Today I want to talk about opening scenes. You guys have heard over and over again how important the opening ten pages is. That’s true. But I would actually scale it back further to the very first scene. Let me tell you why. Not only does the first scene have to engage the reader, but this is when the reader’s “are you any good” antennae is at its most sensitive. They’re looking at every little word, every little comma, every little detail, to see if you know what you’re doing. The more errors they see, or the more something feels off, the less confident they get in your ability to deliver. For example, if they see this sentence…
How you doing Jake?
Instead of this one…
How you doing, Jake? (with a comma before “Jake”)
…they get worried. Or if a writer uses some weird formatting structure they’ve never seen before, they get worried. If someone doesn’t know basic punctuation or screenplay formatting, how much effort have they really put in to learning how to write? Don’t worry, today’s article isn’t a glorified quiz on Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” I just want to point out that every little detail matters. What I really want to focus on is writing an opening scene that PULLS THE READER IN.
Remember, a screenplay isn’t like a novel, where the reader goes in knowing they have to put in some groundwork to get to the good stuff. A Hollywood reader expects to be entertained right out of the gate. This doesn’t mean that all scripts will be like this. But the vast majority are.
A lot of writers hear this directive and fight it. “Well what if I’m writing a slow-burn drama?” they ask. “What am I supposed to do then? Start with a car chase that makes no sense within the context of my story, just so the reader pays attention?” No, that’s not what I’m asking here. To be honest, starting with a car chase can be just as boring as starting with two people talking, if it’s not constructed properly. What I’m looking for out of an opening scene is something that’s DRAMATIZED, something that pulls you in via the design of the scene.
Regardless of how you choose to do this, you should always try and jump into your story right away. If you’re making a movie about a killer shark, start with a shark attack. If you’re making a movie about a private investigator, give him a case immediately. If your movie’s about a killer asteroid, start with a stargazer who spots the asteroid in his telescope. You won’t always be able to do this, but you’ll notice from the movie examples I use below, almost all of them fit this criteria.
OPTION 1 – CONFLICT/TENSION
Write a scene using conflict or tension. Look at the opening of Fargo. A guy walks into a seedy bar and sits down opposite a couple of criminals. They immediately start arguing about what time everyone was supposed to be here. This argument leads into a second argument about money, which one side believes was supposed to be delivered today, while the other insists isn’t due until later. It’s a tense scene. — Now personally, I find conflict to be one of the weaker ways to start a story. Conflict works best after you’ve gotten to know the characters and understand their differences and WHY they clash. So if you’re going to use it in your opening, make sure you’re setting up your story as well. That way, you’re killing two birds with one stone. With Fargo, the opening is not only characters clashing, it’s setting up the kidnapping of our main character’s wife, which is the hook of the film.
OPTION 2 – SURPRISE
Use your opening scene to surprise the main character, the reader, or both. Look no further than Source Code and Buried. Source Code starts with our main character waking up in a train with no memory of how he got there. Same with Buried (a man wakes up in a coffin). Note that surprise can lead to mystery, which helps keep the reader hooked going forward. In Source Code, our hero has to figure out what he’s doing here, which fuels the next 10 scenes or so.
OPTION 3 – SHOCK
Using shock as a way to grab a reader can be cheap, but it can also be effective, as long as you’re not just shocking the reader to shock them, but rather setting up your story. Say we’re enjoying a family Christmas with the perfect upper middle-class family. Mother, father, son and daughter are all having a wonderful time opening presents. Then finally the dad turns off camera. “Your turn, Larry. Which present do you want us to open?” Slowly pan over to see Larry, a 17 year old retarded boy naked in a cage wearing a gimp mask, grunting strangely. Cut to black. Shock is perfect for horror films, but can be used in any genre. Maybe your star CEO protagonist who’s just closed the biggest merger in his company’s history gets called into the Board of Trustees where he thinks he’s getting a bonus. Instead, the Trustees sit him down and tell him he’s fired. That’s just as shocking. Well, okay, nothing’s as shocking as Larry the Christmas Gimp Child.
OPTION 4 – MYSTERY (CARSON’S PICK!)
Probably the best way to start a script is via mystery. That mystery can be paid off right there in the scene itself or it can be paid off later. In Back To The Future, Marty walks into Doc’s house, where we see the dog food has gone uneaten for days, there’s a box of plutonium under the bed, and Doc calls to say (in a hushed tone) he needs to see Marty later about something important. Are we going to keep reading? Of course we are! We want to find out how all those things come together. Or, you can create a mystery that pays off right there in the scene. In the above mentioned Fargo scene, in addition to the conflict between the characters, there’s a mystery as to why they’re all here. The Coens wisely don’t tell us right away, which is part of what keeps us hooked. Eventually, Carl says, “You really want us to do this? You want us to kidnap your wife?” And the mystery is answered.
OPTION 5 – SUSPENSE
There’s a little bit of an overlap between mystery and suspense, but essentially, with suspense, you set up a question then draw things out before giving your reader the answer. The more high stakes the question, the more powerful the scene will play. An obvious version of this is a pregnancy test. Show a nervous 17 year old girl sitting on a toilet. Push back to see she’s holding something under it while looking at a pregnancy test box. From this point, the suspense has started. She reads, “Wait 3 minutes,” on the box, gets up, flushes, and waits. Are we going to wait around to see what happens? Of course we are! We want to see if she’s pregnant. And we know that since she’s only 17, this is a big fucking deal. But the real fun in suspense is how you play with the scene(s) in order draw the suspense out! So maybe while our teen is waiting, her annoying MOM bursts into the bathroom. The girl immediately drops the pregnancy test in the garbage before her mom can see it. “Jesus, Mom, ever hear of knocking?” “Sorry dear, just cleaning.” Oh no! The girl watches in horror as the mom picks up the bathroom trash bin and dumps it into her trash bag and leaves! Our teenager then must wait until her mom takes the garbage out. Once she does, she races out and starts digging through the trash. Finally, she spots the test and grabs it. “You one of those freegans now?” comes a voice from behind. She turns around. It’s the hot guy from next door! She hides the test behind her. (Etc., etc. You get the idea).
OPTION 6 – UNCERTAINTY
If all else fails and none of these methods works for you, just come up with a scene where something is HAPPENING (characters are acting or being forced to react), then create a sense of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next. In Star Wars, a weird black-clad character in a cape sucks a tiny ship into his super-cruiser then invades the ship looking for something. Here, we have elements of mystery, of suspense, we’re meeting characters on both sides of the fray, but most importantly, everybody is acting or reacting. You see this same thing in the opening of The Matrix.
The biggest mistake I see in opening scenes (and really, opening acts) is writers SETTING UP their story instead of DRAMATIZING IT. The first few scenes will set up the town, the main characters, the rules. A lot of time, these openings are beautifully written, but they’re boring as hell because NOTHING’S HAPPENING. And by “nothing’s happening,” I mean there’s no drama. It’s just a bunch of description (of people, their lives, their places, their things). You have to introduce your world in a dramatized way if you want the reader to keep reading. In general, be wary of opening with any scene that has characters sitting or standing around talking. Preferably, they should be acting, trying to obtain something or going somewhere to do something important. Give them a purpose so that we’re immediately engaged in their pursuit. If you do want to start with people standing or sitting around, create a big mystery or use a lot of conflict. If you don’t, you could be in trouble.
Of course, there may be some things I’ve forgotten here. Anyone else have suggestions on how to open a screenplay? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
note: Been having trouble moderating. Some comments might not appear for awhile but they WILL appear at some point, I promise.