sw5

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.

  • Midnight Luck

    “Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee”

    I believe this encapsulates my belief about how to approach telling a story as a screenplay.

    Come in without leaving a trace, but make sure to pack a serious wallop; with your words, with your style, with your mystery, with your language, with your pace, with your poetry.

    Now when I am talking poetry, I am not talking flowery language, purple prose, or excessively flourished word use-ments.

    I am talking the language of the page. Poetry in White and Dark. Layout of words on white space. Flow of text from beginning to end.

    Circling back though, while Entering like a Butterfly, where the writer is invisible, the writing itself doesn’t call out to the reader, it all seamlessly passes from pixel or paper to brain, it isn’t this part which is consciously remembered, but unconsciously. The STING of the BEE is what is remembered.

    Mixed into all this invisibleness of words and phrases, is the Intensity and Fire of the author’s instinct, passion, excitement and will.

    In these first few pages, the first scene, even the first Ten pages, we need to feel as though we have disturbed the hornet’s nest. We have been caught in a swarm of angry Bees, as one thing or another hits us, and affects us so deeply, or with such excitement, or shock, or happiness, or fear, or rage, or…… that we must see more. We MUST read on.

    Be light with your fingertips, pen or keyboard, but KILL with your ideas and execution.

    • astranger2

      How odd for me to read a famous boxing saying emerge from one of your comments… but to see you post again… once more, with feeling, reminds me of another kindred metaphor from Little Big Man — seeing you here again “makes my heart soar like a hawk…” ; v )

  • Ryan Sasinowski

    Another type of opening that exists, but maybe isn’t recommended, is the flash-forward one. I can’t think of too many films where that’s worked. (Pulp Fiction)

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      Ooh, I do so not like flash-forwards mainly because they’re so badly utilised. Usually, we just get a scene from the third act which obviously spoils a lot so then, we just wait for that scene to come up and when it does, we already know what’s going to happen. This has become a new staple with the horror genre and a sort of pet peeve of mine :)

      I think it’s lazy writing, really. Sure, coming up with an intense opening is difficult especially with horror movies where you have to grab the spectator right away and since less and less people have the patience to get to know the setting/characters, what easier way to grab them than shocking them ?

      Thanks a lot for this article, C – we all know this (or we should…) but it’s a useful reminder especially when starting work on a new script :)

      • pmlove

        It depends – I think a couple of times it works really well. In Damages (albeit a TV show) I think it gets the most out of the flash forward by constantly re-shifting the focus and adding in a few twists. You think you know where it’s going, but you don’t. Crucially, it ties with the pacing of the show in general.

        Another one is American Hustle – the opening provides a bit of direction as to where we are headed. Again, I think the critical thing here is it doesn’t flash forward to Act 3 but more the 30min mark or so (from memory).

        • Marija ZombiGirl

          You are right, it depends and it has been done in several movies with great results (SUNSET BOULEVARD, anyone ?) :) I was mostly talking about horror movies because I’ve noticed that ff’s have been creeping in there a lot lately.
          SUNSET BOULEVARD, one of my favourite movies, opens with a ff. Other movies do as well and it works just fine – it is a very effective way to hook the reader/viewer and may even serve a purpose (such as being misleading but then again, why be so manipulative ?). Still, I can’t help feeling that it’s a little easy, a little like cheating… But that’s just me :)

  • Malibo Jackk

    Ran into this problem recently with one of my scripts.
    Wanted to start slow. Nothing major happening on the first page.
    Nothing to get the reader excited.

    The only way that I know to get away with it is to make the reader a promise.
    Something has to get the reader to turn the pages.
    Something about the title, the logline, the concept that gets the reader excited.

    • ripleyy

      I once had a horror script that was extremely passive. The story worked, but the characters were reactive and the story itself was passive. It was a slow burn and it never really picked-up until the third act when everything going on started to make sense (it was a psychological horror, so it played around with paranoia).

      Ultimately I realized it never worked, until I decided to shift the entire thing into a POV setting. I found that with the entire script in POV I managed to inject a strange sense of urgency because it was a constant flow. This also meant I had to construct the entire story so it made the POV work.

      In other words, I agree. Sometimes you have to really shift the story into another direction in order for it to work. Slow-burning scripts work. Psycho is slow-burning, but that never stopped it from killing its main character. If you’re doing a slow-burning script, there’s always mystery. If that never works, it comes right back to the story.

      • Randy Williams

        I think telling the story from a child’s POV often elevates a slow burn. Children can see the world as a much more magical, mysterious, haunting place. You can get away with so much more, especially with imagery.

        • ripleyy

          Wasn’t it Spielberg who directed (I think) ET from the child’s level? I can’t remember if it was “A.I” or “ET” but I remember reading that and thinking it was really clever because it made so much sense.

          • mulesandmud

            It was E.T.

            Most of the movie is shot from waist level. One of my favorite details is that we don’t see the face of the bad guy, a scientist looking for E.T., for almost the entire movie. Instead, we just see what a kid would see; a thick ring of keys jangling on his belt loop. The script only refers to that character as “Keys”.

    • IgorWasTaken

      The only way that I know to get away with it is to make the reader a promise.

      That is very, very clever. And it’s well stated.

  • Dale T

    One of the best advices in opening up a scene I received was “make your characters want something as soon as possible, the first sentence if you can.” In Source Code, Colter wants to know where he is. In The Matrix, Trinity wants to escape. In Back To The Future, Marty wants to know where the Doc is. Often I read amateur scripts where characters are having conversations for the sake of having conversations, usually to provide backstory, and it’s so off putting. Characters need to have to want something from the beginning.

  • Dale T

    One of the best advices in opening up a scene I received was “make your characters want something as soon as possible, the first sentence if you can.” In Source Code, Colter wants to know where he is. In The Matrix, Trinity wants to escape. In Back To The Future, Marty wants to know where the Doc is.

    Making your characters go after something does a lot of the writers work for them. What happened to Colter that he has no recollection of him boarding a train? What did Trinity do that warrants an entire police force to intrude on her? What importance does this crazed doctor have to a normal teenaged boy?

    Often I read amateur scripts where characters are having conversations for the sake of having conversations, usually to provide backstory, and it’s so off putting. Characters need to have to want something from the beginning.

    • ArabyChic

      I couldn’t agree more.

      The most common problem I see with screenplays is that the characters have no goal before their story goal is presented to them. Giving your character a goal — and usually watching them fail — is not only a great way to make your character active, but also tells us what is most important to them.

      John McClane wants to get back together with his wife before he wants to free hostages from a group of terrorists, and that’s how we understand why the story goal is so important to him.

      Even having a character desperately searching for money in order to pay their bills — though a kind of crutch — works well to introduce them in an active way and sets them up to take a job/journey for the sake of some kind of pay out.

      A character who wants nothing before their inciting incident or call to arms or whatever we call it, isn’t a very well written character.

      There can be some finagling — for instance, Marty is told to meet Doc in the first scene and we don’t find out until later in act one that being a musician is Marty’s goal — but the goal is still there, long before his goal is to return to his present day.

