You have 30 seconds to keep your screenplay from being rejected. I say “rejected” because that’s the default setting for every Hollywood professional reading original material. Readers are cynical people. They read dozens of screenplays every week. As a result, they quickly become jaded and difficult to impress. If a script doesn’t grab them immediately, they’re likely to give it a pass. And why not? There’s always another one right behind it.
As soon as a reader opens to Page 1, the clock starts. The first thing the reader notices is WHITE SPACE. Lots of white space is good. Short sentences and small paragraphs means easy reading.
Conversely, huge descriptive blocks (a/k/a the GREY WALL OF DOOM) or a lengthy opening speech usually means a tough slog ahead. Already you’ve made an enemy.
If your script has survived this initial first impression, the next thing a reader will consider is the formatting. Is the script written in the right font? Is the font the the right size? Are the descriptive and dialogue blocks where they’re supposed to be? If the formatting looks wrong, the reader will peg you (rightfully) as an amateur, and evaluate your work accordingly.
If your screenplay has passed these first two superficial checks, the real and most critical evaluation will now begin.
How does your screenplay open? What’s the first thing the audience sees and hears? What’s going on? Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Does it immediately grab the reader’s attention? Is it original? Does it beg the question: What happens next?
Even otherwise competent writers too often fail to nail the opening. Too often they’re lazy or default to their first instinct, which is to mimic an opening they’ve seen used successfully before. The problem with this approach is that any competent reader has likewise seen this opening before, and it’s going to immediately bore them.
Lackluster scripts tend to open in one of four ways:
The Wake-Up. You’ve probably seen this opening countless times. An alarm clock goes off. The film’s hero slowly awakens, bleary-eyed. We follow the hero during his/her morning routine. Bathroom stuff. Kitchen stuff. Commuting to work. The hero is bored. And so are we. Quickly.
The Chase. We open on a person begin chased. It’s happening the woods. In a dark alley. The person is alone. Frantic. And nine times out of 10 the person being chased in a woman. The pursuer is unseen ―but is getting closer. The Chase is supposed to grab the reader, but, again, it’s boring. Not just in the way that The Wake-Up is boring ―We’ve seen it before ―but because it tells us very little about this character other than that he/she is reactive. And reactive people aren’t particularly interesting.
The Dream. This my personal pet peeve. The story opens with the story’s hero facing some horrible situation or humiliation, and then we cut to him/her bolting up in bed, gasping and covered with sweat. It was only a dream! How clever. (No.) Here’s the thing about dreams: They’re cheats. They’re meaningless. They’re the result of random neurons firing indiscriminately in an unconscious brain. You want to know how stupid and boring dreams are? Find a random acquaintance and narrate a recent dream to him/her. Watch your friend’s eyes glaze over. Your reader is having this same reaction to your dream sequence. And one other thing: People waking up from dreams don’t bolt up in bed covered with sweat. The human body is naturally paralyzed during REM, so 99 times out of 100 the way people wake up is to open their eyes. Slowly. We all do this. Even script readers. Don’t begin your script by insulting their intelligence.
World-Building. In this opening, the screenwriter takes us on a walking tour of the world the hero inhabits. Maybe it’s modern day Manhattan. Or 19thcentury London. Or Ancient Rome. Or a mining colony on the Planet Zirkon in the year 2655. While these “travelogues” may work brilliantly on the screen, they can be deadly on paper. That’s because one picture is worth a thousand words, and who the hell wants to read a thousand words?
So what does a great screenplay opening look like? Let’s look at some examples from both classic and recent films.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)– Screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf – The first scene is that of our hero, Dorothy Gale, running with her dog, Toto. But she’s not running fromsomething, she’s running tosomething. She’s running home.(Which will turn out to be a major theme in this picture.) By the end of Page 1 we learn that Dorothy is frantic over the fact that Toto just bit Miss Gulch, the richest ―and meanest ―woman in town and now plans to have the dog destroyed. Dorothy pleads with her guardians, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, to prevent this catastrophe.
- Vertigo (1958) – Screenplay by Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor – Here’s another chase scene. Only the hero, John “Scottie” Ferguson, isn’t being chased, he’s the pursuer. He’s a plain-clothed detective leading his fellow cops in pursuit of a fugitive across the rooftops of San Francisco. And he screws up, making a mistake that costs the life of a one of his team and leading to an attack of vertigo that will prove critical to the story’s climax.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan – This action-filled opening sequence encapsulates all the elements of the classic 1940s adventure serials George Lucas and Steven Spielberg meant to update: the exotic location, the intrepid hero, the insidious deathtraps, and the breathless escapes. Throughout it all, we see that Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is less than perfect, screwing up as often as he succeeds, eluding death by a hair’s width multiple times within the script’s first few pages.
- The Social Network (2010) – Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin – “Did you know there are more people with genius I.Q.’s living in China than there are people of kind any living in the United States?” This is the weird and provocative question posted by college-aged Mark Zuckerberg in a long and absolutely riveting restaurant exchange with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, a conversation filled with enough tension, humor, conflict, twists, wisecracks, intelligence, and emotion to make it worthy of a one-act play.
- Dolemite is my Name (2019) – Screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski –Okay, this is a weird choice. But I just happened to see this Eddie Murphy vehicle on Netflix and admired how skillfully it opened. The movie opens in what appears to be a 1970s-era radio station control booth. Murphy’s character, middle-aged hustler/performer Rudy Ray Moore, is trying to cajole the local DJ, played by Snoop Dog, into playing one of his self-produced R&B records. The more the DJ rejects Moore, the harder Moore pushes back, offering one record after another, until he’s finally forced to relent. The twist: This isn’t a radio station. It’s a DJ booth inside an LA record store. The record store where Moore works as a cashier. Moore can’t even get a break from his own co-worker.
So what do all of these scenes have in common?
- All open with characters in conflict. The action has started even before we arrive, and we jump into the middle of it.
- The characters are active, seeking to accomplish something and forced to deal with multiple obstacles in their quest for success.
- And here’s the most important element: The characters Ultimately, Dorothy Gale is forced to hand Toto over to Miss Gulch. Scottie Ferguson not only fails to get his man, but now has a friend’s death on his conscience as well. Indiana Jones acquires the ancient idol, but is forced to hand it over to his rival, Belloq. Mark Zuckerberg loses the girl. Rudy Ray Moore fails to get his records played.
This is a great formula for grabbing a reader’s attention. Open with your lead character trying to solve a problem.Not the Big Problem that will ultimately drive your story, but a smaller one that represents the hero’s status when the story begins. Fill the scene with emotion. With passion. Heroes need to want things badly, whether it’s an ancient golden idol, the apprehension of a fleeing criminal, or just having a friend play your vanity record.
Just as important is how your hero deals with failure. For that will/should be the overall thrust of the story to come.
But what about TV pilots? Are the rules any different? Not really. In fact, with home viewers now having more than 500 scripted series to choose from, it’s become more imperative than ever to engage the audience within the first few seconds. Because if you don’t, they can look for something more entertaining literally at the click of a button.
We live in a world of increasingly shorter and shorter attention spans. Instant gratification is no longer just desirable, but a “must have.” If you can’t grab your reader on Page 1, you may never get a chance to do so on Page 2. – Allen B. Ury