This Is What a Reader Wants to See on Page 1 of Your Screenplay


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

“Anticipation of pleasure is a pleasure in itself.” – Sylvia Townsend Warner

In life and in storytelling, anticipation is powerful. It’s a key component of tension, which we know is important throughout your story.

Yet it seems like the idea of creating anticipation gets overlooked in one particular conversation: when we’re talking about the first scene (aka the Opening Image) of your screenplay.

What we need the screenplay’s first few pages to do

Blake wrote about first scenes (which he labeled the Opening Image) in Save the Cat! He summed it up pretty well as, “The very first impression of what a movie is – its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film.”

These are the things that probably come to mind first when you think of what the Opening Image should do. But there’s an important part that I think gets overlooked. (This is still Blake in STC):

“But mostly what it does is get us to scrunch down in our seats in the movie theater and say: “This is gonna be good!”

That’s the anticipation we’re looking for. We want to be excited about the movie we’re about to see. And part of that comes when we get hit with the thrilling realization that what we’re reading is a movie.

Deliver a movie on the page

The first pages of your screenplay must show us that it isn’t just a well-written document – it’s a movie waiting to happen.

Establishing tone, mood, and world is part of that, of course. But sometimes writers get caught up in using the first scene only to set the tone and mood. We need to also feel that there’s a movie in front of us, about to unfold.

Otherwise the feeling we get isn’t excitement, it’s more like – “When is something going to happen? Is there even a movie here?” If that happens, the reader will get bored and may opt out.

An industry reader – like a producer or manager – is reading with purpose. They’re looking for projects, or writers who can generate viable projects. They’re looking for movies, not screenplays. So your screenplay needs to prove to us it’s a movie, excite us about the movie it is, and entice us to keep reading.

So in addition to setting the tone and mood, make sure to also show us that a movie exists in those pages. Prove it’s a movie by thinking cinematically and/or dramatically about what you’re showing us. Engage our hearts or minds (or both) to entice us to keep reading.

Engage our hearts or minds (or both), cinematically and dramatically

Early in the screenplay, intellectual hooks work as well as emotional hooks (which isn’t always the case later on) so look to both options as you explore how to create anticipation.

Basically, make us feel something right away — and curiosity counts.

Intellectual or emotional engagement in the first scene creates anticipation because it opens a loop in our minds. Like the story itself poses a question, the first scene’s open loop teases us along until the loop is satisfied and closed.

So make us feel something: empathy for a character, longing for romance, fear of potential horrors, delight or amusement and primed for more laughs. Or pique our interest or curiosity, intrigue us with a question or puzzle that we need to know the answer to.

Once you know what you want to show us, think about how to present it so that it’s movie-worthy. Make it cinematic and/or dramatic. Is it visual? Is something happening? Is there something fresh and unique about the scene – either the situation itself or your angle on it? (For more tips in this area, check out the Fix Your First 10 Pages PDF.

See it in action

In a screenplay like Thirteen Lives you can see how each of the things we’ve talked about comes through on the page.

It establishes the world of the story as the story is in progress. It doesn’t make us wait as it builds the world, tone, and mood first and then starts the story. It starts moving the pieces on the board, creating a sense of mounting dread.

The very first scene also begins to introduce us to the characters, show relationship dynamics, and reveal personalities so that we begin to emotionally engage with them.

By page 5, I feel tense. I’m worried about these kids. And I’m anticipating the movie I’m about to see and the specific kind of genre entertainment it’s offering.

Even in something like Crazy Stupid Love, where the appeal of the movie is less about spectacle, it gives us a cinematic presentation. There’s something unique and visual about the scene. It’s dramatic within the tone and genre. It’s funny (genre entertainment) but also creates empathy for the protagonist so that we begin to emotionally engage and lean in to see what happens next.

Protagonist introduction tricks

As you might have noticed, many first scenes (though not all) introduce us to the protagonist. You can use the protagonist introduction tricks here to find ways to hook us into the character, which effectively hooks us into the story. When we’re engaged by the character, we begin to anticipate what will happen to them.

Are we excited about what’s to come?

The first scene in your screenplay has several things to accomplish, but what it all comes down to is really telling the reader, “This is the movie you’re about to see,” and presenting that in a way that gets us excited to see it.

Establishing the tone, mood, type, and scope are all things that create anticipation for the movie to come. But don’t overlook the task of showing us that the screenplay really is a movie.

Hook us in by engaging us emotionally or intellectually (or both). Deliver the type of entertainment your movie promises. Thrill us with the experience of the movie on the page.

And do it from the very first page so we’re as excited to be reading your screenplay as we will be to scrunch down in our seats to watch your movie.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.