      • Kirk Diggler

        A good way to say this would be that your protagonist should have an internal goal already in place before he/she is given an external goal.

        • ArabyChic

          I agree. I think when writers hear “internal goal” they mistakenly figure, “well, I guess I don’t have to show it.” Which is wrong. It needs to be something we see them actively pursuing — externally — to really draw us in. And if we watch them fail? even better. Then they get our sympathy as well as our understanding.

    • JakeMLB

      Adding to this:

      It’s not just enough to have the characters want something, you typically have to also put an obstacle in their way right from the get-go.

      In the Matrix, not only do we have the police chasing Trinity, but we immediately establish THE AGENTS, the antagonists of our story.

      In Source Code, it’s the situation and everyone around him, all seemingly normal and not giving Colter the answers he needs. Again, this resonates throughout the story.

      In Minority Report, we’re racing against time.

      I will counter, however, that there is a distinction between an opening scene and sequence. Opening scenes don’t always have to start in the way that Carson suggests, but opening sequence should. Sometimes you do need SOME build-up or groundwork in first few opening scenes in order to establish the sequence. Die Hard is a great example. That’s becoming a harder sell nowadays but it’s an important distinction nonetheless as too few writers spend time building proper sequences and instead try to cram their openings into scenes.

    • charliesb

      This is so true and reminds me of my fave line from “The Counselor”.

      “You don’t know someone, until you know what they want.”

  • Citizen M

    Does “get up or hit snooze?” count as suspense?

    • gazrow

      Sure – if he/she just woke up from a coma.:)

      • Ange Neale

        Gazrow, can’t believe you forgot, mate!

        MR and MRS ZOMBIE get up…

        • gazrow

          LOL! The UNDEAD rise again! :)

    • Ange Neale

      Hit ‘snooze’ with a hammer might.

    • Randy Williams

      Not unless the clock is connected to a stick of dynamite and you’re sleeping with Lassie.

      • Citizen M

        SPEAKING CLOCK: Six o’clock! Get up or hit snooze?
        CU: A stick of dynamite behind the clock.
        CU: A pressure pad under the bed.
        A hand reaches out and hesitates over the clock. Eventually it presses ‘snooze’.
        SPEAKING CLOCK: Bad choice. So long, sucker!
        KER-BLAM!

    • brenkilco

      Ever see William Goldman scripted Harper? He was told to write a credit sequence after he turned in the script. And it’s just Paul Newman getting up in the morning and getting dressed. The climax of the scene is him reusing an old coffee filter he takes out of the garbage and the look on his face when he tastes the coffee. According to Goldman it got a huge laugh. Guess anything can work.

      • Paul Clarke

        I don’t think credit sequences really count. I would expect most aren’t in the script. They’re just a lot of cool looking shots of the location with music playing. I’m surprised they made him write it.

        Even one of the all time greats in Silence of the Lambs opens with her doing the obstacle course. It was different to the script, but not exactly a mind blowing opening. I would really call her going into the office the first scene.

        • brenkilco

          Most of the time you are right. What plays under the credits doesn’t really qualify as a scene at all. Just location establishment. Car on a highway a la The Shining and about a thousand other movies. The scene I cited I think does qualify, as does most famously the opening of Touch of Evil, which I guess is why they scrubbed the credits off for the DVD release.

          • Paul Clarke

            Indeed. That’s around the time they were changing from having the complete credits at the beginning and moving them to the end. I’m sure some knowledgeable person on here can tell us when that trend happened.

        • Midnight Luck

          the good ones, well the best ones, establish a ton about the where, the how, but mostly the who. in small quick snippets, usually under music, we learn about our protagonist, and usually we don’t even know we are learning. we think it is just a bunch of pretty shots and a meaningless opening scene, but done well they are very effective.

          In SILENCE we see Clarice’s Determination and learn about her in that seemingly innocuous opener.

  • ripleyy

    All these methods are extremely effective, but the one I love personally is shock. I don’t mean shock in a horror kind of way, but a shock that immediately sucks you in. Also, shock works beautifully if it’s done in another genre (drama, action, sci-fi. Not so much comedy, because that can be debated until now to sundown). Mixing is effective as well. Using shock in a drama, suspense in a comedy – but ultimately what hooks YOU as a writer. If I can’t be bothered reading the first opening pages the 10th time around, why would I expect someone who’s reading it the first time around to do it?

    Punch hard. Suck them in. Never let go. You’re given one change – from the very first sentence – to grab the reader in.

    Also, if these methods don’t work, make your story unique. I find vivid descriptions an immediate turn-off because I don’t give a shit how beautiful the sunlight hits the barley, I want to know where I am, who is there and why I should spend the next 5 minutes of my life reading. I’m probably the worst offender because I’m such a picky reader myself.

  • Citizen M

    Protagonists should always be an expert at what they do, so a common opening is to show them solving a routine problem in a nifty or idiosyncratic way. It introduces us to the ordinary world in an entertaining way, and we get to know them and their world view. Then you hit them with a problem they can’t solve, or need to go against their moral code to solve, or have their abilities restricted, and we enjoy watching them squirm.

    Example: Lethal Weapon.

    • Randy Williams

      This is done a lot with scripts that open with family scenes. Like, a mom’s got the morning routine down pat at home, feeding, sending the kids off to school, she’s a pro, and then little Tommy suddenly throws a wrench in it by revealing today is “bring your mom to school day” and she had already started her colon cleansing drink!

    • brenkilco

      Protagonists should come through when the chips are down. But sometimes the story is better when they’re underdogs, everymen or guys seemingly out of their depth. Examples: Rocky, the police chief in Jaws, the fugitive ad man in North by Northwest, the city guys in Deliverance, etc. etc.

  • Randy Williams

    I was stopped by the police last night on my way home from my screenwriting group on my bike.
    Three patrol cars cornering me against a fence. They asked me the usual questions including where I was coming from. Later one officer asked me about this screenwriting thing, I’d mentioned. His assumption at one point was that scripts were 40 pages long, then you sold them. Where he got that, I don’t know, especially the sold part. After a few lessons on our hopes and dreams, I ended up pitching my script to him.

    Being stopped by the police was like the opening scene in a script. It’s like those lessons in journalism I remembered in school. Nail down the Who? What? When? Where?

    Suddenly the world pivots on that spot. You ARE the center of the universe and you can’t move from that position. Those lights on the top of their vehicles totally blinded me to everything else on the periphery. That’s where.

    There was one main cop who did most of the talking. He was all business. He’s was the one who nailed the narrative down. Who was I? Another did some talking but I felt a little more comfortable with him because he was more personal. What am I? Then there was another who stood off to the side, never said a word, never could make out his face. He was the one I thought about the most. He’s the one who would come over and handcuff me, take me away. He was the next scene, the when.

    • kenglo

      Curious, they say why they stop you?

