The Opening Scene is the Hero Your Screenplay Deserves

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.

TEASER

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.

THEME

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.

TONE

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.

CHARACTER

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

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.

THE AMALGAM

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.

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tlTim 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

How Plot Can Kill Your Character

by Tim Long (@ScreenplayStory)

Every story begins at your Initial Stimulus – that spark of an idea that captured your imagination. The thing that got you excited and revved up. That initial flash of creativity you just knew would make for a great movie idea.

Initial Stimulus is also something much deeper, though. Simply put, it’s your inspired connection to that basic story idea.

Having an inspired connection to your story idea is significant because inspiration is significant. It’s important to recognize that inspiration comes from passion, whereas motivation does not. When you’re motivated to do something, you want to accomplish that objective and then move on.

Inspiration is much more profound than motivation because it stems from passion. As such, it causes you to personally invest in what you’re working on, to connect to it emotionally. In short, motivation can be fleeting, while passion always endures.

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TYPES OF INITIAL STIMULUS

The Initial Stimulus can come to us in many different forms. It can be an intriguing character, like the dark side of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. It can be fascinating subject matter or an event that interests you, such as the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, Selma, or one woman’s inspiring activism portrayed in Erin Brockovich.

Or the Initial Stimulus can just be a simple “what if” that comes from the ether of your own imagination. What if a serial killer used the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi? That’s the “what if” behind the film Seven with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.

No matter how it comes to you, though, it’s important to understand the psychological impact that the Initial Stimulus has on the overall creative process. Having an inspired connection to your story idea is crucial to story development.

Why? Because it’s the driving force behind why you want to tell a particular story. It’s the momentum that will sustain you throughout the lengthy process of developing and writing a feature length screenplay.

And it’s also the thing that can cause your story to crash and burn, killing your character in the process.

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THE PITFALL OF INITIAL STIMULUS

Having taught Screenwriting at the MFA level for almost two decades, as well as having professionally consulted on north of five-hundred screenplays and films, I can say that a pervasive mistake I see all too often is that the writer gets so excited about their Initial Stimulus, that they instantly jump in and start plotting, never stopping to first define the single most important building block of story – character.

Character is the narrative cornerstone in building a screenplay with emotional resonance that an audience can connect with. Jumping right in and plotting your story is the equivalent of eagerly hopping into your car to go somewhere cool and exciting… Only to have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. It doesn’t make any sense.

So why do screenwriters do this then? Two reasons.

First, because plotting a movie is one of the more creatively exciting parts of the entire story development process. It’s one of the things that gets the artistic adrenaline pumping. It’s enjoyable to do.

Second, as people we tend to be vertical thinkers, so sequencing and creating order (or plotting) is something that is intuitive. It comes naturally to us.

Think about it: if a person looks up at the stars at night, the first thing their mind will do is to form shapes and patterns out of the stars. The reason being is, they’re intuitively trying to make order out of chaos. It’s called, Pareidolia, which is where the mind perceives a familiar pattern where none actually exists. This is actually hardwired in us as humans.

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THE NEGATIVE EFFECT OF PLOTTING FIRST

This natural instinct of wanting to jump in and instantly create order by plotting our screenplay, well it ends up causing all sorts of narrative repercussions.

Most notably, of course, we end up with un-compelling characters that are afterthoughts – ones that lack authenticity. Instead, they become broad characterizations that are devices solely needed to serve our plot. Human chess pieces being moved around in a story in order to oblige a plot’s end result. Which is hands-down the quickest way to cut the life of your screenplay short.

Not to mention, by putting the cart (plot) before the horse (character), we often end up losing track of that inspired connection (Initial Stimulus) we originally had with the basic story idea to begin with!

All of this is why there are more unfinished screenplays than finished ones. More first drafts that never see the light of day than do. And more just plain bad spec scripts out there than good ones.

So as you begin to develop your story idea, always remember that once you have your Initial Stimulus in place… Stop! Resist that urge to jump in and start plotting the story. Fight that feeling of wanting to instantly work on plot. Instead, first develop and define the key building block of all successful stories – character.

In doing so, you’ll be able to better craft a plot that has emotional resonance that an audience can connect with.

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tlTim 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

Heart: The Emotional Glue that Binds Us to Story

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by Tim Long (@ScreenplayStory)

With over twenty-five years of professional story development and screenwriting experience, and nearly two decades of teaching screenwriting at the MFA level, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on hundreds of screenplays and films.

During my career, hands down the most common problem I see in screenplays is that they lack an emotional core, or what I call…

Heart.

I define Heart as what the audience gets out of your screenplay, the emotional takeaway that moves them.

Think of Heart as being what the story is really about. Not the plot. But the universal experience that all people can relate to. One that moves the reader on an emotional level.

