I By Laura Owen
"The first few [ten] minutes of a story are often its most important."
- Linda Seger
"The first ten minutes of every movie determine what an audience expects from the remaining two hours."
- Laura Schellhardt
"I cannot emphasise enough that the first ten-page unit of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay."
- Syd Field
The first ten pages are crucial to the success of every script. This is a common topic among the sea of how-to screenwriting manuals out there nowadays. It's the section of the script where the audience is introduced to the characters, the world, the concept, the tone and so much more. It's here you need to hook the reader, earn their trust, suspend their disbelief and make them care.
So much hangs on the one-tenth, sometimes less, of your script. After all, it could be in the hands of a studio script reader, the gatekeepers of the all-powerful executives that can turn your script into the next blockbuster. Let's take a deep dive into how the pros do it.
In the first installment of this series, we're going to be looking at the first ten pages of John Wick. Written by Derek Kolstad this script is one of my favourites for its sleek, clean, style that further perpetuates the feeling of Mr Wick. We're going to take a look at the script and how it differs from the movie and how it stands alone as a script.
Just a little housekeeping before we begin:
There will be A LOT of spoilers moving forward.
Film is a collaborative medium. Once the script has been written many other creatives such as producers, directors, actors etc. become involved in the filmmaking process. As we will see, there are a lot of differences between the script and the final product. Evidently, we can’t pinpoint the exact reasons for any differences. However, we can observe and try and interpret them with the intention of learning something about the filmmaking process. In short, take it all with a pinch of salt and enjoy!
1.1 - The scene shows John crashing his car (see image below). He then crawls from the wreck and watches a video of his late wife Helen. This was most likely added to hook the audience early on. It's a common technique called a book-ended flashback (Inglesias. 2005.). It promises change compared to the John we’re about to be introduced to.
1.2 - Keep the location in the scene heading simple and descriptive. It keeps the script clean and easy to follow.
1.3 - The type of house has been changed. In the script, the house is described as a farmhouse but in the film, it's a modern fortress placed in a countryside setting (see picture below). This has most likely been done to accommodate the overall tone of the film and the changes that have been made to John's character.
1.5 - They likely changed Norma’s name for the same reason. Norma could be seen as a dated name and for a character that isn’t much more than her name to the audience it needs to be more fitting. Helen accomplishes this.
1.6 - This one’s obvious. Try to avoid using phrases like ‘we see’ and ‘we hear’ it takes the reader out of the story. The same thing can be accomplished here by writing “ John makes his way through his home, it’s cluttered and unorganised”.
1.7 - John’s home is portrayed differently in the film but also how he lives in his home is different in the film. In the film, John’s house is arguable the opposite. It’s clean and tidy. It will become clearer why as we progress. But for now, it can be deduced as a better way to reflect his character. He’s a stoic man. His pain lives inside of him and isn’t expressed or processed in a typical way. He moves through the day like everyone else but inside he carries a weight that would debilitate most.
2.1 - Using a small action to convey a larger emotion. Showing not telling!
2.2 - Again, using small relatable actions to convey a specific mindset. All of these subtle accretions accumulate to create an overall feel for a character. In this approach, John is slowly being built. This allows for his complexities, his idiosyncrasies, to be shown to us. We get to make our own conclusions about him.
2.3 - This scene was conveyed differently in the film, but from this dialogue, John’s character is conveyed quite clearly; a man of few words.
2.4 - This scene is a great example of showing the audience information and allowing them to piece things together. If you refer to scene 4 you can see that we’re told about the pictures of John and Norma (AKA Helen) and in this scene we see him begin his day alone. One coffee, sitting alone in the dark, the loneliness almost unsettling...we know what's coming. After the phone call, which gives no additional information, John’s reaction shows us everything we need to connect the dots. The audience is putting the pieces together themselves. They're a part of the storytelling process.
3.1 - Using actions to create a flow between scenes helps the script move forward and gives more purpose and function to clunky action lines.
3.2 - Though in the movie there are daisies in the hospital room, John leaves the hospital with a bracelet that has daises on it (see below). The symbolism of the love and life he’s lost begins here and is carried out in numerous ways throughout the narrative. It’s a more personal, sustainable way of having the symbolism available whenever it’s needed in the story. Later in the story, the symbolism is extended to Daisy (the puppy) and the cards he was gifted by Helen. This allows the symbolism to be clear and accessible throughout the narrative.
3.3 - Through visual description, we’re learning how bad the situation is. The emotion is allowed to be conveyed better here because the audience is able to determine the gravity of the situation themselves.
3.4 - I’m assuming that this was to keep the focus on John here. Evidently, they showed her more in the final film. This is something I agree with. It’s important that we understand a sense of what John has recently lost. Even though Norma (AKA Helen) has limited screen time, we are still able to get a sense of who she was and fill in the blanks from there.
4.1 - This dialogue has been cut in the final movie. There are many possibilities as to why. It could be to keep the line ‘be seein’ ya’’ something that’s said in assassin world among assassins, it could also be due to acclimate to the structural changes that have been made in the opening sequence.
4.2 - In the film, a funeral scene was added where Marcus (Willem Dafoe) is introduced. This of course brings Marcus in on an important story beat. It’s a clear indicator of their relationship early on. However, all of this is taken place inside the world of John Wick where assassins are our bread and butter. It’s not a stretch to employ uncertainty when it comes to character motivation.
4.3 - This scene is again something that was cut from the final film. This moment is a physical representation of John’s anger. In this draft, it happens too early. The audience is aware that John is in emotional turmoil from the event of losing his wife. That’s already evident. Waiting to show this, hitting John over and over again building up the pain and loss until he snaps, is a much more impactful way of delivering this story beat. It makes the moment where he chooses to re-enter the life he left much more meaningful. It also allows us to ask the question is John embarking on a warpath of vengeance or trying to deal with the loss of his wife? Maybe both? This evokes curiosity in the audience while simultaneously deepening John's character.
5.1 - This scene was cut. In the film, John is cleaning up after the funeral when Daisy is delivered. This was probably done to accommodate the structural changes that were made (see page 8). It also allows for John to appear human and relatable as previously mentioned. We're introduced to his humanity before we meet the "Boogeyman" adding dimensionality to the character.
5.2 - Here is a good example of skipping pleasantries and getting right to the point of the scene. Don’t waste any time. You want your dialogue to be efficient and effective.
6.1 - With one look at the daisy on the card we know who it’s from. The symbolism is reiterated here and it allows the audience to piece things together, to be an active part of the narrative.
7.1 - This speech is different in the final film. They changed it to be more subtextual, to be less on-the-nose. They've taken out the line that talks about John's secrets. This was a wise choice. Keeping the two sides of John separate in terms of one side infecting the other makes the idea of transitioning from one to another more impactful and dramatic.
Here's a transcription of the dialogue from the final cut of the film.
7.2 - The puppy’s name was changed to Daisy in the final cut. This is an important decision as using the already established symbolism to create a connection that will remind us that the path John is about to embark on isn’t just about the puppy.
8.1 - This is something that was obviously cut. There’s no time-jump in the movie. It’s because it’s not necessary. Having the catalyst happen so soon after the death of his wife works really well. As I mentioned before, it blurs the lines of John’s motivation. Later in the films and also later in the franchise, when questioned about his motivation John mentions that it ‘wasn’t about the dog’. The decision to cut the time jump allows for more diverse emotion and it also speeds up the narrative.
8.2 - This makes Daisy more active in our perception of her. Bringing her to life quickly is important here. Not that it’s hard for the loss of a puppy to evoke emotion, it's just that through words on paper alone evoking an emotional attachment from the audience isn't easy to do.
9.1 - Again, reiterating the feeling of Daisy.
9.2 - This was cut. Montages are expensive. Every shot/mini-scene needs to be absolutely fundamental to the plot. They need to be efficient and effective.
9.3 - From this small description we get a clear image of Iosef Tarasov. Keep introductions brief and visual to make an impact on the reader.
10.1 - The dialogue in the film was changed here. The same beat was accomplished but in the film, it packs more of a punch. It was changed to Iosef stating that ‘everything’s got a price, bitch.’ With John then responding with ‘not this bitch’ (all in Russian). The changes speak so much more to the characters. Iosef wants to insult John but in a language, he assumes John won't understand. He's a coward that's trying very hard to come off as an intimidating man. John isn't threatened in the slightest and his reply shows that.
10.2 - The montage here is a bit too long. If a story beat is being repeated so close together it’s most likely not necessary. If it's not absolutely necessary, cut it.
In the first ten pages, we've learnt about John and his life. We know the additional significance that Daisy represents to John. He cares about the loss of his wife and he cares about the puppy she left for him, deeply. The tone is set, Kolstad suspended our disbelief, he demanded our attention, earned our trust and best of all, made us care.
The script highlights the importance of the small details that accumulate to the big picture. It shows us the importance of showing and not telling and allowing the audience to come into the story and participate. Most of all it allows us to see the numerous differences between the script and the final product. Scripts are blueprints for films (Staiger, J. 2012). They evolve until they're not needed anymore. The details may have changed but the overall feeling of the film hasn't.
This is a pattern that you'll find with a vast majority of produced material. We still aren't able to pinpoint exactly why the changes were made but we can examine what has been changed and determine for ourselves whether it improved or diminished the final result. This is something I encourage you to do as a screenwriter.
READ THE SCRIPT
Have a read and make your own notes!
Reading piles of scripts will help you as a writer but tearing a script part and questioning everything from formatting to dialogue to character to the structure will elevate you as a writer. That's what Ten Pages is about, we want to look at some of the best scripts, some of the worst, and everything in between to take the study of screenwriting to the next level.
Thank you for reading!
(Image copyright: Economic Times, Narofsky Architecture/Ways2Design. Reference 4)
FIELD, S. (2005). Screenplay. The Foundations of Screenwriting. 4th Ed. New York. Bantam Dell.
SEGER, L. (2010). Making a Good Script Great. 3rd Ed. California. Silman-James Press.
Schellhardt, L. (2008). Screenwriting For Dummies. 2nd Ed. New Jersey, USA. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
IGLESIAS, K. (2005). Writing For Emotional Impact. California. WingSpan Press.
John Wick. 2014. Streamed Online. Chad Stahelski. USA. Summit Entertainment. Thunder Road Pictures. 87Eleven Productions. MJW Films. DefyNite Films. 02.02.2021. Google Play.
Kolstad, Derek. John Wick. Unpublished manuscript. 2014. Pp 0-10
STAIGER, J. 2012. Northern Lights: Film & Media Studies Yearbook, Volume 10, Number 1. USA. Intellect.
Laura Owen is a screenwriter based in Manchester, with a particular interest in thrillers. Laura is a graduate of Falmouth University’s Writing For Script and Screen masters programme.
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