      • Randy Williams

        Usually leave the screenwriting group before sunset. Stopped with another member, however, to get a bite to eat and talk about our scripts. Hours later, (we do seem to want to never end) riding home in the dark, had’nt put on my bike lights. That was the pretense.

        Three police vehicles on my neck and another at the corner. Looking for someone, I imagine.

  • andyjaxfl

    Perfect timing because I’m starting a new script (the first of many drafts!) today.

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      Same here :) Happy writing !

      • andyjaxfl

        Thanks, you too!

  • Malibo Jackk

    We open with a scene of a man who needs a five-figure surgery for his dog.
    On his way home, after a late night, he’s stopped by three police cruisers…

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      … driven by smart zombie cops ?

      • klmn

        …with smart zombie police dogs.

  • Stephjones

    I’ve started new life script today.
    Leaving St. Thomas, USVI for Bahamas. ~ 1000 miles as the crow flies on our 33′ sailboat. We aren’t crows, so taking the long way. Today our destination is Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Only 20nm. A little shake down cruise before we commit to longer days and overnight. Our speed is 5mph. Winds E at 10-15. Jib out. Autopilot holding. Easy peasy.
    Sad to say goodbye to our home of 20 years but already turning my view towards the future and the excitement of new adventures.
    Leaving a well worn groove kicks up all the life juices. You start hitting on cylinders you forgot you had. Not a grab you first page here. More of a slow build. I’ll post until I leave easy Internet. Someone should know where the fuck we are, at least for a little while.:)

    • Nick Morris

      Whoa. That sounds so cool. Be safe and have fun out there!

    • Citizen M

      Fair winds and following seas and long may your big jib draw.

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      Wow ! Happy sails, happy new life and may the benign gods of the sea be with you ;)

    • klmn

      Enjoy the trip!

    • Ange Neale

      Thinking of you, mate! Hopefully those damned hurricanes will decide they’re not gonna mess with you and go around. Have a great trip!

    • Stephjones

      Thanks for the comments and up votes. Means a lot! We are safely in Culebra. Had roller furling issue with jib so hanging here a few days to solve. Pretty cool place. If you google earth it we are on a mooring behind a reef on the South side. Ensenada Dakity. Snorkeled around boat earlier. Lots of starfish. Grassy sandy bottom. Will check out reef tomorrow.
      “Eagle” is our boat name. This is Eagle’s 2014 Love Cruise. Clothing optional. ;)

      • Ange Neale

        Glad you made it — good shake-down, huh?
        For me, it’s clothing preferable; if getting sunburnt was an Olympic event, it’d be me and a bunch of albinos contending for the title.

      • Linkthis83

        You are here: 18.287688, -65.280160

        • Guest

          thought I posted a photo

          • Ange Neale

            If it’s a photo of a few megabytes, sometimes Disqus can take a few minutes to transplant it.

        • Stephjones

          Clever Link! Location is right but lat/long off for some reason. We are N18 17.500 W65 16.853. Look on deck for a 25lb pissed off orange tabby. He’s in his litter box right now.

          • Ange Neale

            A 25lb moggy? Holy shit… You need to get him a little wetsuit so he can get in the water with you and get in shape.

          • Stephjones

            I can’t seem to convince him that he’s chubby. :)

          • Ange Neale

            To borrow from Garfield, he’s not overweight, he’s just undertall.

            Or on a boat, he’s ballast.

          • Stephjones

            my hubby sometimes calls him ” emergency rations”

          • Ange Neale

            Hilarious! (Hi Jim!)

          • Citizen M

            Ensenada Dakity anchorage looks like a tropical paradise

          • Stephjones

            Great photo! It is wonderful. We will spend a few days here despite some urgency to make some miles.
            We’re on the about the 5 th mooring in from bottom of photo.

          • Malibo Jackk

            We can see you on deck waving at us.

          • Midnight Luck

            GPS down to the pissed off, crapping Tabby. Love it.

      • Linkthis83

        I’m not gonna lie, after your clothing optional comment, I looked for your “grassy sandy bottom” but did not find it. I don’t have the best satellites. Glad you’re safe :)

        • Stephjones

          Ha! Best to avoid a close look. We’re old fuckers.

  • brenkilco

    I agree with the post. But the approach seems a little backward. You don’t say I have this opening scene. How do I make it interesting? You say, I have this story to tell. Where do I start it? To choose where to start it you have to know what the story is. Your first scene shouldn’t be simply going to the place where the story happens or introducing the person that it’s going to happen to. Even if subtly or quietly the plot has to ignite in the first scene. Maybe it’s just a suggestion of a character relationship, the revelation of a desire or a world slightly out of balance, but something. If you can’t say that my story begins here, then move up in time and write a new first scene.

    I was trying to think of the great film with the softest opening. Hard to do because most of the best movies do start with some kind of a bang. Guess I’d go with The Hustler. Just two guys going to a gas station, then to a bar. They say they’re salesmen. We watch them drink, play some pool. One of them gets drunk and loses a bet and the tension rises a little. Not much happening here. Then the drunk makes a big bet and the tension rises a lot. Then bang, the twist, we discover exactly who this guy is and what he does and we cut to the opening credits. The first couple of pages are dull because they’re part of the con but the full scene is fabulous. Whatever works.

  • Linkthis83

    OT: I don’t want to bum anybody out, but I was also unaware that this occurred recently. I’m only posting this because if it wasn’t for some SS faithful endorsing SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, I wouldn’t have watched it and would’ve glossed over this article. I assume those that loved SFS already know/knew about this, but I just saw it today and thought I’d share in case some of you didn’t know:

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/searching-sugarman-director-dead-thr-710882

    • gazrow

      A damn shame. And maybe a touch ironic given the rumors circulating about SUGARMAN before he was found to be alive.

    • Ange Neale

      I know a guy whose OCD was so bad before a doctor found the right meds for him that he couldn’t sleep at night until he’d climbed out of his bedroom window, walked to the park via exactly the same route and did a lap of a particular tree before retracing his steps and climbing back in the window. It was driving him nuts and depressing the hell out of him.

      As soon as the article mentioned breakfast and walking around his apartment rituals, I figured it sounds like OCD. Poor guy. Awful condition to have to live with.

    • astranger2

      How sad… “He was the least likely to take his life.”

      So Richard Cory-like:

      Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
      We people on the pavement looked at him:
      He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
      Clean-favored, and imperially slim.
      And he was always quietly arrayed,
      And he was always human when he talked;
      But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
      “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
      And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
      And admirably schooled in every grace:
      In fine, we thought that he was everything
      To make us wish that we were in his place.
      So on we worked, and waited for the light,
      And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
      And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
      Went home and put a bullet through his head.

      Creative genius is such a quixotic and puzzling beast if not properly contained…

  • Nicholas J

    These are great elements of a scene that can hook the reader, but I think you’re missing the real basis of a good opening: A SITUATION! I bring this up all the time on here, but that’s because so few amateur openings utilize this approach.

    The situation you create doesn’t have to be huge or action packed, it can be something as simple as a person attempting to tie their shoe. As long as the character has a goal, something is in their way, and we have to keep watching to find out how the scene ends.

