Opening Scenes



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  • Opening Scenes

    Callit said:

    >>1) Opening styles: I prefer a 'softer' opening to a script, the kind where we meet a character and get a feel for who he is & what he does. Sort of 'a day in the life' type of thing. (Of course, it's no ordinary day because we do see inciting incidents within the character's life that ignite the story). I prefer this type of opening rather than the 'bang-bang' style of most scripts, where there is a very big event/action of the story or character's life for the first 15 pages or so.

    I feel by taking the subtle approach with seemingly gentle inciting incidents, the audience is drawn into the characters and story more easily, they can identify with the main character more easily and it results in a little more leeway in building up the rest of the story.

    Of course you realize I'm not referring to action films here.<<

    Because this may start a discussion, I've broken this into it's own thread, with my answer to follow...

    - Bill

  • #2

    Usual advice from just about everyone is grab the reader in the first 5 to 10 pages or your script goes south. Not necessarily with an explosion or car crash, but something remarkable and visual. Are you disagreeing with that axiom? I re-wrote my last screenplay with a "flash forward" just to put an exciting scene at the beginning. I ended up liking it better that way, so I am not questioning this particular script so much, but am wondering if it was unnecessary.

    I once used "Butterfield 8" as an example of breaking the "start at the last possible moment" rule, as we were entertained to about 8 minutes of a young Liz Taylor in a slip brushing her teeth and combing her hair. Different period of film, I realize, but quite frankly I get confused by some of the "rules" which seem not to really be rules.

    BM no W


    • #3
      I've had both types of openings.

      A low budget horror I wrote started off slow, developing the characters etc. No big thrill grab. ( the producer really liked it as it started off charater driven before the horror got going)

      My other scripts start off with a bang of sorts or a "twisted event" to grab the audience hard.

      Story will dictate I'm sure.

      I like the fast start, but that is more conducive to the stuff i like ot write.


      • #4
        Opening Scenes


        A few years ago we had a panel of readers at Scriptwriters Network in LA. They were asked if the first ten pages had to grab the reader... All of the readers said the FIRST PAGE had to grab them! If you couldn't hook them by page ten, they figured the rest of the script isn't very involving and set it in the problem pile.

        Then one of them said the first SENTENCE had to hook them, and the others agreed.

        I would say your method is better suited to a novel, but Lawrence Block in WRITING THE NOVEL: FROM PLOT TO PRINT disagrees. He says you have to hook them with your first chapter... and thinks hooking them with your first sentence is even better.

        In fact, in my online class on First Pages, 1st Ten Pages, and Endings I have a quote from Edgar Alan Poe that says if you haven't hooked them with your first sentence, you've stumbled in your initial steps.

        So let me pull two novels from my shelf (not action):

        1) FARENHEIT 451, "It was a pleasure to burn." The rest of page one is Montag starting a fire - burning down somebody's house!

        2) THE STRANGER, "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The rest of the page has our hero INSISTING
        that he had nothing to do with his mother's death (to the point of us wondering whether he killed her).

        I also pulled NINE PRINCES IN AMBER off the shelf, which opens with the hero waking up in a hospital, wondering how he got there, and wondering if he can escape before they find him.

        So even an artsy-fartsy novel by Camus starts strong, with CONFLICT IN PROGRESS.

        Now onto movies. I'm just finishing up a booklet on opening scenes, so I'm going to cut & paste some stuff from my rough draft of that...

        How about AMERICAN BEAUTY... pretty dramatic stuff, right? It opens with the video tape of the weirdo next door and Thora Birch plotting to kill her father. Then we go to Kevin Spacey starting his day... with voice over saying that this will be the last year of his life! So, in the opening MINUTE of film, we know that our hero is going to die and that his daughter is plotting to kill him because he creams his shorts around her cheerleading friends. Wow!

        SUNSET BLVD opens with William Holden dead in the swimming pool in front of a luxurious mansion. Then he narrates the events leading up to his murder. This isn't an action film at all; like AMERICAN BEAUTY it's a character study... a drama.

        I caught another drama on AMC when I was writing the booklet material. A Barbara Stanwyk drama from 1950 called NO MAN OF HER OWN. Like AMERICAN BEAUTY it takes place in well manicured upper middle class suburbia.

        NO MAN OF HER OWN opens with an ice cream truck driving down a very nice street. It passes a beautiful suburban home, and we move up the walk and enter the house. In the living room, a typical upper middle class suburban family: Husband, Wife, sleeping son. The phone rings, the Husband leaves to answer it... returns in a minute with a frightened look on his face.


