Published on July 25, 2020
In the competitive world of screenwriting (and filmmaking) where industry readers judge your script in the first few pages, a great opening scene is a vital part of a successful screenplay and film.
The opening scene gives a first impressions of your writing ability, and serves 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.
After Jaws did it successfully in the 1970s, making your opening scene a teaser has since been 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 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 this.
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.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a terrific example of this at play. The film’s 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 may have no idea what’s going on, but by raising so many questions this opening generates such curiosity that it demands attentive engagement throughout the film’s running time.
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 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 starring 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 also show them working together as a unified force. This machine of precision operates with one objective in mind: to bring honor, the film’s central theme, to the Marine Corps.
Another salient example is the film Lord of War, which opens on Nicholas Cage’s character standing in a sea of spent bullet cartridges in a war-torn third-world country. Wearing a strangely out-of-place business suit, he turns to address the audience, saying: “There is one firearm for every twelve people on the planet.” We’re then launched into a 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 a 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?
There’s Something About Mary 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 playing and singing the opening soundtrack.
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.
The opening of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas eavesdrops on 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.
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 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 the story opens on five simple shots. In just a few seconds, and without any dialogue, 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 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 speaks 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, it is 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 exploring.
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 also serves as a compelling teaser, and 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 introduces a great 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 audiences in and leaving them wanting more. MM
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. He is also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant, and was head of the MFA Screenwriting Program at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts for nearly two decades. He is currently the founder of PARABLE, an online, interactive screenwriting course. Follow him on Twitter @screenplaystory.