    Here’s the best ways to do it.

    1. Open with your protagonist in a situation that shows the single most important element of their character. Even better if it’s plot related.

    If he’s an alcoholic, you could open with him drunk at a gas station at 5 AM, trying to coerce the clerk to sell him alcohol fifteen minutes before the clerk is legally allowed to.

    If she’s easily sueded by her children, show her in the kitchen, running super late to a job interview. She rushes around to gather her things, but her son keeps requesting the most unimportant items relating to his gourmet breakfast she made him. “There’s one too many strawberries on my belgian waffle!” She of course keeps giving into his demands, which keeps making her later and more flustered.

    Will the alcoholic get his alcohol? Will the mother stand up to her son and make it to the interview on time? Keep reading to find out!

    2. Open with your main force of antagonism. Again, hopefully it’s plot related.

    This is the classic opening scene to a horror film where Random Guy #1 is out in the woods, partying with his buddies, and he has to go take a leak. He hears something out in the darkness. “Joey, is that you?” We all know it ain’t Joey. But the only way to find out is to keep watching.

    It’s Darth Vader looking for the Death Star plans, it’s the woman swimming in the water with Jaws.

    3. The final element of either situation is to turn the scene and end it with something unexpected. Not necessary, but this provides a bigger punch.

    The clerk looks at the alcoholic. “A hundred bucks and the vodka’s yours.” Didn’t expect that! The alcoholic hands the clerk $100 and stumbles out the door with his new bottle of vodka. He was unable to wait just fifteen minutes for his next drink.

    The mother gives her son one last sip of orange juice. “There, are you satisfied? I need to leave.” Son looks at her, “Yup!” We think, Great! She grabs her purse, heads to the door, and son #2 enters. “I’m starving!”

    Using this approach, you’ve shown me you understand the basics of screenwriting. A person with a goal, has something that stands in their way, and the actions they take to get that goal reveal their character. And the fact that you turned the scene and gave me something unexpected promises more surprises in the future.

    These few pages of work usually will get me to read another 10 at the bare minimum. If you keep giving me more scenes like this, I’m much more inclined to make it to the end of your script. That’s not all there is to it, but it’s a damn good start.

    • Linkthis83

      Completely agree with putting your character in a situation.

    • Midnight Luck

      You make some great points about a situation.

      I also have always loved the idea of Turning a Scene.

      I remember back when Tarantino first burst onto the scene. There was all this talk of his ability to Turn A Scene. And it was true. Not only could he open a scene and make it instantly interesting, but he could turn it in a way you weren’t prepared for and didn’t see coming. He was definitely a master at that particular skill.

      I also wish more people would treat each and every scene, and especially the very first one with such care. To make sure the person in that scene is already in the middle of a situation, and then to turn the scene in an unexpected way. Turn the scene so it makes us think, or gasp, or cry, or shock us. Whatever, just unexpected.

    • Citizen M

      This award-winning commercial closes with a situation.

      Levi’s ‘Drugstore’ Directed by Michel Gondry http://vimeo.com/71829843

  • Linkthis83

    OPTION 4 – MYSTERY

    I feel that this is chosen a lot in the scripts I read on here. In my amateur opinion, I feel quite a number of these aren’t effective and I believe the cause of that is: everything is mystery.

    I feel that when trying to create the mysteriousness of the situation, writers believe vague to be the same as mystery. In order to sell the mystery, you’ve got to give us details surrounding it. Try not to write about a protagonist who meets a strange man, in a strange setting, who gives her a strange object, and advises her with some vague, mysterious phrase. I think the belief is that we will want to continue because we will want to know what all this is about. However, if you look at just those elements, what exactly would a reader be invested in. The only way to have us invested in that moment is to have context in which to experience it.

    If we know beforehand that the protagonist is supposed to be meeting someone else here for a completely different purpose and then the above example happens, then it’s mysterious. But if that’s your first set of scenes but doesn’t have any context and doesn’t even hint at the implications (immediate or long term), then you’ve missed the opportunity to get us engaged. The one thing I think people forget to do is to just LIE. Whatever the character thinks things mean is true for the character, thus true for us (unless we’ve already been given the truth and are waiting for the protag to catch up). That already generates story propulsion for the character/story. They are behaving/acting/making choices based on things they think are true (this is just one angle to take)

    Simpler = just give us some details to latch on to that are relevant and surround the mystery you truly want to create. Vague does not equal mystery. Giving us details creates the opportunity for us to invest.

    OPTION 5 – SUSPENSE

    Dammit, Carson! Is the chick pregnant or not? I need to know. How can you just do that? Is it the next door guy’s baby? And if she is pregnant, this is really going to be hard for to hide from her mother who clearly has boundary issues. = Congrats, based off that one set up, I want to know what happens.

  • Paul Clarke

    And on top of that your opening scene needs to set the tone, mood, and genre. Along with beginning to establish the rules of your story world. Plus your protagonists strengths, weaknesses, flaws, fears, and a long-standing problem/issue they need to overcome.

    I would like to clarify Carson says amateurs tend to open their script by setting up everything instead of dramatizing it. It should definitely being setting the story up, but it needs to be done in a dramatic fashion. It’s a story in it’s own right. Maybe a mini-story, before the main story begins. Rather than just setup for setups sake.

    My analogy would be like going to watch a magic act. You wouldn’t sit there while the magician sets up all his tricks before actually doing any of them. Here’s an empty hat. Here’s a regular set of playing cards. Here’s an empty box. Here’s a normal sword. Boring, we want to see them use it straight away.

    • ElectricDreamer

      OPTION 7 – RUBBER STAMP YOUR GENRE.

      Smack that big rubber beast down the page with buckets of conviction.
      Let the reader know in no uncertain terms what kind of ride they’re in for.
      And the best place to start that is on PAGE ONE.

  • jeaux

    Great stuff Carson. I’m in the middle of a script right now and this article made me rethink (and then rethink again) my opening scene. Now I’ve got several ideas for my opening that move in the direction of some of your examples. Cheers!

  • successor

    I think you can learn a lot by watching bad openings to bad films and learning what not to do. Here’s a few examples:

    Nate & Hayes (1983): This is one of the worst openings I’ve ever seen in a film. A group of characters we don’t know or care about outrun a tribe of angry Indians. Most of them are killed during the escape (and since this is a flashback story, that kills any drama because we know they’re going to make it through the main story okay.). The group come to a rope bridge, cut it like Temple of Doom and one guy escapes (Tommy Lee Jones’ character), only to get captured. So not only was his escape completely pointless, it wasted a major set piece in under ten minutes. Then, while in prison, he goes into flashback mode. Oh brother.

    Alien 3 (1992): I defy anyone to tell me exactly what the hell happened in this scene. A bunch of random images of things happening on the Sulaco interspersed with the credits. And not only do the images contradict the previous film, they contradict themselves (Did the facehugger impregnate Newt or Ripley? And how it’d get onboard in the first place? And why is the whole ship on fire from one acid burn? They don’t have sprinklers or a halon system on a futuristic spaceship?!) If you never saw Aliens, you wouldn’t be able to understand what’s going on. And if you did, you still wouldn’t be able to understand what’s going on. If nothing else, movie openings should at the very least be comprehensible.

