The opening of your screenplay is arguably the most important part. No matter how great your story, if the opening fails to capture the studio reader or producer, the story ends right then and there for you.
When I first started as a studio reader, the exec. producer instructed me not to read all the screenplays that were stacked up every week. “Just read the good ones,” he said “the ones that grab your attention within the first 10 pages and won’t let you go. If they fail to do it in 10”, he added, “they won’t be able to do it in 30, 90 or even 120 pages”.
In the old days of Hollywood, writers called this “the hook”; and that’s exactly what it should do
– hook you into the story.
All the screenwriters we rejected seemed to believe that their story was good enough to draw people in by itself. But that’s not how stories work. The fact is; a great story in itself won’t hook your audience. Thinking that your story will automatically draw the reader in is a mistake of the same magnitude as if advertisers were to believe that products can sell themselves. Hooking the script reader is a matter of applying deliberate technique and craft on the part of the writer.
The good news is that these techniques can be taught. This article will define 9 different opening devises used by the best screenwriters in the industry:
1. THE MYSTERY OPENING
Curiosity is the mother of all hooks. The “Mystery Opening” purposely holds back vital information from the audience, thereby arousing curiosity.
Spielberg’s E.T opens this way. It’s a dark forest at night. We see the moon but it’s hidden behind a gnarled tree limb. We see a spaceship but we don’t see the aliens. When we finally do see an alien, we see only its hands. Every time we see something, something else is hidden.
This opening is based on a technique I call “Dramatic Omission”; the deliberate omission of anything important for dramatic purposes. If done properly, it will raise questions; and questions create hooks. You can omit character’s faces, the environment or even entire segments of a story.
Let’s imagine a burglar breaking into a house in broad daylight. Moments after, a woman returns home earlier than expected. Hearing her entry, the burglar hides behind the shower curtain. The woman decides to take a shower. She goes into the bathroom and discovers the burglar. He panics and violently kills her. Hours later, her husband arrives only to find his wife’s dead body in the bathroom.
Here we have an example of a sequence of events – A series of actions and reactions. The woman returns early is an action. The burglar hides is a reaction to her action.
Actions and reactions are the nucleus of the plot, but herein also lies the problem; Reactions answer all the questions we have and therefore leave no holes open for questions.
For instance, were we to ask; why did the burglar hide? The answer would be; because he heard the woman. Why did she get killed? – Because she discovered him and he panicked. Who was the killer? – The Burglar. Everything checks out and we are left with no questions to ask, no reason to read on.
However, if we were to purposely remove either an action or a reaction from the sequence, we would leave a nice big hole in the story – creating a hook.
Let’s do that with the same sequence and see what happens: In this version, we start with a woman returning home early from work. She decides on a shower and enters the bathroom. Hours later, her husband finds her bloody body dead on the floor.
Now that we have omitted the beginning and the middle, it leaves the all-important question of what happened to the women in its place. We could also have removed the woman from the opening sequence and started with a man discovering a body in his bathroom, prompting the audience to ask; “who is that woman and why is she dead in the men’s bathroom?”
And so it is with all questions that you want your audience to ask. If you don’t write your opening in a way that begs questions, nobody will ask them.
2. A THREAT
If you’ve seen Get Out or read the screenplay, you know that this is the technique that Jordan Peele uses in the opening scene; and it’s as effective in drawing us in as quicksand.
The story opens on a dark, empty suburban street. 29-year-old African American, Andre, is hopelessly lost. Overhearing his cell phone conversation, we understand that he’s trying to find his girlfriend’s house. She promises to pick him up, but instead, a suspicious car that has been stalking him creeps up from behind. Uneasy, he tries to make a run for it but – too late. The driver gets out, grabs him in a rear choke hold, throws him in the trunk and takes off.
The idea behind this hook is to establish a threat to the character or to his universe.
It works on the principle that, if this is only the beginning, what horrors await us when the real story gets rolling? – Something much worse, for sure. But that “something” is kept from us for now and will only unfold if we stay tuned.
Although Get Out is quite new, the technique is not. You will find it in thrillers like Jaws. As you recall, the threat is effectively introduced in the first scene; when the shark attacks and kills a young woman.
The Keanu Reeves vehicle, Speed, also employs this hook. The movie opens when a deranged terrorist plants a bomb in a public elevator, effectively establishing a promise of evil things to come.
Establishing a threat in your opening, not only makes for a great hook; but it also brings a much-needed tension into your story from the beginning – a major cause for why so many screenplays are rejected.
3. THE COLD OPENING
This type of opening starts with a flash forward to a moment of extreme crisis, usually found in the second act. Then we flash back to the actual beginning of the story. Confused? Read on.
The Hangover starts this way. After a brief opening, showing wedding preparations, the screenplay cuts to one of the guys, standing in the middle of a desolate, desert road, making a distress call to the bride-to-be. “We fucked up. We lost Doug”, he says; and a bit later we understand that Doug is the groom.
