Your Screenplay’s True Hero? The Opening Scene

In the competitive world of screenwriting, industry readers judge your script in the first few pages.

Openings are a vital part of a successful screenplay and film. Not only do they give 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 your storyworld. Let’s touch on a few pivotal ones:

The tricky teaser

As a former industry reader, I’ll be the first to concede that ever since Steven Spielberg’s 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 not done effectively. 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.

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 them wanting more.

'Memento' opening scene

Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) 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 next.

David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) 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 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 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 downtown part of the city?

These questions are the spark that ignites the fire of interest in the audience. They long for answers and will continue watching to get them.

The hard truth is, most professional readers, development execs, and reps make a value judgment on your screenplay within the first 5-10 pages.

Setting up the theme

Openings can also be used to set up a story’s theme. Take Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992). The opening is a credit sequence depicting a Marine Corps drill team in action. Their synchronized emphasize not only  their disciplined training, but their ability to work together as a single unified force–a machine of precision with one objective in mind, which is to bring honor to the Marine Corps. This sequence sets up honor as the film’s central theme.

Another salient example is the film Lord of War (sequence above), which opens on Nicolas Cage’s character standing in a sea of spent bullet cartridges in a war torn, third-world country. He’s oddly wearing a business suit as he turns to address the audience, stating, “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 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.

Establishing this tone in the opening scene enables the filmmakers to get as absurd as they want to without losing the audience.

Establishing the tone

The tone of a film established in the first few minutes causes an unconscious expectation to form in the audience’s mind as to how they should view the rest of the work. Is it serious? Funny? Somber? Light-hearted?

The Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary (1998) 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. Establishing this tone in the opening scene enables the filmmakers to get as absurd as they want to without losing the audience.

Goodfellas opening
The infamous trunk from the opening scene of 'Goodfellas'

Conversely, the opening of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) 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 to death. This graphic opening thrusts the audience headfirst into the gritty world of organized crime. It establishes a clear tone that informs the audience from the start to expect violent realism.

The opening scene of Se7en speaks volumes about Freeman’s character without ever actually uttering a word.

Introducing your characters

Openings are often used to begin setting up the main character/s. David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) opens with a series five simple shots. This sequence lets us learn a lot about Morgan Freeman’s character, in just a few seconds, without any dialog.

From the soundscape, we know that he lives in a big city. We know he’s a cop. In fact, from the gold badge he wears, we know he’s more than a just beat cop—he’s a detective. We know that he’s meticulous by the way he lays out his stuff in order on the bed, and picks at a piece of lint from his jacket. We know he’s probably single and lives alone. And we know he likely has a dark side, in that he carries a switchblade. The opening scene speaks volumes about Freeman’s character without ever actually uttering a word.

Kevin Spacey House of Cards
Kevin Spacey as the sinister Frank Underwood in 'House of Cards'

Or take the opening scene of the Netflix series 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 as 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.

You can use your opening to reveal some of these details, thus intriguing the audience about your character from the get-go.  

Revealing the Backstory

Backstory is a character’s relevant history prior to the start of the story. In other words, the story before the story. You can use your opening to reveal some of these details, thus intriguing the audience about your character from the get-go.  

Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) opens with a single silhouette of Eastwood’s character digging his wife’s grave. A scroll card reveals that he 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, the emotional opening (sequence above) 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 opening sequence is a snapshot of your writing and storytelling ability.

....Or D., All of the Above

As you might have gathered thus far, great openings are actually an amalgam of several key narrative functions.

The opening of Goodfellas not only established the gritty tone of the film, but it’s a compelling teaser as well, 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.

Fight Club opens on an awesome teaser, but it’s also used to establish 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 sequence, don’t take it lightly. It’s a snapshot of your writing and storytelling ability—the first impression that will establish either a positive or negative tone 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 feature film projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award® winning and nominated producers. He’s also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and taught screenwriting for nearly two decades at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, a game-changing screenplay development process. Follow him on Twitter.

Featured image from 'Jaws.'

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