is quite vivid, but more for a novel and not a screenplay, as we newbies are taught: we can’t see he’s been a writer for 18 years and that the last 9 have been very successful! That’s a wasted action/description paragraph. All we can really get out of that paragraph is that Paul is middle-aged and appears confident in what he’s typing. What can we see that makes him a good writer? It’s a hotel room–are there any framed awards on the wall? All we really know is that he’s just finished typing a lengthy manuscript.

  2. I suppose a poor writer wouldn’t have wine and cigarette waiting on stand buy in a Hotel Suite. I think all this contributes to the visual, but ultimately is the Directors decision to make. If he was a poor writer, he might be in his basement and much more grittier and probably only have a cup of coffee. But in your defence that did stick out when I first read it. :)

  3. Hi guys,

    I can see what you’re saying but in terms of conveying character (and just to put it out there), wouldn’t there be a difference between a character who was a self-made millionaire at the age of 21 compared to the struggling writer who struggled for most of his life and finally sees success relatively recently? i.e. regarding the latter, this paragraph could illustrate a man who has been worn down by life but his material possessions such as the champagne shows the high life.

    In terms of what makes him look like a good writer? Again, this is in the character – he’s confident; there’s a worldly wisdom about him – especially if you compare him to Kaufman trying to write in Adaptation.

    My favourite scripts when reading are the ones that allow you into the character and under their skin immediately. Of course, you don’t explore their thoughts as in a novel – but you need to get to know them, quickly in order to grasp who they are and identify with them.

    Screenplays are as much about evoking an emotional journey as well as providing a visual blueprint for the story. A very difficult balance to strike. I’m still figuring it out myself.

    Just my two cents worth.

    mxo

  4. Hi, Mina. I know a script must capture attention early for readers/producers/actors, but I love this particular example and your insight. As analytical as I might be, I had not made all these connections. ~Mike

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