blog

3 Ways to Tackle Your Screenplay’s Opening Scene

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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.

Subscribe
As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

This week I’ve been road-tripping so I’ve had time to catch up on some podcasts, including Script Notes episode #493 wherein John and Craig discuss opening scenes.

It’s worth a listen (as their episodes always are) because they bring up several good points that writers should be thinking about when it comes to opening scenes.

In particular, John and Craig make a few observations about common issues with opening scenes. If you’ve read screenplays for friends or other aspiring writers, you may have noticed these yourself.

The one that seems most common is the meek start. In a lot of new writers’ screenplays, the first scene feels lackluster. Like the script is ramping up but not quite going yet.

In the same way individual scenes often need the “get in late, get out early” note, the screenplay as a whole can suffer from a similar issue. Sometimes the first scene itself feels like it could be lopped off entirely so as to start the script a bit closer to the real action.

This issue probably comes from the endless possibilities you have at your disposal. With every option open to you, what’s the best way to start the script? It can feel like throwing darts in the dark.

So this week let’s talk about a few different strategies for coming up with an effective opening scene.

John & Craig’s thoughts on opening scenes

A few of the points John and Craig bring up about what an opening should accomplish:

John: “…in many ways we now look for these opening scenes, opening sequences, to really be like a trailer for the movie you’re about to see. They’re really setting stuff up and getting you excited to watch this movie you’re about to watch…”

Craig: “Sometimes the opening is just about meeting a person. And you are accentuating the lack of story.”

John: “So from a story perspective you’re generally meeting characters. If you’re not meeting your central character you’re meeting another character who is important or a character who represents an important part of the story.”

Craig: “But sometimes it’s OK to make this opening its own thing that announces something about the world and then we catch up to the people that we know and care about.”

John: “You’re hopefully learning about the tone of this piece. And what it feels like to be watching this movie. The setting of this world. How the movie kind of works. And some of the rules of this world. Like if you’re in a fantasy universe is there magic? How does gravity work? What are the edges of what this kind of movie can be?”

These are great points (and not just because they go hand-in-hand with my own thoughts on how to open a script). I’ve written before about starting a script with a focus on character and if you pay attention you’ll probably notice that’s the most common, effective way to begin. But there are a couple other strategies we see used a lot and to great effect, as well, so let’s talk about those too.

3 common types of effective opening scenes

There are three angles that are most common for opening scenes to take:

1. Protagonist:

The first 10 pages need to firmly establish character so we’re primed for the story you’re about to tell us, and often that means the opening scene will introduce us to the protagonist in a way that establishes their defining characteristic and what’s important to them (related to their story stakes). I talk about this at length here.

Examples: Bridesmaids, Silence of the Lambs, Die Hard, Silver Linings Playbook, Soul, Promising Young Woman

This is a great strategy for getting the audience to engage with and invest in the protagonist right away.

2. Main conflict:

If we’re not entering the story through the protagonist, another efficient way to bring us in is through the main conflict. That might be through introducing the antagonist, or through establishing what the forces of opposition are currently up to.

Examples: Jaws, The Dark Knight, The Ring, Sound of Metal

This strategy has the benefit of making us feel like the action is starting right away. We’re don’t have that laggy feeling of waiting for the story to start, because we can feel the working parts of the main conflict being established right away (even though it doesn’t start in earnest until the Inciting Incident).

3. Entertainment hook:

As John alludes to in his comments about establishing tone and rules of the world, sometimes movies begin with a bit of spectacle that introduces (or reinforces) the main entertainment value the movie offers – what we came to see.

Examples: Charlie’s Angels, Blade Runner, Bond movies, very often

This strategy is great for showcasing what’s exciting and unique to your story. It lets the audience know right away that you’re going to deliver on their expectations and make it worth their while.

How to choose your opening scene

A few final bits of advice from John and Craig on this topic:

John: “Sometimes I think the best approach would be to figure out where your story overall wants to go before you write that opening scene. Because so often you can be sort of trapped in that opening scene and love that opening scene but it’s not actually doing the best job possible establishing the rest of the things you want to do in your story.”

Craig: “The beginning is the end, the end is the beginning. Know them both. It will help you define that opening scene much, much more sharply.”

Approaching your opening scene as part of a set, a pair of bookends for your story, will give you a framework for thinking about what it should accomplish. Keep in mind that stories are usually about transformation, so show us a change or contrast between the beginning and the end that speaks to what your movie is really about.

And use the three types of opening scenes covered above as prompts to brainstorm possibilities for your script. That will give you a place to start, a way to generate ideas, and perhaps some options you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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.

Subscribe