    Ghosts of Mars (2001): Another flashback opening. Which again, means we know who will live and who will die. Not only that, the majority of the story is Natasha Henstridge’s character sitting down and telling a council of women what happened–which is quite possibly the most boring way to open a film ever. If they had cut out the whole framing narrative, that alone would’ve made the film better–not much better, I grant you, but at least somewhat better.

  • IgorWasTaken

    Great post, Carson. Yes, the opening scene.

    Whichever of those approaches one takes, I think it’s also critical for the writer to be clear as to what we are seeing.

    And so, even if your script is produced and the first thing we see on the screen is a group of 20-somethings partying in a house, I think this is probably not the most effective way to start things on the page:

    INT. SUBURBAN HOUSE – NIGHT

    A bunch of 20-somethings partying in a house. And among them
    we find JANE (20).

    No. Rather, I’d say (at least in most cases) it’d be better on the page to express it along these lines: “JANE (20), in a crowd of college students, all jammed into a large suburban kitchen at a raging house party.”

    IOW, give us something more specific – even if that’s not the way you’d want it on screen.

    But even if you want to start with a wide shot, still be specific as to what we are seeing. Give us something. For example, if we first see “a forest”, maybe make it “a forest of old-growth pine trees.”

    As further/better illustrations, here are the openings of a few celebrated scripts I chose somewhat at random. Here is what they have at the top of Page 1:

    “The Equalizer”

    AN ALARM CLOCK

    Hits 5:30 AM and goes off.

    BEDROOM

    Grey morning light. Alarm still BUZZING because the room’s
    empty.

    Bed already made. Tight
     
     
    “The Imitation Game”

    BLACK.

    ALAN TURING (V.O.)
    Are you paying attention?

    INT. ALAN TURING’S HOUSE – DAY – 1951

    A HALF-DOZEN POLICE OFFICERS swarm the Manchester home of
    mathematics professor Alan Turing.
     
     
    “Museum of Broken Relationships”

    INT. LUCY’S ADORABLE BROOKLYN APARTMENT – DAY

    LUCY GULLIVER, 28, sits in her bedroom. Charmingly
    vulnerable, she curses like a sailor and falls in love
    easily. Lucy is a Junior Curator at the Metropolitan
    Museum of Art. You will come to understand why.

    [Note: The first item mentioned is LUCY, even if, in the film the director might start on something else in the room and then find Lucy. But even if you don’t want to start on LUCY, start on some object. So, for example, don’t have the first line be: “A quirky bedroom…” Instead, maybe make it: “A badly-worn Teddy bear sits next to a lava lamp in a quirky bedroom.”]
     
     
    “Captain Phillips”

    FADE IN… on a man in a floating hell. We are:

    INT. LIFEBOAT – NIGHT (2 A.M.)

    An enclosed, fiberglass LIFEBOAT, 28 feet long – with 60
    seats, and HATCHES fore and aft. It’s steamy, hot, even at
    night. Floating on the Indian Ocean, 300 miles from Somalia.
     
     
    “American Sniper”

    OVER BLACK

    The groan of tank treads drowns out THE CALL TO PRAYER as
    a MARINE BATTALION advances over the top of us.

    EXT. STREET, FALLUJAH, IRAQ – DAY

    The sun melts over squat residences on a narrow street.
    The MARINE BATTALION creeps toward us like a cautious
    Goliath. FOOT SOLDIERS walk alongside Humvees and tanks.
    ______

    I hope those help. They’ve helped me.
     

    • Poe_Serling

      The one that really caught my eye: The Equalizer opening. So simple, yet so effective. Instead of the tired cliche of a lazy bones jones getting jarred awake by their alarm clock, the writer plays with our expectations and surprises us with our main character already up and on the go.

      Like I mentioned on a recent post, I also like when a single opening shot can set the tone of the film.

      THE FOG

      The screen is in total BLACKNESS. We hear a TICKING sound.

      EXTREME CLOSEUP

      An old, gold pocket watch fills the frame. Lit by firelight, the edges of the watch gleam.

      Slowly the watch begins to move, swaying back and forth on its chain like a pendulum.

      MACHEN
      Eleven fifty-five… almost midnight. Enough time for one more story.

      **Another simple but effective opening in my opinion.

      For me, the image of the ticking watch instantly creates a sense of impending trouble. And Machen’s first lines – not only reinforces that notion but it also is a clever way to establish the tone of the film by kicking things off with a tale of an eerie local legend. Sort of a ghost story within a ghost story.

      • IgorWasTaken

        Yeh, “The Equalizer” opening is really good. I included it to help make my point about giving the reader a specific image from the first line of the opening scene, but those few lines do many more things than just that:

        They tell us about the protag before we even see him.

        The austere style of writing matches the austere room, and both of those match what we soon learn is the austere lifestyle of the protag. And the “austere” means he employs to resolve things.

        And it sets a pace.

        Certainly, that opening is not the right one for every story, but when you read more of the script and see how well it fits the story and the protag – I want to keep that dynamic in mind when writing my openings.

        It would be an interesting exercise (and I may actually try to do this): I have a bunch of ideas for scripts. And not just ideas; I have loglines for them, and at least bare outlines for most. I should try to write comparable openings for each of them. Even just the first action paragraph, to see if I could do them in the style of “The Equalizer”. Hmmm…

      • brenkilco

        In the case of The Fog the story was also a sly way to get a lot of exposition in and be forgiven for it.

        • Poe_Serling

          So true. ;-)

      • IgorWasTaken

        One other thing worth mentioning about the opening of “The Equalizer”: There is no formal scene heading until the middle of page 1 (when we move to the kitchen).

        IOW, the writer is so determined for us to focus on the clock, and then on the light and the buzzing alarm, and then on the already well-made bed, that he skips –

        FADE IN:

        INT. BEDROOM – DAY

      • pmlove

        I think you could feasibly add ‘TONE’ as another opening.

        I’m thinking of a couple of examples. Hidden (Haneke, Cache I think in French) being a great one – the long static shot of a street where literally nothing happens. It starts theoretically boring but then suddenly somehow evolves into a tense scene where we realise we are the watcher, the voyeur, staring at a specific house, which of course is what the film is all about.

        Another couple from memory – There Will Be Blood, an opening based on the physicality and brutality of oil mining and The Consequences of Love, another great static shot of the money that eventually drives the film.

        And I realise I go on about it but The Great Beauty opens with a scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but is pure tone and theme. No characters from the opening reappear later in the film.

        Perhaps more directorial decision I suppose though.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Nice one, Carson. Going in the folder.

    I get very nervous when I hear people say “How you doing Jake?”

  • kenglo

    My two cents – not only HOW you open, but how well you write the opening –

    http://www.scriptforsale.com/firstpage.shtml

    That’s all folks!

