3 Types of Opening Scenes to Use in Your Screenplay


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

Movies with really great opening scenes make it look easy. Bridesmaids. Inglourious Basterds. La La Land. There Will Be Blood. Drive.

There’s a certain elegance to them. Inevitability, even, in the way they set the tone, draw us into the world, and hook our attention for the ride to come.

It’s a high bar to aim for. But worth aiming for because a great opening scene does so much to start your relationship with your reader on the right foot. If your reader isn’t someone you already know, your screenplay may be the first opportunity to make an impression and start to build a connection. So you want an opening scene that leaves no doubt in their mind that you’re a screenwriter to pay attention to.

Unfortunately, one of the most common problems of screenplays is a weak opening scene. Why?

With endless possibilities, choosing the best opening scene can feel like a shot in the dark

It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options, choose a first scene “for now,” and then never return to it to come up with something better. Then the placeholder becomes the permanent, and the first scene feels lackluster.

Sometimes the underlying problem is one of “ramping up.” 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. The first scene itself feels like it could be lopped off entirely so as to start the script closer to the real action.

Other times the first scene is simply not as effective as it could be. With so much to accomplish in Act 1 – so much context to establish – no scene should be wasted. Your opening scene (like every scene) should contribute something vital to the screenplay to justify its presence. But what, exactly?

This week let’s talk about 3 common types of effective opening scenes. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive or limiting. Think of these three types as starting points for you to strategize the best opening scene for your screenplay.

1. Start with the protagonist

Examples: Bridesmaids, Silence of the Lambs, Die Hard, Silver Linings Playbook, Soul, Promising Young Woman, There Will Be Blood, Baby Driver and Drive

I’ve written before about starting a script with a focus on character and it’s maybe the most common way to begin.

In general, the first 10 pages of a script need to firmly establish character so we’re primed for the story you’re about to tell us. Often that means the opening scene will introduce us to the protagonist, and do it in a way that conveys their defining characteristic and what’s important to them (related to their story stakes).

When we watch a movie we spend the first few minutes trying to get oriented. A vital aspect of that is figuring out whose story we’re watching. Pointing our focus to the protagonist in the opening scene is a quick and effective way to orient us.

This type of opening scene is also useful for getting the audience to engage with and invest in the protagonist right away (important for getting us invested enough in the story that we don’t flip to another movie), so it makes a lot of sense that it’s such a common way for movies to start.

The challenge here is to get specific. Not just any scene that centers around the protagonist will do.

For example, how many times have you seen the protagonist-wakes-up-and-goes-about-their-normal-day opening scene? Not only have we seen it many times before, it usually doesn’t tell us very much about the character or what’s important about them or to them.

When choosing this type of opening scene, push yourself to go beyond the easy first option. (Especially if it’s one you’ve seen in several other movies.) Focus on the protagonist in a way that reveals the defining characteristic (or “character flaw,” if you prefer), demonstrates what makes the character compelling or entertaining, shows us their inner drive, or all of the above… and more!

2. Start with the main conflict

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

If we’re not entering the story through the protagonist, another efficient way to bring us in is through the main conflict. Often that means introducing the antagonist, but sometimes it’s a more general “what the forces of opposition are currently up to.”

This type of opening scene 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 setup to finish and the story to begin, because we can feel the working parts of the main conflict already in motion in some way. It feels like we’re jumping into the plot, even though it doesn’t start in earnest until the Inciting Incident.

The “teaser” type of opening scene or sequence that we see in a lot of horror and action movies usually lands in this category, and it shouldn’t be overlooked for other genres and story types as well. (Just look how effective it was in Inglourious Basterds.)

3. Start with an entertainment hook

Examples: Charlie’s Angels, Blade Runner, Bond movies, La La Land, The Ring, Baby Driver, and Drive*

Sometimes movies begin with a bit of spectacle that introduces (or reinforces) the main entertainment value the movie offers – what we came to see.

This might be about establishing the world and the rules of the story. It might be a genre set piece, or something related to the movie’s concept.

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

The challenge to look out for when creating this type of opening is making sure that the action isn’t gratuitous. The opening scene should still connect to the story or tell us something important about one of the central characters.

*You’ll notice that there’s a lot of overlap in the types — in particular that a movie that starts with entertainment hook very often also lands in one of the other categories, too. Meaning, they’ll showcase entertainment hook but do so at the same time as establishing protagonist and/or main conflict. Double duty!

How to choose your opening scene

In Scriptnotes episode 493 John and Craig discuss opening scenes, and offer this useful advice:

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 think about how to 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.


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.