Take losing a loved-one, for example. Go to any country in the world, from the biggest city to the smallest village, and the people there will relate to losing a loved-one. The reason being is that losing a loved-one is a universal emotion and shared human experience.

As humans, in one form or another, we’ve all experienced losing someone we love. It’s part of our collective conscience. It’s an emotion that transcends cultural barriers by being universal. And that universality touches on the larger human experience. That’s why it’s so relatable to us.

Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, watch movies to feel something. That’s what makes screenplays and films so powerful, their ability to move an audience. Whether it’s to laugh, or cry, or be afraid, they want… the experience of emotion.

Professional writers and directors know that human beings instinctively connect to emotion (and not to a sequence of events, which is plot). And that’s the visceral effect that Heart has on story. It’s what makes the audience relate and feel. It’s what the audiences gets out of your screenplay or film. It’s their emotional takeaway from the experience of story.

Think about the film, About a Boy with Hugh Grant. The plot of the film is, a thirty-eight-year-old wealthy slacker passes himself off as a single father as a way to date single moms so he can fulfill his selfish sexual needs.

That’s the plot of the movie, the external ride that the audience goes on.

But the Heart of the story, the emotional core of the film is, a selfish, immature man is taught how to act like a grown-up by a little boy. The boy helped Hugh Grant’s character realize over the course of the film that other people are necessary in his life, and that caring about other people gives his life genuine meaning.

That’s what the audience internally got out of the external ride they went on. It’s what they relate to and feel. It’s the emotional glue that binds them to the plot.

And to find your story’s Heart, you need only look to your main character. While there are certainly exceptions, Heart is almost always a direct result of your main character’s growth, or lack there of, throughout the story.

Growth is defined as the internal change your character goes through during the course of the narrative. It’s the personal difficulty they undergo, during which they struggle with and overcome, or not overcome, some type of internal issue.

These can come in a myriad of different forms and amalgams. They can be emotional, intellectual, psychological, spiritual, an inadequacy, or just some internal wound that needs to be healed.

Think about it, the films that move us most, I’m talking about the ones that stay with us for years, the ones we can watch over and over again, are those inhabited by people who can rise above their own weaknesses. As well as those who can’t.

That’s what makes them so intriguing as characters. The personal difficulties they struggle with, and the resulting growth (or lack thereof) from it, is what makes them so memorable to us as an audience.

Character growth can be a positive change, usually coming in the form of an uplifting ending. Or a negative change, usually in the form of a tragedy.

In the film Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character started as a cocky, troubled kid living an emotionally safe existence – one where he pushed people away before they ever had a chance to leave him, and in doing so he avoided being in a situation where he himself might get hurt. He went from being like that… to a young man able to abandon that identity, trust others, and commit to a new life in a new city with the girl he loved.

This formed the Heart of the story. It’s what we as an audience internally got out of the ride we went on. It was the emotional takeaway that moved us. And it came in the form of a positive change and an uplifting ending.

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Now let’s take the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson’s character went from being a happy-go-lucky guy trying to game the prison system by pretending to be crazy… to a man capable of nearly murdering Nurse Ratched, which ultimately led to his lobotomy and death. A Heart that was a negative change and tragic ending.

It’s important to point out here that a character’s growth can be hugely transformational, like Schindler in Schindler’s List going from being a greedy war profiteer indifferent to the plight of the Jewish people… to a man who risked his own life to save thousands of people from certain death. Growth, however, can also come in much more subtle forms. Especially in genre films.

Take Jodie Foster’s character in the film Panic Room. She goes from being a vulnerable, fragile divorcee on her own for the first time in her life… to a woman who takes charge and fights to save her family. That was her growth as a character. One that came in a subtle yet still relatable form.

Whichever the case, transformational or subtle, remember that a character’s growth will usually lead you to the Heart of your screenplay. That proverbial emotional glue that binds us all to story.

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tlTim 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

 

The 3 Psychological Characteristics of an Engaging Character

by Tim Long (@ScreenplayStory)

If you analyze screenplays and films you are bound to find commonalities that exist among the ones that are successful and the ones that aren’t. A consistent commonality I see time and time again is that of character. In particular, there are three ubiquitous yet distinguishing features that all compelling characters seem to share in successful screenplays and films.

What makes these three characteristics so significant is their respective psychological effects on an audience, as well as their functional effects on story. In short, all three characteristics contain a universal principle that resonates with us as individual characters ourselves. Let’s touch on each one of them…

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DISTINCTION

Distinction is the idea of difference. It’s what makes your character different and unique to the audience. People by nature are organically drawn to anything that is new or different – sights, sounds, experiences, etc. We’re actually predisposed to the concept of distinction without being conscious of it.

