If first impressions are everything in relationships, nowhere is this truer than in screenwriting. It doesn't matter if you have brilliant characters, swinging third act scenes and a killer story. If your first pages read like the slow, sour yawn of a tired old mule, you may be done for. Openings are crucial. Starting off on the wrong cinematic foot is like walking into a grave.
When a reader sits down to read your material, they don't know you from Adam. They are hoping it's going to be a good read, hoping the hour or two will slip by smoothly. They open your script, eye the title imagining what may lie ahead and with a singular moment of possible neutrality (the only one you'll probably ever be granted), begin to read your words.
If what they find is a random handful of moments, loosely relevant to the overarching story, minor, often extraneous exposition, or a sleepy wave from idle characters, you're dead. Don't start with some sluggish stretch and cool, passive welcome to your audience or as instantly as you could have snapped your lasso, you've made your reader a potential enemy.
It's like with eating. A lousy first gesture is equal to that stench seeping out from under a lid. The reader is instantly turned off and then resents what they expect will be a long, painful trudge through your piece. Yes, you can surprise them. But now it's harder. They've become fickle. You're gonna have to work your butt off, pardon my English, to get them to listen. Their perspective has become jaundiced and your work of love has begun its journey to the garbage pile.
But, if you've been crafty, you've selected scenes to introduce the piece, which are instantly seductive. This provides what is called, "the hook" that seizes your reader with a wowing grip, gets their adrenaline boiling. It should capture and bind your reader immediately to the script.
How? Be bold.
Even when you're being subtle, be bold. Drop your reader into the sweaty bed of story, like in "Betty Blue" --you can't beat that descent into their beachy house, the lead characters naked, in the heavy throws of lovemaking. (Talk about starting with a bang!) Or think about how you can use backstory to your greatest advantage. Consider the twines of exposition used to bound the audience as they're intoxicated with mood in that long mountain car ride of the "The Shining." You can place readers heart-first into the irresistible hands of a compelling character. Recall Kevin Spacey talking to us from the shower in "American Beauty?" Or pummel our attention with defining images and dialogue like the hand held gun and voice over used in "Good Fellas." No matter what, make it strong. The opening must pull the reader straight into the urgency of your script.
So, when you go to write your first act and are selecting your first few scenes (most especially the opening) DO NOT write lightly. Show conviction. Fan us your peacock plumes. Dive in with your best dialogue and be seeringly clear about the purpose, the artistic intention of beginning your entire film with that particular image and scene. Let the jury in your mind begin its interrogation:
* WHY THIS SCENE? WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS MOMENT?
* HOW DOES IT RESONATE OR SET-UP WHAT IS TO COME?
* IS IT DRAMATIC? DOES IT FORESHADOW OR DEFINE?
ARE YOU SLIPPING UNNOTICED INTO A PARTY OR THROWING THE DOORS OPEN, DEMANDING ALL TURN TO SEE YOUR ARRIVAL?
Suggest you go back to your most beloved films, of all genres, and take a hard look at how they've opened their films. Look at the screenplays you most cherish. Do the same thing. Think about why the first shot of
"Touch of Evil" is so historical. Indeed it's inspired direction. But you the screenwriter can invoke the same effects in your first few pages. You can immediately create moods, set tones, plop your reader into the riveting props of plot.
I read many scripts where the writers have literally given their first pages away. They've filled that precious space with pedantic, arbitrary, "introductory/expositional" scenes that jiggle fatty, dull dialogue, or undramatic moments/images where nothing happens and ultimately the pages wind up in a recycling bin. I'm most sorry for the screenwriters who have in fact written a fabulous screenplay, but it didn't get fabulous until p. 27, when they finally "wrote themselves" into that hot, cherry material. As a consultant I'm with them to the bitter/sweet end. But with an agent/ producer, it could be an entirely different story.
Please beware and make those handshakes firm, impressive, presidential!!!
Let your opening stun whether subconsciously or overtly. It can woo, beguile, slap or topple, but it must be provocative. For as with most first gestures, this is the one that will win or lose the respect, love and attention of your reader. Bottom line: It's the one that will determine if they keep reading.
© Copyright Judy Kellem 2001 all rights reserved