Master Screenwriting: Openings
Great openings in scripts grab you by the throat. Master writers know this, and write accordingly. A consistent theme we see at ScriptArsenal in scripts from newer writers is a gradual warming up of conflict, where “the good stuff” tends to come later in the read. This is a dangerous place to position your writing, as industry readers are notoriously impatient and distracted by the next new thing. Don’t give them the chance to drift away. Grab them by the throat. Let’s consider some examples below:
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin). Arguably the entire creation of “FaceMash” is the opening sequence. Mark Zuckerberg, whom the audience knew (at the time) primarily as a name associated with Facebook, but not so much as a person, is dumped by his girlfriend, gets drunk and mad and goes on a misogynistic rant before creating a website for ranking the hotness of girls. The script invites audience empathy (Mark is dumped) and then frustrates it immediately (Mark creates a website to rank hotness of girls after being dumped, while ranting in voiceover about his ex being a “bitch”).
THE DEPARTED (Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, by William Monahan). A young child is groomed by an aging mob boss into becoming his mole in the police force. One exchange between the child and the mob boss includes: “You do good in school?” “I did too, they call that a paradox.” Again, the script invites empathy (a child is manipulated by an older criminal) and frustrates it (that child becomes a mob mole in the police department as an adult).
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay, by Josh Olson). The opening scene depicts two thugs checking out from a motel, only to reveal they’ve killed the owners, and then one of them kills the owners’ child. It’s a bracing act of violence that demands attention, but it also completely sets up what’s to come in the film. At first, the protagonist, Tom Stall, seems like the polar opposite of these men. But in the diner scene where he murders them, he shows a common brutality, suggesting the titular history of violence.
All these openings engage the audience emotionally. All of them make bold choices (Frank Costello, in THE DEPARTED, uses the “n” word and asks a teenage girl if she has gotten her period yet BEFORE recruiting Colin Sullivan, letting the audience know the poisonous effect he is likely to have on the child).
All three openings should leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. Mark Zuckerberg’s actions are bound to have repercussions. Colin Sullivan has successfully infiltrated the police force as a mole for the mob. A child has been brutally killed in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.
One of the problematic side effects of the widely-used “ordinary world” structural concept (the first 10 pages are the “ordinary world” of the protagonist) is that “ordinary” has sometimes been conflated with “mundane”. Movies are not our real world, and the “ordinary world” of these characters, as shown above, is anything but. How are you grabbing the reader by the throat in your opening? Let us know in the comments below.