  • Sullivan

    Not to be a nit-picker, Carson, but you, too, make grammatical errors that could undermine confidence in your blog, albeit they’re the same ones over and over.

    “For awhile” is not correct. It’s three words: “for a while,” a noun, as “awhile,” an adverb, already means “for a while.”

    Also, the expression is “I couldn’t care less,” and not “I could care less.” If you could care less, you still care.

    MY pet peeves.

    • IgorWasTaken

      I’ve posted here about this, as well. Maybe your entreaty will yield results, where mine failed. I hope so alot.

      • Sullivan

        And nothing comes across as uneducated when someone says “I seen” something (instead of “I saw” something). Thankfully this is mostly confined to witnesses to crimes on newscasts.

        • Malibo Jackk

          “And nothing comes across as uneducated…”

          Not sure.
          Shouldn’t that be–
          “And nothing comes across as MORE uneducated AS…”?

  • Logline_Villain

    Not sure that it fits neatly into any of the 6 Options, but it still made for page 1 gold…

    EXT. A SAVANNAH STREET – DAY (1981)

    A feather floats through the air. The falling feather.

    A city, Savannah, is revealed in the background. The feather
    floats down toward the city below. The feather drops down
    toward the street below, as people walk past and cars drive
    by, and nearly lands on a man’s shoulder.

    He walks across the street, causing the feather to be whisked
    back on its journey. The feather floats above a stopped car.
    The car drives off right as the feather floats down toward
    the street.

    The feather floats under a passing car, then is sent flying
    back up in the air. A MAN sits on a bus bench. The feather
    floats above the ground and finally lands on the man’s
    mudsoaked shoe.

    The man reached down and picks up the feather. His name is
    FORREST GUMP. He looks at the feather oddly, moves aside a
    box of chocolates from an old suitcase, then opens the case.

    Inside the old suitcase are an assortment of clothes, a
    pingpong paddle, toothpaste and other personal items.

    Forrest pulls out a book titled “Curious George,” then places
    the feather inside the book. Forrest closes the suitcase.

    Something in his eyes reveals that Forrest may not be all
    there.

    • JakeMLB

      Well, it’s got a few things, one of which Carson missed:

      VISUAL

      We are writing motion pictures, not novels. Your opening scenes should be VISUAL, especially if you’re writing in a genre that demands it!

      MYSTERY

      It’s also got a bit of mystery to it. I mean, who is this Gump character? Why does he have a suitcase with a pingpong paddle, toothpaste, and a book of Curious George? Why does he keep the feather? Most wouldn’t so much as touch a dirty feather as place it neatly inside of a book as if it were a prized possession.

      • Logline_Villain

        Well-said, Jake. And what is it about FLOATING things that are so mesmerizing? Between Gump’s feather and that plastic bag in American Beauty, there’s two VISUALLY unforgettable film moments…

        • JakeMLB

          I’m still waiting for a film to open with a slow motion money shot.

  • http://jrkinnard.tumblr.com/ J.R. Kinnard

    Gratuitous nudity also works.
    :-)

  • Ryan Sasinowski

    Another kind of opening to be avoided is the one that’s either mystery, intrigue or action that turns out to be JUST A DREAM. Or (usually in an action film) it’s all a training exercise that has little to no impact on the plot whatsoever.

    I’m no screenwriting instructor, but for the love of everything Welles, please don’t do this. It’s a waste of pages and screen time.

    • astranger2

      Completely with you here. I hate dream sequences. They make you feel robbed of your emotional investment, and wary of subsequent scenes… although Boxing Helena and Bobby Ewing would most likely disagree…

  • IgorWasTaken

    How you doing Jake?

    OTOH, that comma-less question would be fine if…

    The person being asked is a hitman and Jake is the target.

    Or the person being asked is a hooker and Jake is the john.

    Or the person being asked is standing at a hot charcoal grill and “Jake” is their nickname for a rib-eye steak.

    • IgorWasTaken

      On the other, other hand, speaking of missing commas:

      “Anchorman”

      RON
      Hello Frank.
        
        
      “Austin Powers, IMM”

      BASIL EXPOSITION
      Hello Austin
       
        
      And saving the best for last…

      “No Country for Old Men”

      CHIGURH
      Hello Carson.
        
        
      And yet, as noted here: http://www.grammarunderground.com/how-to-punctuate-hi-june-greetings-and-direct-addresses.html

      “Add this to our list of futile language peeves.”

      IOW, despite what may be correct as a matter of formal grammar… As Carson suggested, above, there’s no need to go all Strunk & White on your script’s ass.

      • heynow

        “Remember, nothing screams amateur or “doesn’t care” more than a script riddled with misspellings, misused words, bad grammar, and punctuation errors. I know as soon as I see that stuff, I lose hope in a script. Don’t be that script!”

        Carson

  • Guess Who

    That picture of Darth Vader’s supercruisers going after the rebel’s tiny ship might be the greatest opening ever.

    Close second is Raiders with the gigantic ball rolling down after Indy.

    • Casper Chris

      Jaws opening is probably more universal. Taps into a primal fear. Ask most girls how they feel about supercruisers or big balls. Eehh…..

  • Nicholas J

    “Just as “Jaws” can’t begin with Martin Brody and his kid at the kitchen table…It’s too story specific. It makes it seem like this is a movie about a writer’s fabrication, and not about us, the audience.”

    Good write up, but this part doesn’t make sense to me. How is starting with Brody at home more story specific than starting with the actual story, which is the shark?

    It’s obviously not the only option, but starting with the protagonist is a better way to make the movie about us. We don’t relate to the Empire, we relate to Luke Skywalker.

    Take the opening of one of the greatest comedies of all time, OFFICE SPACE. We see the three main characters sitting in traffic, doing things like switching lanes and choosing the wrong one. Who hasn’t done that before? We quickly relate, and therefore realize this is going to be a story about us.

  • Nicholas J

    Witty exposition?

  • august4

    Hey all…. This is off topic, but I thought I’d ask since I can’t find this answer online. If you have a character, say he’s BOB, and you use that name throughout the script, but then we find out that wasn’t his real name, it’s PETE… How would you go about writing his name for the remainder of the script? BOB/PETE? Write… Bob is now Pete somewhere and then use PETE? Stick with BOB, but have people now call him Pete? Or?? Thanks for any help!

    • Poe_Serling

      From our friends over at Story Sense:

      When a character’s name changes, it’s customary to remind the reader of the original name by placing it in parentheses the very next time a speech is cued using the new name.

      In other words, if we’ve been referring to a character as DOMINATRIX, but
      discover her real name is MIRANDA, then the next cue for her would read:

      MIRANDA (DOMINATRIX)
      It’s just something I do to get
      tuition for college.

      All subsequent speeches for Miranda would be cued with just her name alone.

      **Hope this helps.

      • Malibo Jackk

        That’s the proper form
        — but it also assumes that the reader is fully awake
        and actually reads every word.