This crisis situation is found much later in the story. And after we have been treated to this tense glimpse of things to come, the story flashes back to the real beginning – 40 hours earlier.
“Cold Openings” are often used in television. We call it a “teaser”, but they have also been used extensively in feature films. The movie Gandhi opens this way. We see Gandhi leading the way on his now, historic, Salt March. He’s followed by thousands of devotees. One of them steps up to him, bows down before him in prayer, then draws a gun and assassinates him at close range. Then, as the actual story begins, we flash back to a young Gandhi – some 55 years earlier.
The “Cold Opening” utilizes an old technique in a drama called “In Media Res”. We start in the middle of a crisis and because we don’t get to see how it’s resolved, we hang on in the hope that the movie will explain and resolve it at a later point. (Which of course it must do)
4. THE PARADOX
“The Paradox” hook confronts the audience with a puzzling contradiction that can only be explained by watching the movie.
The first pages of Kramer vs. Kramer employ such an opening. We see a tender close up of Joanna, tucking her kid, Billy, into bed. She tells him that she loves him. That’s the first beat.
Then, on the very next beat, she packs her suitcase and is about to leave.
The juxtaposition of these two elements creates a mini paradox from which both possible conclusions are unsettling. Either she loves him, (likes she said); but then why would she leave him?
Or – She doesn’t love him, but why then did she say it?
Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s screenplay Serpico also opens this way: A dying Frank Serpico struggles for his life in the back of an ambulance; a gunshot wound to his head. The movie then cuts to a police station late at night. A telephone rings and a desk clerk picks it up. After a short conversation, the desk clerk turns to another officer on duty and the following conversation plays out:
DESK OFFICER: Guess who got shot!!! (PAUSES) Serpico.
PLAIN CLOTHES MAN: You think a cop did it?…
DESK OFFICER: I know six cops said they’d like to…
Once again, we see and hear two conflicting pieces of information. If one is true the other can’t be and vice versa. Either Serpico was shot by a police officer, which would make the whole station corrupt. Or – He was NOT shot by a police officer; begging the question, why then would the two officers on duty think so?
Each possibility you can reach is unsettling. This creates a paradox that leaves us baffled – and hooked.
5. BREAKING A PATTERN
If the mother of all hooks is mysteries, then the father is Surprise. Surprises emerge when you break a recognizable pattern.
For any surprise to work, you need to establish an ‘ordinary world’ routine first and then break it immediately after. That’s what creates surprise. Not the event itself, but the context of the event – what came before. You think you know what you’re watching but moments later, it turns out that things are not what they seem. This keeps you interested.
In the bizarre opening to Where’s Poppa, we see a man (Elliot Gould) wake up to his alarm clock. He gets up, undresses, takes a shower and returns to his dresser for some clothes. All of this is painfully trite but then, instead of getting into a suit; he gets into a – big Gorilla costume.
However, a “Breaking a Pattern” hook need not be this obvious. It can work for any kind of story. The opening to Paper Moon does it in a more subtle and elegant way. The movie opens on a bare field somewhere in rural Kansas. A small group of grieving folks is gathered for a very basic funeral. From afar we see and hear an old car approaching. A man gets out and walks directly toward the funeral. We understand he is late. On the way, he passes a random grave and steals the flowers. – A small but significant character reveal that comes from breaking a normal pattern.
Or, it can be very dramatic like the opening of Pulp Fiction. Two people at a diner enjoy lunch and what seems to be a trivial conversation when all of a sudden – they both draw guns and hold up the place.
Breaking a pattern keeps us intrigued. It’s as though the writer is telling us; “you think you know what this story is about but you really don’t!”
6. THE MYSTERIOUS OPENING
This opening is somewhat related to the “Mystery Opening” but should not be confused with it. In the “Mysterious Opening”, we are presented with an image that defies all explanation. It doesn’t pose a question as in the “Mystery Opening” because nothing is kept from us. Everything is shown to us in plain view and yet what we see defies all explanation.
The opening of The Shape of Water is such an opening.
The movie opens by showing us an entire apartment under water. We are left guessing if this is an actual event. Is the apartment actually under water? Was there a flood?
But as we’re pondering, the scene further reveals Elisa, gently floating above her bed. Now we know that we’re not witnessing an accident but some kind of weird, surreal scene.
In opening this way, The Shape of Water follows a long tradition of “Mysterious Openings”. If this intrigues you, look at Kubrick’s 2001 or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Fellini’s opening to La Dolce Vita; wherein we see a helicopter flying a statue of Christ.
7. THE THEMATIC OPENING
This opening relies on the theme itself to keep us interested. It works on the premise that the theme is thought-provoking or controversial enough to act as a hook. However, be aware that very few themes have those qualities. A theme like “loves conquers all” or “crime doesn’t pay” won´t get anyone out of their seat.