        The police.

        Are they coming here now?

        In a few minutes.

        Did they say....?

        Which one of us they want? No.

        I'll put him to bed.

        She takes the sleeping son to his bedroom... Leaving us to wonder what this couple has done! The police are going to arrest one or the other of them! That means they BOTH did something wrong. The film then flashes back to show us the events leading up to the arrest.

        VERTIGO opens with a swell rooftop chase in progress. CITIZEN KANE opens with Kane's death and the mystery word "Rosebud"... what does it mean? CASABLANCA has the police rounding up the usual suspects 30 seconds into the film, and shooting a guy dead at 1:30 because he has expired papers. Not exactly slow starts!

        Quality films? THE GODFATHER PART 2 has a great opening scene. A somber Italian funeral is disrupted by gunfire and turns into a shoot out! The protagonist's brother is SHOT DEAD at his father's funeral! The pageantry of the funeral and the violence of the shoot out are what makes THE GODFATHER PART 2 great! This isn't just an exciting scene, it's an illustration of the film's theme of family amidst violence.

        You have to GRAB THEM right away. Involve your character in conflict, so that the character is somebody INTERESTING, so that we care about the mundane parts of their life. Conflict is the best way to make us care about a character. Think about it - the people you feel sympathy for are people with problems. The bigger the problems, the more sympathy you have for them. Why save your big plot problems for later? That's the kind of stuff that creates sympathy.

        Final tip: Suspense is the greatest tool to use when opening a script because it's exciting AND emotionally involving.

        Now, I suspect there will be some discussion...

        - Bill


        • #5
          Okay - hack up at this opening scene as you see fit.

          No fears of stealing. Been protected.

          Formatting will be off.

          FADE IN:

          SUPER: â€Peace isnâ€TMt merely the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice. â€

          SUPER: â€Kill all the lawyers ... Shakespeareâ€

          EXT. BLUFF - DAY

          SHOOTER, camouflaged, face hidden, sits on the bluff, wields an unconventional-looking RIFLE that screams of pinpoint execution.

          The bluff overlooks a forest valley which is cleared away for the occupancy of a large maximum security PRISON - set in the farthest corner of the back forty.

          The shooter sets up for a shot. Judging by the terrain etc., heâ€TMs around 1000 yards away.

          SHOOTER (V.O.)
          Most people assume it began with those two that tortured their little girl to death ... that bitch and her hubby that laughed in the courtroom during the trial.
          Yeah, the rest of us found it real funny looking at that innocent little girl's pictures, knowing what they did to her. Look who's laughing now, you sick @#%$s.
          No, I had had it long before then. They just happened to be the first ones I pulled the trigger on.
          He's dead. I didn't quite get her
          though. She can still breath, move
          her eyes and talk with whatâ€TMs left of her mouth.
          &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp (beat)
          She doesn't laugh anymore.

          The shooter peers into the scope.

          One page - does it hook?


          • #6
            As the main impact comes from the voice-over, it's hard to say without the actor's voice. Voice over's/intro's of this type have been done before. If a good director/actor are making the scene happen, certainly it does. If it's a Sidaris film, well...


            • #7
              Does it hook?

              Okay, we're watching the movie in Zimbabwe... that massive voice over is gone! We only have the visuals. How do we know all of that information?

              Basically, what Kosk said: Voice over is tricky in the best case. You end up with OTN lines (unless you're a genius like Don Roos and write hysterically funny VO that's a counterpoint to the action) and dead exposition.

              Basically, you're telling us rather than showing us.

              - Bill


              • #8

                I'll ask one later, but Caliban V has a very detailed/involved query from this thread, and he was polite and put it in One-on-One instead. Seemed a meaty question.

                Thank you for your time, patience and generosity thereof,



                • #9
                  baiting the hook

                  Bill Martell,

                  First, thanks for taking the time to address this issue in this manner.

                  I don't question the importance of hooking an audience/reader from the first sentence. I believe I have achieved the hook from the first line. The examples you posted are excellent. The style of the hook is what I question.

                  It is a softer tone, a way of luring an audience in rather than kidapping them at gunpoint. We are introduced to the hero & his challenges on page one. We build the story as the character progresses through his day, as more happens.

                  Example (my script): Opening visual shows a glistening, modern new business shadowing our hero's run down establishment.

                  first dialogue; "How the hell do we compete with that? Maybe we should just close up now."

                  hero whirls (our first look at him), horrified.
                  Hero's first dialogue: "Over my dead body".