      • august4

        Thanks!!

    • IgorWasTaken

      Poe’s answer is a good one, but also note the example he uses: The DOMINATRIX is… MIRANDA. IOW, the DOMINATRIX character probably is a colorful, distinctly notable character along the way, leading up to the reveal of her real name. Plus, it’s fair for a reader to assume that DOMINATRIX is not the character’s real name; so as we’re reading, there may never be a reveal of her real name – but if there is a name reveal, our brain is ready for it.

      But as Malibo Jackk posted here, what Poe cites is the “proper form — but it also assumes that the reader is fully awake and actually reads every word.

      The point is, you have a find a way to do it that – relative to your sort of story – will be very clear to your reader.

      For example, I’m hoping that the names in your script are not really Bob and Pete, because I’d have trouble keeping those bland names distinguished in a script even if they were two separate characters.

      You want your reader to (1) not miss the name change if the reader decides to skim a few pages, and (2) understand the reason for it.

      Is the name reveal with the protag or a supporting character? How big a
      deal do you make along the way about some person named “PETE”, and so
      then in Act III we really are eager to find out who PETE is… and then we
      find out we’ve known him all along, he’s just called himself Bob.

      For me, it would help if the revealed name is distinctly different – for example, a major change in the number of syllables, a change in the sound of the name (maybe, soft-sounding to hard), a change in ethnicity.

      As for how I’d do it on the page? If I’m sure, in the context of my script, that the reader is paying attention at this juncture, I might do just as Poe indicated. OTOH, if maybe it’s late in the script, and the character is a lesser one, the change is unexpected, and it’s an important plot twist, I might show his name in the dialogue as BOB/PETE for the rest of the script.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Lady cops are like that.

    Next time tell her you’re a screenwriter. You need that beer.

  • brenkilco

    Agree that the first scene should present at least a shadow of the danger or threat to come. If it doesn’t at least give a faint shape to your narrative then the story hasn’t really begun and you can probably get rid of your scene.

    Dont get your point about starting at Brody’s kitchen table being too story specific. nothing could be more story specific than starting a movie about a killer shark with an attack by the killer shark. And as Nicholas J says how can delaying the introduction of our prime source of identification make the movie seem more about the audience?

    Also, while The Godfather is great, I don’t think it’s a movie to draw hard and fast narrative lessons from. The opening does not present the theme you suggest. That theme is apparent only in retrospect. It is not immediately clear that Michael is the main character. Indeed until the hospital scene, a good forty five minutes into the movie, a viewer going in cold could be forgiven for thinking that the main character is either the Don or Sonny. The theme of fate and dynastic succession creeps in very slowly.

    As for the opening of Star Wars, the first shot is great. It generated instant delight in the audience. But the first scene is really only suitable to a comic book movie. Which, of course, is what Star Wars is. Good guys, Bad guys, galactic war. The whole thing laid out. Starting with Luke and his peaceful, dullish life and only gradually introducing the overwhelming threat might have been considerably more elegant. But it wasn’t that kind of movie.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Just adding to the discussion:

    There are several ways to start a movie.
    STAR WARS begins with an exposition crawl.
    (Reminiscent of old Buck Rogers movies?)

    JAWS began the way it did because the shark wasn’t working.
    (If you read the book, it starts with the shark moving underwater.)

    You could also start the movie at the Brody dinner table, unaware that
    — cut to the beach, where the beach scene is playing out — cut back to them eating dinner, unaware that — cut back to the girl diving into the water and the subsequent shark attack.

    Scripts are written and rewritten.
    And sometimes the director comes along and says — let’s do something different.

    One of the best opening scenes ever was hated by the studio
    — PATTON.

    • grendl

      I think there’s two people in Amish country that didn’t know that the shark wasn’t working for the beginning of “Jaws”.

      Necessity is the mother of invention, and it was a great bit of ingenuity on Spielberg’s part not to show the shark. The hint of the monster was much more powerful.

      And yeah you could have done a trillion different things to start the movie. The way it stands, in my opinion, they did it right. And the reason its more powerful than your idea of intercutting is because we wouldnt know why we’re watching this guy eat dinner, and switching to the shark attack.

      That wouldn’t make sense. It would be like cutting between Michael Myers killing his sister and Dr. Loomis going to med school. Pointless and confusing.

      Movies have to have a progression, a flow. They can’t just be random events intercut. Why would you do it your way???

      • Malibo Jackk

        Imagine working for a director — and that’s what he wants.
        Either take a stand that it would never work, That it makes no sense. That it’s pointless and confusing.

        Or, think it through. Ask yourself how it could work.

        • astranger2

          Interesting thing about Patton. George C. was adamant they put that opening scene at the end… which, imho, would have worked too. But Scott felt that opening too “hot” a scene to follow, and it would make the rest of the film flat.

          Coppola also had a different “artistic” view of the opening. A more subtle take. Many times, if as Goldman says, the script is great, the director has the right vision, and the actors meld… that film can be a perfectly, magical thing…

          • Malibo Jackk

            Mr. C seems to like to take credit for it.
            He often refer to it when he says — what the studios hate is the very thing that often makes the movie stand out.

          • astranger2

            I’ve never heard that… wonderful line, however…

  • Midnight Luck

    sleeping in the front basket has got to be rough
    the blanket might help
    definitely a tight fit
    on wheels

    • Malibo Jackk

      such is the life of a screenwriter.

  • maxi1981

    The best opening scene ever. period.

    And it has a shitload of dialogue in the first page, which according to Carson is a big no no apparently. hehehe

    FADE FROM BLACK: Int. of Don Corleone’s home office -day

    BONASERA (seated in front of the Don’s desk, facing the camera)

    I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the

    American fashion. I gave her freedom, but — I taught her never to dishonor her family. She

    found a boyfriend; not an Italian. She went to the movies with him; she stayed out late. I

    didn’t protest. Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made

    her drink whiskey. And then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her

    honor. So they beat her, like an animal. When I went to the hospital, her nose was a’broken.

    Her jaw was a’shattered, held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain.

    But I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light of my life — beautiful girl. Now she will

    never be beautiful again.

    [Bonasera breaks down. The Don gestures to Sonny to give Bonasera a drink]

    Sorry…

    [Bonasera, taking the drink, sips from the shot glass]

    I — I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The

    judge sentenced them to three years in prison — suspended sentence. Suspended sentence!

    They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastard,

    they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, “for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

    VITO CORLEONE (sitting behind his desk, petting a cat)

    Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?

    BONASERA

    What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.

    VITO CORLEONE

    What is that?

    [Bonasera gets up to whisper his request into Don Corleone’s ear]

    That I cannot do.

    • Malibo Jackk

      In the book, he’s a funeral director.
      He goes to Corleone to ask this favor
      — and he’s nervous because he knows he’s dealing with the devil here.
      He also knows how the system works. They’re Italians — a favor for a favor.
      He knows that Corleone will come to him some day, expecting a favor in return.