Also, themes are not self-explanatory. In stark contrast with everything we´ve been taught about screenwriting, actions alone won’t convey a theme clearly enough to work as an opening. For this, we need words to state the theme. But because words alone have to work as a hook, we need to phrase the theme as a strong, bombastic statement, if it’s to hook the audience at all.
The Godfather famously opens this way. We see a close-up of Bonasera, a middle-aged man, addressing the camera directly with the following words:
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”
Strong words when you realize the context in which they’re spoken; by a man who has lost faith in the system and desperately pledges loyalty to a criminal as his only way to achieve justice. This notion of America as a country, in which a corrupted set of values has become the norm, permeates the entire movie from this moment to the last scene.
Incidentally, when Coppola was asked to direct The Godfather his initial response was “no.” Being an Italian himself, he didn’t want to participate in a stereotypical portrait of Italian Americans as gangsters. But he had second thoughts and returned to Producer, Robert Evans with the following proposal; He would consider making the movie if he were allowed to turn it into a metaphor for the United States. Evans agreed and that’s why we have that opening today.
Coppola also used a “Thematic Opening” in his screenplay to Patton – a movie that also opens with a thematic monologue:
Patton: “Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. All this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally love to fight.”
8. THE SECRET
Secrets have a power to draw us in – second to none. The irony is, of course, that you have to know that there’s a secret before there’s a draw. Writers who attempt this hook are then advised to let us know that there’s something there, there.
I´ve seen many writers attempt this and fail because they assumed that establishing a secret was a given. For a secret to work as a hook you need to establish that “something” exists; that it is important to the story and lastly; that it is hidden. All three elements are vital.
This hook was notoriously used in, what many consider to be one of the most famous movie openings of all time, Citizen Kane:
From the very beginning shot of a “No Trespassing” sign, we are made to understand that something is being kept from us. The scene then goes on to introduce us to a mysteriously clouded mansion. Inside we find a man uttering his dying word, “Rosebud”; with no explanation to account for the meaning of the word.
And here we have all three elements. We know there’s a word. We know it’s important (because it was his last). And we are kept from its meaning by his death. And that’s what makes it a secret.
The opening of the original 1995 movie, Jumanji, also makes use of this device. The first scene opens on a beach. The camera zooms in on a bulge in the sand and from it we hear the beating of tribal drums. A kid walks by, digs in the sand and uncovers a mysterious box, prompting us to ask the question; “what’s in the box?”
In this example, the presence of the bulge lets us know that something is there. The tribal drums alert us to its importance and the fact that the content of the box is not revealed, establishes the final element of “The Secret”.
9. THE INCITING INCIDENT
The opening device that I saved for last is also the most important one – opening the movie with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is, as you know, the incident that sets the whole story in motion. It’s the first push that causes all subsequent events to fall like dominos, and only when the last piece falls is the story complete.
There’s a rule of thumb in the screenwriting business that states that, whenever possible, open with the inciting incident. And most great screenplays do just that. But In those cases, the inciting incident is strong enough to also work as the hook. However, not all inciting incidents are; and so another hook is needed to sustain interest in the story until the inciting incident kicks the story into gear.
In my work as a screenplay consultant, I work with no less than 11 different varieties of inciting incidents. However, for the purpose of this article, I will focus on one of the most important ones: A loss. – The protagonist loses someone or something.
“The Loss” is not only the most used event in all of fiction, it is central to the way that fiction is shaped; from Greek myths to Renaissance drama, right up to modern works of fiction in every genre.
In Black Panther, Young T’Chaka kills his brother N’Jobu. In Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s character loses his daughter. In Manchester by the Sea, Lee´s brother Joe dies. In the opening of E.T, the little alien loses his home. At the beginning of Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted loses his wife. At the beginning of Gandhi, Gandhi loses his life. The three guys in The Hangover lose track of the groom. In The Odd Couple, Felix loses his marriage and home. Antonio Ricci loses his bicycle in The Bicycle Thief. Rocky loses his membership at the boxing club. Snow White, Bambi, Mowgli, Dumbo, Pinocchio and all 101 Dalmatians lose their families.
“The Loss” is central to all dramatic stories and although it’s not the only inciting incident possible, all other varieties eventually have to turn into a loss if they are to work as dramatic stories.
THE REAL TRICK TO WRITING A GREAT OPENING
Writing a screenplay is similar to planning a road trip. The real trick is to know your final destination before you decide where to start.
The best of all beginnings set us upon a journey from which there can be no other destination but the ending. This is why some screenwriters call the ending, “The Necessary Scene”. It is, as Aristotle noted, the inevitable outcome of the beginning. The beginning opens a wound from which there can be no other resolution but the final scene.
It’s no coincidence that the ending of Jaws shows us how the shark finally meets its demise. In the opening, we saw how it killed an innocent woman. The opening is the action, the ending – the reaction. Those that live by the sword must also die by it. And only those writers who know their endings are ready to write a great beginning.