                  Conflict & challenge established. Now, we start to learn more about our hero, his wants, dreams, needs,loves, heartbreaks, background as his day progresses. I'd say it was setting up the story by learning up the character first.

                  More plainly:
                  Traditional screenwriting says set up the story in the first ten pages, then learn the character in the next ten. I am saying set up the character in the first ten (still taking care to establish conflict & premise), then unfold the story in pages 11-20.

                  If it's a character driven story, why not set up the character first?


                  • #10
                    Callit, Melt


                    I think I'm falling in love.


                    Don't know notin', but it hooked me.

                    lilybet (temporarily excaped)


                    • #11
                      Baiting the hook


                      You open with conflict! That's great!

                      I see it as being a business version of ROCKY, but that's just off a couple of lines. You give us a character with a big problem... I want to know MORE about the problem ("compete" how?) and more about the guy who's going to fight to the death rather than close his store. You've hooked me.

                      No one said you have to start with car explosions or shoot outs. But you have to start with something interesting and involving... and you've done that.

                      Your opening image: that's story.

                      - Bill

                      PS: I'll get down to the post in One On One soon!


                      • #12

                        I would open this way:

                        FADE IN:

                        EXT. PRISON YARD - DAY

                        PRISONER XXX is sitting on some bleachers, gazing at a department store ad paper. He pursers his lips enraptured.

                        We see that XXX is looking at a page showning small child modeling swim wear. The opposing page is the sporting goods section, which has nice display of hunting RIFLES.

                        EXT. BLUFF - DAY

                        A RIFLE barrel dappled with camo paint pokes from a long hump of vegetation. A SNIPER in his 'hide'.

                        INT. SNIPER HIDE - DAY

                        The sniper, a man dressed like a cowboy sights a heavy barreled rifle with a huge telescopic sight. The stock of the rifle, fore and aft, is resting on highway dept. sandbags.

                        His trigger finger tightens. He EXHALES.

                        SNIPER'S POV - DAY

                        Prisoner XXX is in the cross hairs.

                        EXT. PRISON YARD - DAY

                        A bullet thunks into Prisoner XXX's chest. He slums over dead as a door nail.

                        EXT. ROAD - DAY

                        The sniper walks to his car carrying a guitar case.

                        Been practicin' the guitar if anybody should ask.


                        • #13
                          zimbabwe and other comments

                          bill: one would assume that the flick showing in zimbabwe, if in an english theater, would have english viewers... if not one would assume zimbabwaese (?) subtitles or dubbing... (and how much do studios really worry about the business a flic does in zimbabwe anyway ;-)

                          to meltdown - i have learned on these wires to NOT use VO as a replacement for showing the story - i think you VO is a little verbose and tells too much - reconsider the approach in this case, or cut it down some and show some of the story - if the specifics of who is being killed, and why, is not the story (i get the feeling it is more about the shooter than the shootee) then maybe something like
                          You shouldn't have done what you did. But those who think you just died because of what you did to that little girl, well, they are wrong. This was for me. And I am just starting.

                          or somethin' like that... and i would lose at least one of the opening quotes - pick one and keep it if you want but two can confuse - this is not a book (a hard thing for me to remember always, myself)

                          your approach could work but loses the main point that (i think) meltdown was going for: the killer is gonna kill again.

                          bill m again: a modern day rocky in the business world - i love it - and it could be used in a variety of ways

                          all the above fwiw


                          • #14
                            zimbabwe and other comments


                            Over 60% of a US film's income is from counties other than the US... so Hollywood cares A LOT. Film is a GLOBAL BUSINESS - you are writing a script that will have to be popular EVERYWHERE.

                            There are many countries (not sure if Zimbabwe is one of them) where there are so many dialects that they can't dub or subtitle. The only information is the visual information. Other places have low literacy rates (I think in Zimbabwe's only 30% can read) and subtitles often lose much in translation (the Japanese word for man" has a hald dozen syllables). So even when they do dub or subtitle, the dialogue often gets lost... and long patches of voice over either fill the screen so that you can't see the picture, or are omitted. So the visual content of a script is the most important.

                            Your post has some good ideas on condensing the VO so that in Japan they aren't still reading it halfway through the film.

                            - Bill (just popped in)


                            • #15

                              Bill Martell,

                              Again, my thanks. I feel rejuvenated as a screenwriter after spending time listening to your advice & reading your posted scripts. My confidence, sorely lacking for some time, has been restored.

                              I can truthfully say I am a better writer since joining this board.