This psychology also plays out with respects to the characters in our screenplays. Distinction within a character is what piques our interest and causes us to want to know more about the person. It’s the unconscious prompt that draws us into their world. And it can come in many different forms. It can be a specific personality, a contradiction, a talent, an aspiration, an idiosyncrasy, a job, a character flaw, or an amalgam of several things.

Ryan Gosling’s character in the film Drive is a terrific example of this at play. He’s a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. That flaw is what made him totally distinctive to us as an audience. It’s what draws us to him right from the get-go. It’s what generates the requisite intrigue that aroused our interest in him as a unique individual.

Or take Steve Carell’s character in the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin. His distinction lies in the title itself. A normal, kindhearted man who hasn’t had a sexual encounter, not for some specific personal or religious reason, but because he just gave up trying, is curiosity Valhalla. It compels us to want to know more about him as a character.

Or think about Clint Eastwood’s character in the Academy Award winning film Unforgiven. He’s a former outlaw and killer who has been transformed by marriage. Being a repentant murderer trying to do right by his children coupled with his violent past is an aspiration and backstory that coalesced into a truly distinctive character. One that coaxed us into the story and caused us to want to know more about him.

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EMPATHY

As people we connect with other people through empathy. Our innate ability to sense other people’s emotions, as well as to imagine what someone else might be feeling, is hardwired in us as a species.

When we see a child crying tears of joy as they reunite with their returning military mom or dad, and we notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy. When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel a need to help, that’s empathy.

Empathy is what moves us to share in another’s struggle, to really see the world through their eyes. It’s our capacity to identify with the feelings and concerns other people have. Studies have shown that recognizing emotion in others is a way we feel with other people. Meaning, empathy allows us to look at others and feel that they are somewhat like… well, us.

Understanding this facet of intrinsic human nature is the key that unlocks your character’s relatability to an audience. How so? Because in order for the audience to connect with your character, they have to connect with something in themselves that knows what your character is feeling. Simply put, your character gives you the ability to create empathy, and empathy allows the audience to personally connect to your character and their story.

Let’s go back to Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive. His desire of wanting to help his neighbor out of a violent situation, despite the fact that he’s falling in love with the man’s wife, is something we can empathize with. That sacrifice and emotional duality is what caused us to relate to him as a human being. It’s what propels a personal connection in us as an audience.

Or Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. After learning that he’s still a virgin, his friends rekindle a desire in him to get back into the game. However, he wants more than sex — he’s looking for companionship. And that’s a universal human need that we can all relate to. It’s what produces an empathetic connection in us as an audience.

Or Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven. Externally, his desire to provide a better life for his motherless children by doing one last killing and collecting a bounty allows us to easily empathize with him. Internally, his fear of collecting a bounty by having to kill two cowboys, which in turn might cause him to revert back to being the man he used to be, generates an additional level of connective empathy. Not wanting to become the man he once was allows us to relate to him on a much deeper level. What’s truly impressive is that we empathize despite the fact that he was a known thief and murderer. And that’s the power that empathy has on us.

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IMPETUS

A character’s impetus is defined as the “why” behind their desire in the form of an internal motivation. It’s the driving force behind that desire. It’s the thing that is personally motivating them to attain their desire.

As previously mentioned, Ryan Gosling’s desire was wanting to help his neighbor out of a violent situation, despite the fact that he’s falling in love with the man’s wife. So what’s his impetus? What’s personally motivating him to want to attain that desire? What’s his why?

The answer lies in a key scene where Gosling has dinner with the neighbor, the neighbor’s wife, and their young son. It’s here Gosling sees a hint of happiness in the man’s wife as her husband reminiscences on how they became a family.

It’s also here that we as an audience realize Gosling wants the man’s wife to be happy and he recognizes that part of her happiness lies in wanting to keep her family together because her son loves his father. And that’s the personal motivation that causes us an audience to invest in Gosling’s character.

In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell wants to get back into the game in hopes of finding companionship. So what’s his impetus? What his why? It’s rooted in the fact that he’s been alone for so long that he’s filled his world with inanimate man-child objects in order to make his life happy. Only he has no one to share his stuff with. His only friends are an old couple he watches Survivor with.

Wanting intimate companionship is the impetus that drove him to get back in the game. It’s what endeared us to him and made us invest in his story.

In Unforgiven William Munny’s desire was to provide a better life for his motherless children. So what’s the impetus behind that desire? What’s the thing that’s personally motivating him to attain that? What’s his why?

It’s an impetus that’s both simple and thoughtful enough for us to invest in. Like all parents he wants his children to have a better life than he had. And a better life than they’re currently living, which is eking out a struggling existence on a tiny, failing pig farm in the middle of nowhere.

Distinction, empathy, and impetus are the psychological cornerstones in crafting a compelling character with emotional resonance. So as you begin to develop your character, always remember…

Distinction draws the audience in. Empathy makes the audience relate. And Impetus keeps the audience invested.

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tlTim 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

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