by Tim Long (@ScreenplayStory)
In the competitive world of screenwriting, where industry readers judge your script in the first few pages, openings are a vital part of a successful screenplay and film.
Not only are they important first impressions of your writing ability, they also serve a variety of narrative purposes that can raise the storytelling bar by instantly immersing the reader into the world of your screenplay or film. Let’s touch on a few pivotal opening scene types.
As a former industry reader, I’ll be the first to concede that ever since Jaws did it successfully back in the 70s, having your opening scene be a teaser is overdone and can be considered a screenwriting cliché. However, it’s only a cliché if done ineffectively. Executed correctly, it can be a powerful storytelling technique.
The hard truth is that most professional readers, development execs, and reps make a value judgment on your screenplay within the first 5-10 pages. (As do they the first few minutes of your film.) If your story and writing haven’t hooked them by then, it’s a knife in the gut of the read that will turn your screenplay into a corpse of creativity. Utilizing a teaser opening scene can help prevent that.
What is a teaser? It’s simply an opening moment, scene, or sequence intended to hook the audience from the get-go by generating curiosity and/or conflict that leaves the audience wanting more.
The film Memento with Guy Pearce is a terrific example of this at play. The opening scene reveals a Polaroid of a dead man that slowly begins to fade away as we then start to realize that the entire scene we’re watching is happening in reverse.
The audience has no idea what’s going on, but the opening generates such amazing curiosity by raising so many questions, that it’s almost impossible not to continue to watch what comes after that first scene.
David Fincher’s Fight Club is another solid example of the usage of a teaser. We float through the synapses of a human brain, exit out through sweating pores on a forehead, continue to pull back down the barrel of a gun to reveal that the weapon is shoved in the mouth of Edward Norton’s character who narrates, “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
The non-linear scene immediately seizes our attention by drawing us in through the vehicle of curiosity. Who’s Tyler Durden? Why does this guy have a gun shoved in his mouth? Why is Brad Pitt’s character going to blow up the city?
These questions are the spark that ignites the fire of interest in the audience who want answers, and will continue watching to get them.
Openings can also be used to set up a story’s theme. Take the film A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise. The opening is a credit sequence depicting a Marine Corps drill team in action. Their synchronized moves not only emphasize their disciplined training, but the scene also shows them working together as a single unified force – a machine of precision with one objective in mind, which is to bring honor to the Marine Corps. Honor being the film’s central theme.
Another salient example is the film Lord of War, which opens on Nicolas Cage’s character standing in a sea of spent bullet cartridges in a war-torn third-world country. He’s strangely wearing a business suit as he turns to address the audience by telling us, “There is one firearm for every twelve people on the planet.” We are then launched into a truly amazing first person sequence that follows a single bullet’s journey from a Russian factory to an African war zone, and ultimately into the forehead of a child soldier.
It’s shocking commentary on the horrors of war, and sets up a strong case against guns and gun trafficking, one of the core themes of the film.
In the first few minutes of any screenplay or film, the tone of the story causes an unconscious expectation to form in the audience’s mind as to how they should view the film. Is it serious, funny, somber, light-hearted?
The film There’s Something About Mary with Ben Stiller opens on a tree in front of a high school in a bucolic neighborhood, only to end up revealing two guys up in the tree singing the opening soundtrack and playing instruments.
This oddity established the film’s broad comedic tone. It let the audience know right away not to take the film too seriously, that we’re supposed to sit back and laugh. And by establishing this tone in the opening scene, it allowed the filmmakers to get as absurd as they wanted to without losing the audience.
In Scorsese’s Goodfellas the opening consists of three men quietly driving at night until a noise from the rear of the car interrupts the silence. After pulling over and opening the trunk to reveal a badly beaten and bloody man stuffed inside, the three men then proceed to stab and shoot the man mercilessly.
The graphic opening thrust the audience headfirst into the gritty world of organized crime. It established a clear tone that informed the audience from the get-go that this was going to be no-holds-bared violent realism.
Openings are often used to begin setting up the main character(s). In the film Seven the story opens on five simple shots. In just a few seconds, and without any dialog, we learn a lot about Morgan Freeman’s character.
From the soundscape outside we know that he lives in a big city. We know he’s a cop. From the gold badge we know he’s more than a just beat cop, he’s a detective. We know he’s meticulous by the way he lays out his stuff in order on the bed, and by picking at a piece of lint from his jacket. We know he’s probably single and lives alone by the twin bed he has. And we know he has a dark side because he carries a switchblade.
The opening scene spoke volumes about his character without ever actually uttering a word.
Or take the opening scene of Netflix’s House of Cards. We watch in disbelief as Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood kills a wounded dog. The scene skillfully lays the foundation for Underwood being a Machiavellian sociopath willing to do “the necessary thing,” as Underwood tells us – a personal mantra that will become the essence of his characterization throughout the series.
Backstory is a character’s relevant history prior to the start of the story. In other words, the story before the story.
In the film Unforgiven the opening scene was a single silhouette of Clint Eastwood’s character digging his wife’s grave. A scroll card reveals that Eastwood’s character was a known thief and murderer.
This backstory established an important context for the character and the story to come. Both of which are rooted in violence. It set up the character’s murderous past, which a large part of the narrative is devoted to discussing and exploring at length.
In Pixar’s Up the opening is an extended montage of Carl and Ellie’s life that spans their courtship, marriage, old age, and a broken, unfulfilled dream of adventure that is sadly usurped by Ellie’s passing away.
It’s a poignant and touching backstory that effectively establishes a thematic context for Carl’s story to come, which is cemented in the notion that you’re never too old to make your dreams come true.
As you might have gathered thus far, great openings are actually an amalgam of several narrative functions.
The opening of Goodfellas not only established the gritty tone of the film, but it’s a compelling teaser, and it sets up the violent nature of the characters.
House of Cards not only serves as an engaging teaser that hooks us right away, but it also gives the audience an important insight into Kevin Spacey’s character.
Up’s opening narrative purpose was to reveal backstory, yet it also serves to both set up Carl’s character and the story’s central theme of “Never being too old to make your dreams come true.”
Fight Club opens on an awesome teaser, but it’s also used to set up Edward Norton’s character as craven and inferior. Additionally, some would argue that the opening is also a subtle visual harbinger that signals the start of consciousness for Edward Norton’s character.
However you decide to use your opening, always remember that an opening scene or sequence is a snapshot at your writing and storytelling ability. It’s the first impression that will establish either a positive or negative impression in the reader’s mind for the rest of the read.
And it’s an all-important narrative tool that raises the storytelling bar by drawing the reader in and leaving them wanting more.
Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched projects at the studio level and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award winning and nominated producers. Mr. Long is also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and was Head of the MFA Screenwriting Program at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, an online, interactive screenwriting course. Follow him on Twitter @screenplaystory