By Shaun Leonard · September 30, 2019
When we watch these clichéd movie openings, we groan. Or worse, we stop paying attention until something original happens. Hooking an audience with the opening scene of a film is difficult. Getting a reader invested in the first pages of a script is even harder. So, if your screenplay starts with any of the listed openings, you might want to reconsider your first impression. Don’t worry, each section includes ideas for how to make the most of your first scene, or alternatives to help you move past or elevate the most clichéd openings in contemporary movies.
An exciting moment kickstarts the plot. We enter in media res, with little idea of how these characters got in trouble, and even less ideas of how they’ll get out. It’s exhilarating, and just when we get excited about what’s about to happen, the scene cuts to black. A title card comes up, saying something like “72 Hours Ago”. Then the movie spends two acts catching up to an ending we’ve seen already. This is the ouroboros of movie openings. A snake eating its own tail. This cliché crops up so often because it allows a writer to trick the audience. Instead of writing an exciting opening, we can put the exciting ending up front. This hooks the viewer and puts something stimulating in the first act so we can spend the rest on character introductions.
The problem is, once the audience realizes it’s been tricked it’s tough to get them back on your side. Worse, if the rest of the first act isn’t as engaging as the opening scene, the rising action will fall apart and damage the pacing. Sometimes these opening scenes take on a new meaning in the second or third act when we catch up to them. If the context of the story changes everything about how we view the opening, congratulations. You’ve got a strong structure that the audience will applaud you for. But before you decide to use this flashback/forward setup, consider other openings. If you can find something original to jumpstart the plot without resetting the pacing, the audience will follow you as the action rises.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! A hand slaps an alarm until it turns off. We see our groggy protagonist get ready too face the day. By the end of their morning, we understand their issues and their world. If not for the thousands of other movies that start this way, an alarm clock would be a great tool to open a script or a film. This opening is used excessively in short films, but it crops up in features too. The ideas behind the alarm clock wakeup are useful. We want to introduce an active character and show their typical environment before everything changes. Keep these ideas but find a way to apply them in an original way. Instead of showing us the beginning of the day, pick another moment that highlight exactly who your protagonist is. Perhaps the way they treat their valet reveals their kindness. Or their unusual choice of pet gives us an inside track to the heart of the protagonist. Whatever you choose, chances are it’s more original than an alarm blaring.
These opening scenes usually involve a character the audience has never seen before being killed by another character we’ve never seen before. These openings are intended to make a statement about the antagonist and set audience expectations for the unity of action in the script. Either the death of the Unknown Character (UC) sets in motion a mysterious chain of events the protagonist must unravel, or the viciousness of the death makes us fear the antagonist and wonder how they can possibly be stopped. Recent examples of this include the Saw/Jigsaw franchise, and almost every crime procedural tv show. The reason this clichéd opening is used so often is because it mostly works. We start paying attention.
Unfortunately, there’s usually little emotion involved in watching a fictional stranger suffer a harrowing end. Two options present themselves: find a way to convince the audience to invest in the UC or make the way the character dies original. The Saw films do both simultaneously. They show an intriguing trap, and then give the UC a chance to escape. There’s even a ticking clock that pressurizes the situation. While this won’t work for everyone, use the page space you have to show us why we should root for the UC to survive. Or you can go the other direction, and show us somebody we want to see get their just desserts.
Once we witnessed the Star Wars crawl, it was already too late. Preamble exposition involves text or voiceover that explains something to the audience. Sometimes this is a way to flesh out the world in terms of location, time, culture, etc. The text version of this is popular in science fiction and historical epics. They provide context. This probably sounds like a great tool for a movie. And for a movie, maybe it is. But for a script, exposition in the first page is tough to get past. Not only is it a crutch, it’s a clichéd crutch. Film is a visual medium, so there should be a visual way to communicate the information you’re trying to get across. Find that visual method. Of course, there are clichéd visual crutches too.
You want the audience to understand the main character’s greatest fear, or their ultimate desire. What better way to reveal these inner motivations to the audience than a nightmare/dream sequence? The answer is: anything but a dream sequence. These sequences are overused in movie openings, but they’re also overused in general. You might think a dream is a reasonable way to show the audience the interiority of a character, and in one respect they are. They allow for visual flair and dynamic story. The problem with dreams is that the character having the dream is usually passive. Worse, once the dream is over, nothing has changed. This means the past few minutes have been a waste of the audience’s time. The quickest workaround for this is to eliminate the dream sequence and see if you can push the characters to extremes in the real world. Alternatively, consider how dreamlike visuals can be incorporated into the story you’re telling. But beware: unless these visions or hallucinations are integral to the story, someone is going to tell you to cut them. For an example of a story that makes hallucinations an integral part of a character’s drive, check out Mad Max: Fury Road. The hallucinations in that action powerhouse affect the protagonist and the plot.
A caveat: any well written opening is a great opening, even if it relies on a cliché. The purpose of the above list is to point out that there’s always another way to start your story. And for those of you reading this that still want to use one of the tropes listed above, go for it. But consider how you can tweak the form and build on it. Even if the general opening you’re writing has been done before, you can still put your own stamp on it. A new twist on a clichéd opening can impress a reader and show that you examine your story on a structural and contextual level, not just a plot level.
Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard