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We want you to kick ass here! Hence, our weekly column of screenwriting tips. You can check out the previous screenwriting columns on our blog.
Today, let’s talk about one of the most important aspects of screenwriting: the setup.
As writers, we often want to jump into the action because we’re afraid of testing a reader’s or audience member’s patience. We don’t want anyone to stop reading or switch to another channel. And sometimes that leads us to skipping the introduction of our characters and their world to the audience.
Now imagine bringing a friend to a party with a bunch of strangers and not introducing them. How rude, right?
The most vital part of any script is the setup. It’s akin to building a house. For any structure, you need a proper foundation. It doesn’t matter how cool your first floor is or how roomy your attic. If the foundation isn’t there, the house won’t stand for long.
Okay, enough with the analogies. For script purposes that means you need to set up your world and your characters. This is important for any script, but doubly important for a period or genre piece because both types tend to have worlds with rules different from our own that the audience needs to become acquainted with.
The setup serves as the introduction of the audience to the world and the characters they’re supposed to spend the next two hours with. It is vital that the audience understands the world and its attached rules and gets on board with the protagonist and their journey. That’s why in classic screenplay structure, the first 10 – 12 pages are used to accomplish just that. Show us (please, don’t tell us) what this world is like. What are your protagonist’s hopes and dreams and fears? What is their particular skill set? What is their Achilles’ heel? What do they need to learn in order to live a more rounded life? In other words, what makes this person the best and only choice to serve as protagonist for this particular story?
Now, you may think “but I have a horror script and the audience isn’t going to sit around for a setup.” Or “It’s fantasy, and I need something fantastic.” And that, fellow writers, is the reason why you see so many hook scenes in genre movies (the opening scene that takes place in an alien setting and we don’t understand it; the kill that seems unrelated to the following setup).
A hook scene “hooks” the audience and gives them a taste of what’s to come, it establishes the genre tone, and it gives you time to set up your protagonist. And, frankly, if your protagonist is interesting enough, you may not even need a classic hook scene for a genre film. Check out LAST NIGHT IN SOHO for inspiration.