November 28, 2018

Cold Opens: How to Create a Memorable Start to Your Pilot

Whether you’re getting that pilot ready for staffing season or just trying to polish that TV sample, you'll live or die by what happens in the beginning pages of your TV pilot.

How can you hook the reader and set up the world all at once?

It's called a cold open. A great cold open is a surefire way to get a viewer hooked from the start, and to communicate a lot of the tone/story without too much legwork.

It's a lot to accomplish in a really short amount of time. So it's not easy. 

But today we're going to dig deep into the cold open and get at what works and why. 

What is a cold open?

And how can you learn to write a great cold open?

Today we’re going to answer all your cold open questions, and look at some cold open examples, to help you get your pilot started.

Let’s get started!

What is a Cold Open?

The cold open definition is the first few pages of a pilot script. It’s a scene that teases what is to come or is emblematic of the tone of the show to follow.

Sometimes the cold open is called a “teaser.”

Often, the cold open can set up a problem, or theme for the episode.

Cold opens occur in both drama and comedy pilots.

How to Write a Cold Open

When you’re writing a pilot, you want to dedicate the first few pages to setting up the world and getting the reader hooked. Also, it’s proper television format to write with a cold open.

Ideally, your cold open is around five pages long if you’re writing a drama, and only about 1.5 pages if you’re writing a comedy.

There are exceptions to every rule, but those are some general guidelines.

There are three kinds of cold opens. There’s the stand-alone cold open, that won’t have anything to do with the episode but sets up the characters and world. There’s the cold open that actually sets up the gist of the episode that follows.

And lastly, there’s a teaser cold open that actually takes events that happen later in the episode and puts them right up front, so get the reader/viewer excited to figure out who our characters are and how they got in that predicament.

The good old "you're probably wondering how I got here..."

Once you chose which kind of cold open you’re going to write, you need to answer three questions.

  1. Who’s in the scene?
  2. What do they want?
  3. Why do we care if they get it or not?

These questions should help you outline the scene at hand, and then also help you figure out how the cold open attaches to the rest of the episode.

The reason cold opens stand out is that they are short, exciting, and often funny gut-punches. They put us in exactly the right place to want to read/watch more.

They’re the best chance you have to impress someone early on.

And that’s not just about the reading for your script.

The reason all television shows have a cold open is to make sure you don’t change the channel (or the website).

They’re a storied and vital part of TV writing that sets it apart from writing movies.

Sure, each medium relies on powerful opening scenes, but television is where you really need to prove yourself right away

Let’s look at a few cold open examples to inspire your own writing.    

Cold Open Examples in Dramas

First, we need to talk about the most referenced cold open of all time, Breaking Bad.

This cold open is a scene taken directly from the end of the pilot. It serves to directly engage the audience and raise a lot of questions to get them reading.

This worked well for Vince Gilligan. It got the series made and became the most famous cold open of all time.

But as good as this cold open is, I’d wouldn’t recommend trying to copy it. For starters, anyone reading your version would assume it’s a knockoff, and so many people are writing cold opens like this now that it could get lost in the shuffle.

If you want to stand out, I suggest you learn from one of these other drama examples.

When Game of Thrones debuted, the show had a lot to set up. The pilot carried an exposition burden heavier than Ned Stark's broadsword, introducing us to about 2 billion characters and an entire world we had never seen before.

So what could they get across in the cold open?

Basically, the Game of Thrones cold open sets up the series problem. The Wight Walkers are back, and they’re going to kill all the humans.

And if you think about the crazy winding roads the many seasons of the show have taken us down, that Wight Walker thing is still the big bad looming.

It gave us an ominous feeling right away and accentuates all the other tension throughout the pilot.

Since both Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are more genre-driven, their cold opens feed into what we’d expect from crime shows and fantasy.

But what if you’re writing a straightforward network drama?

This Is Us burst onto the scene, and used its cold open to trick us. We meet a bunch of people who share the same birthday, and we think the show will be an ensemble about this diverse group.

But actually, it’s about one family.

This is a genius way to use a teaser to subvert our expectations, as well as set up what the series will be about. A group of people taking care of each other, even as they make mistakes.

This sets up the Pearsons perfectly.

Okay, we know how cold opens in dramas function, but let’s check out some comedy cold opens to see how they set up their shows.

Cold Open Examples in Comedy

One of the best parts of any sitcom is the cold open. While we’ve mostly looked at cold opens in pilots, I want to mix it up for the comedy section.

Let’s start with the funniest cold open in The Office’s history, the Fire Drill.

This cold open sets the story of the episode. It’s about the repercussions of the insane fire drill that happened. Dwight’s in trouble with corporate.

Everyone knows this is a serious problem, except Michael.

That’s a solid cold open.

But what about a more traditional one.

For a long time, Big Bang Theory was the biggest show on television. It’s a three-camera sitcom. So its cold opens usually happen in one location. Namely, the living room.

This one gets the guys gaming, and sets up the character conflicts with humor.

It opens with a joke and gets everyone inside the same room. Then in a few lines, it sets up the whole plot of the episode.

It’s smart, lean, and gets us right into the episode.

But what if you’re writing a much less traditional 30-minute television show?

Atlanta transcends what it means to be a comedy. It has funny moments, but for the most part, this show thrives in presenting bluntness to the viewer.

It’s about life, and sometimes life is funny, but in this cold open, we see a darker side.

Opening on this robbery is incredibly poetic. The robbery is not a factor in the episode. But it’s a statement about Atlanta as a whole.

If you want to understand this city and this show, then you have to understand it’s about people being driven to do some bad things, in a city that made them that way.

That makes for an unforgettable way to start a season.

So, what did we learn about cold opens?

Summing up The Cold Open

So we learned the definition of a cold open and went through some great cold open examples.

Hopefully, you don’t have writer’s block and are excited to crack open your screenwriting software and tackle the story at hand.

Now that you’re a master at writing the cold open, consider what else goes into writing a television pilot for staffing season.

If you’re excited to keep writing, we’d love to have you join our free screenwriting seminar.

Lastly, if you’re getting caught up in the treatment phase, and need help with three-act structure, we’ve got some articles for that too.

Got some favorite cold opens?

Tell us about them in the comments!

Now get out of here and get writing.     

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