Professional screenwriters know how important it is that their scripts make a solid first impression. Studio and production company readers – the all-powerful gatekeepers who determine what projects make it up the chain to production company decision-makers – quickly develop a sixth sense for determining when they’re reading the work of a polished writer and when they’re dealing with a rank amateur. And while even polished scribes often find it difficult to make a sale, writers perceived as amateurs will find the resistance nearly insurmountable.
Most screenwriters understand this.
Which is why it is surprising – often depressingly so – how many scripts come out of the gate just begging to be rejected. Sometimes as early as their first paragraph.
Following is the opening from an actual spec screenplay that had been submitted for industry evaluation. While the language has been altered so as to not potentially expose/embarrass the author, the salient elements remain intact so as to highlight the issues that can turn a reader off before a story even has a chance to kick into gear.
Here is the opening to the script:
JIM JOHNSON, (SKIP) and his two children are sitting watching TV. The room is badly lite. There is a Christmas tree in the corner with some burned out lights. We hear the sound of a ticking clock. We will be hearing this ticking throughout much of the script. It represents time passing by. JIM and his kids are focused on the TV, their faces blank. JIM is wearing a soiled janitor’s uniform. No one talks and there is tension in the air. MOTHER is bringing in snacks, then returning to the kitchen. Everyone looks very unhappy.
There are at least 11 problems with this opening, some of them conceptual, others technical, others stylistic. Individually, any one of them might be excused. But combined, they only serve to put the reader in an inhospitable mood and set the script up for rejection.
Let’s examine these issues one by one.
- Density. Before they even read a word of text, readers are confronted by what is commonly termed “the grim grey wall.” This refers to thick “bricks” of description that are intimidating to the eye and are inevitably a chore to read. Descriptive blocks should never exceed four lines – that’s lines, not sentences – anywhere in a screenplay. To open with such a dense paragraph is just begging an exhausted reader to hate you.
- A static, cliched tableau. Opening images help set the tone, subject and, often, even the theme of a movie. A good opening image is immediately captivating and, if at all possible, original. Showing a family gazing zombie-like at a TV screen is visually trite and suggests we’re in for a slow, enervating slog. Again, this is not a way to encourage a reader to continue.
- Shifting focus. A good screenwriter writes in a way that suggests camera movement. Items within a shot are described in the order the writer imagines them being presented on screen (without actually calling for specific shots). This paragraph violates this principle by constantly shifting focus back and forth between subjects. For example, it opens on the lead character (Jim), then goes to the Christmas tree, then talks about the clock, then jumps back to Jim. It’s jarring. A better way to write this scene is to either open on Jim, describe Jim, and then “open” the scene to reveal his surroundings, or to first describe the setting (a “master shot” if you will) and then introduce the characters in the order you want the audience to meet them. Either choice is fine. But it should be one or the other.
- Who are these people? The intro establishes four characters, Jim Johnson, Mother (Who has no name) and their two children (who are also nameless). In the middle of the paragraph we’re told that “Jim is wearing a soiled janitor’s uniform ,” so we assume he works as a custodian. But beyond that, we know nothing about these individuals, such as their ages, their appearance, or their demeanors. Is Jim in his 30s? Is he 50? What about Mother? Is this the children’s mother (Jim’s wife) or perhaps even Jim’s mother (the children’s grandmother)? And who are the “children”? Are they boys or girls? What are their ages? Certainly “Mother” and the “children” should be identified by their names as well as their roles.
- Poor punctuation. The first thing we read is “JIM JOHNSON, (SKIP) and his two children…” Immediately, we’re confused by the mis-placed comma. Is “Skip” Jim’s nickname or a separate character? If it’s Jim’s nickname, it should be written JIM “SKIP” JOHNSON. If it’s a separate character, it should read “JIM JOHNSON, SKIP and two CHILDREN…” with no parentheses around “SKIP.”
- Improper style. Screenwriting convention requires that character names be UPPERCASED when they first appear, but lowercased in all subsequent appearances. So the first time we meet the lead character, he’s “JIM,” but “Jim” thereafter. The same goes for the CHILDREN and MOTHER. Also, sound cues are usually uppercased as well. So “ticking” should be written as “TICKING” to call attention to this technical detail.
- Not writing in the simple present tense. The most elegant way to write action is in the simple present tense, such as “Jim and his two children sit watching TV” instead of “Jim and his two children are sitting watching TV.” Likewise, Mother “brings” in snacks, then “returns” to the kitchen.
- Misspelled words. As soon as readers hit “The room is badly lite…”, they know they’re in for trouble. Ideally, a screenplay should be typo-free. However, super-extra caution should be taken to ensure that the first page – not to mention the first paragraph — does not contain any misspellings.
- Trivial details. As a writer, you want to get into the action as quickly as possible. You certainly don’t want to clutter your opening scene with unnecessary description. As a paragraphs third sentence, “There is a Christmas tree in the corner with some burned out lights” directs the mind’s eye to details that are of little dramatic consequence. If would be just as easy to open with, “In a room half-heartedly adorned with well-worn Christmas decorations, JIM “SKIP” JOHNSON and his two CHILDREN sit watching TV…” Let the art director figure out the particulars needed to express the atmosphere you’re trying to create.
- In-Your-Face Symbolism and Commentary. The sentence “We hear the sound of a ticking clock” is awkward enough (Phrases like “We hear” or “We see” always pulls the reader out of the scene), but to then warn us that “We will be hearing this ticking throughout much of the script” sounds more like a threat than a direction. Adding “It represents time passing by” is so on-the-nose that it reeks of amateurism. Scripts need to speak for themselves. Choose images and symbols that naturally evoke desired reactions. Having to explain a symbol to your reader is like having to explain a joke to an audience. It’s an admission of failure.
- Redundant Description. The author writes, “No one talks and there is tension in the air” and then two lines later adds, “Everyone is very unhappy.” We got it the first time. Repeating the obvious is just a waste of space.
So how might this opening paragraph be rewritten to look professional? Here’s one approach:
INT. LIVING ROOM – EVENING
Lower-middle class. Worn furnishings. A few half-hearted Christmas decorations suggest the season. A traditional grandfather clock TICKS away in the b.g.
JIM “SKIP” JOHNSON (mid-40s), wearing a soiled janitor’s uniform, sits silently on the battered couch staring at an ancient TV.:
Nearby, his two sons, JAKE (12) and DALE (15) watch with similar blank expressions.
Jim’s wife, JANE (mid-40s, plain, haggard) sets a bowl of chips and dip on the coffee table in front of her husband, then retreats wordlessly to the kitchen.
Okay, it’s still not Shakespeare. But it’s an easier read. It’s smoother. More visually evocative. We get how the sound of the ticking clock melds with the visuals. And most important of all, it avoids looking amateurish.
When writing your screenplay, take the time necessary to open strongly. Polish your first page to a fine sheen. Seduce your reader with short sentences and vivid imagery. Show them you are a professional.
Because, even if you’re not, looking like a pro is the best way to become one.