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.