In the competitive world of screenwriting (and filmmaking) 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 ones…
As a former industry reader I’ll be the first to concede that ever since Jaws did it successfully way back in the 70’s, 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, 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 hasn’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 an opening scene as a teaser 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.
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The film Memento (written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan) 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 an opening scene as a teaser. We float through the synapses of a human brain, exit out of 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, written by Aaron Sorkin. The opening is a credit sequence depicting a Marine Corps. drill team in action. Their synchronized moves not only emphasize their disciplined training, but it 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, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, 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’re 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, etc.
The film There’s Something About Mary (screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly) 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 establishes the film’s broad comedic tone. It lets 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 allows the filmmakers to get as absurd as they want to without losing the audience.
In Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) 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 proceed to stab and shoot the man mercilessly.
The graphic opening thrusts the audience headfirst into the gritty world of organized crime. It establishes a clear tone that informs the audience from the get-go that this is going to be no-holds-barred violent realism.
Openings are often used to begin setting up the main characters. In the film Seven, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, 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 just a 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 in that he carries a switchblade.
The opening scene speaks volumes about his character without ever actually uttering a word.
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Or take the opening scene of Netflix’s House of Cards (created by Beau Willimon). 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 (written by David Webb Peoples) the opening scene is 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 establishes an important context for the character and the story to come. Both of which are rooted in violence. It sets 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 (screenplay by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter) 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.
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As you might have gathered thus far, great openings are actually an amalgam of several narrative functions.
The opening of Goodfellas not only establishes 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 a 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 of 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 for nearly two decades. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, an online, interactive, screenwriting course. Follow him on Twitter @screenplaystory.