      In the movie, they leave out one of the most amazing scenes from the book.
      One night there’s a knock at Bonasera’s door. It wakes him up. It’s late. An ungodly hour.
      He goes to answer the door — and Corleone is there.
      And Bonasera is terrified. The devil has come to him in the middle of the night.
      The devil want his favor. What monstrous thing does Corleone want from him?
      In a sad voice, Corleone makes his request
      — “I need you to bury my son.”

      (The next chapter flashes back, explaining how Sonny was killed.

      • maxi1981

        That would have been a great scene in the movie. Although this scene does happen in the movie but in an entirely different way though i might add.

    • heyho

      Hello, grendl.

      Tell us more about “The Godfather.”

      • maxi1981

        Hey, heyho, sorry to disappoint but I’m too nice to be Grendl. I just really love the first two Godfathers and think this scene is incredibly effective and ticks off most of Carson’s boxes, except for the fact that it is has a hugely tense monologue and sets up the key character of the trilogy.

    • Casper Chris

      Pretty average scene. Not even close to the best opening.

      • maxi1981

        Which in your view is a better or more iconic opening scene in a movie or in any of the the other two Godfather movies?

        • Casper Chris

          Iconic and best is not the same thing IMO.

          The most iconic opening is probably this:

          My favorite opening is Saving Private Ryan’s D-day landing. Never has one scene captured the insanity of war so perfectly. And there’s so many memorable visuals jammed into it. Talk about opening with a bang.

          In terms of a more modest opening that is more akin to your Godfather scene (yet still runs circles around it), I’d point to the opening of Inglorious Basterds. A Nazi officer questions a French farmer who’s hiding jews underneath the very floorboards where they’re sitting. You don’t even have to watch the scene to know it’s going to be good. Dramatic irony at its finest.

          • maxi1981

            I love Kubrick and I think 2001 A.S.O is brilliant but I’m talking about an opening that actually feeds directly in to what the premise of the story is all about. Inglorious Basterds opening scene has its merits but you know from the get go what will happen by the end of it, unless you haven’t ever heard of the nazis. You look at this Godfather scene and you are innmersed into a world that you know nothing about, and which sets up everything that will come afterwards. nd let alone the way the scene is set up, the acting by Brando, THE CAT, the lighting or lack thereof, Bonasera’s monologue, etc. W e dont need any music, special effects or crazy shock or mystery in it.

  • astranger2

    Norman Bates unequivocally is the protagonist of Psycho. As Michael Corleone is the protag of The Godfather. But Brenkilco is mistaken, imho, that he is introduced 45 minutes later as such in the hospital scene.

    He is introduced as the protagonist in the wedding scene, about five minutes in, where he sits in full marine regalia with his upright wasp wife — in stark contrast to the surrounding “gumba” badda-bing, silk-suited, wine-swigging and ass-slapping crowd — his chin turned up in obvious disdain.

    His wife questions who the crude, simple brute is talking to himself. Michael answers with exaggerated self-righteousness, explaining to Kay as she watches Luca Brasi mumble…

    He tells her the Johnny Fontaine bandleader story — ending it with one of the most iconic lines in film history, ‘my father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

    A shocked, silent Kay waits for Michael’s further explanation, “that’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”

    … maybe that’s a “tell,” as they say in poker parlance… of who the main character is… five minutes in…

    If you don’t know whose story it is after that scene, with that dialogue… I have a trunkful of beads, and a bridge in Brooklyn to sell ya… ; v )

    • brenkilco

      Yes, of course everybody knows the non-refusable offer scene. I wasn’t implying that we don’t meet Michael at the wedding. But for a considerable time after this scene Michael is on the periphery of the action. Youve got the horse’s head, the Solozzo negotiation, the attempt on the Don’s life, the kidnapping of Tom Hagen, the pow wow with the copo regimes, the execution of Paulie. Only in the hospital scene- at least forty five minutes into the movie-where Michael protects his father and specifically only at the moment where he lights the cigarette and realizes his hands aren’t shaking does the film pivot and become his story. I’m not faulting the construction. Just pointing out that the theme Grendl was suggesting was immediately apparent in fact takes some time to emerge.

  • brenkilco

    It all depends on the story but I love delayed entrances that are managed well. I think Orson Welles is in The Third Man for all of three scenes. But he’s given an amazing buildup and the greatest entrance in movie history, complete with spotlight, and we think of him as the star of the film. They could have started Dr. No with Sean Connery walking into M’s office but then we never would have met Bond, James Bond.

  • brenkilco

    Being contrary in a movie comment thread? Surely, you jest. I think the openings of these three films- vastly different though they are- are all as just right as baby bear’s porridge. We might disagree slightly on why they work so well. Maybe my general irritation stems from the sense in this whole discussion that a movie opening must be contrived to create some immediate artificial interest. I think if a writer has a good story to tell and finds a natural beginning for it,the interest will be there.

  • Marija ZombiGirl

    I’m happy when I’m writing :)
    If it’s only painful, maybe the writer should be doing somerhing else.
    I can’t recall who said something along the lines of “I don’t like to write, I like to have written.” I love the creative process as a whole, however difficult and frustrating it may be. But how can you be entirely satisfied with the end result if you didn’t enjoy how you got there ? To me, it’s not the final destination that counts, it’s the journey. There are so many things to take away from every script we write – personal and professional – and I wouldn’t want to miss a single one.

  • K.B. Houston

    Disagree entirely about the comma before the name thing. That’s a matter of style, a choice. E.B. White may be considered the father of contemporary style, but he’s only one person with an opinion. There is no definitive, all-encompassing, accumulative style guide to the English language. I’ve worked at several different newspapers that have different policies on commas. I’ve had teachers with different policies on commas. After studying the craft of writing for over five years, I’ve gathered my own style — and one thing I will NEVER do is place an arbitrary comma before someone’s name simply because a dead guy told me that’s what I’m supposed to do.

    My theory on commas is this: Use them primarily for stylistic pauses, organization and to avoid confusion. You need commas to draw distinctions between items in a list and to separate words that could be confusing together. Otherwise, they’re often overused and unnecessary.

    If I’m a talent evaluator, grammar and punctuation is obviously an area of concern; but if the script I’m reading blows me out of the water, that’s all the matters.

    Moral of the story: Read writing books like The Elements of Style, On Writing, On Writing Well, etc., write a lot, form your own style guide (a pragmatic one preferably), watch lots of movies, read lots of scrips, and you have nothing to worry about. You’ll see the big picture after you put in the work.

  • Ambrose*

    Carson, your example of no comma before a name (Jake) is, unfortunately, surprisingly common it seems nowadays.
    That small punctuation mark may be a seemingly insignificant thing but it’s absence never fails to jar my eye while reading.
    I guess the problem may well go back to high school and those writers not learning proper English usage.
    And the more scripts, professional or not, that get by with sloppy basics like that, and get out there for other young writers to read and emulate, will probably only exacerbate the situation.
    I hope we don’t see the day when ‘i’ instead of ‘I’, or other Twitter-type shortcuts, becomes common in scripts.