The first scene in a movie has many jobs to do. Not only must it nail down the tone, time and place where the story is being told, it must also tease the journey ahead. It’s no wonder some writers spend months conceiving and writing the first five pages of their screenplay.
Screenwriters have the additional pressure of capturing the reader’s attention, so grabbing them in the first five pages is an excellent strategy. While there are a million exciting ways to start your movie, we’ve identified five of the most successful ones.
No. 1 — The circular start
Many movies, especially historical ones, have a circular structure. They start in the present where the protagonist is in crisis, then flashback to the beginning of the story.
If we take Lawrence of Arabia, the opening scene is literally the end of the story as it sets up T.E. Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole) death. The choice to start with this scene is a message about fate: despite having survived the dangers and evils of World War I, no one knows when their time is up. Something as petty as a motorbike could be your killer. The real Lawrence was only 46 when he died.
In addition to establishing the cruel irony and utter randomness of life that will be demonstrated throughout the film, the scene teases a story about a fearless man, high-speed vehicles, unforeseen obstacles and the sacrifice Lawrence will make for innocents – implied in the way he swerves to miss the children on bikes. This is both visual and philosophical storytelling at its best.
No. 2 — The mini-movie
The “mini-movie” opening scene, also called a “cold open,” plays like a short film with a beginning, middle and end that sets up the adventure that will take place in the rest of the film. Basically, it’s showing you what kind of ride you’re on. This type of opening often happens in action-adventure or fantasy films as a way to whet the appetite of the audience by giving them just a taste of the fun.
Raiders of the Lost Ark has perhaps the most iconic “mini-movie” opening scene of all time. Not only do we meet our handsome, rugged, adventurous protagonist, we see him in action demonstrating all the skills he’s going to need later in the film. We also learn he has a flaw: he hates snakes. It’s a flaw that makes him relatable and human. What a perfect hero!
No. 3 – The Slow Burn
Movies that want to set up suspense, as well as complicated antagonists, begin with scenes that slowly lay the groundwork for the entire film brick by brick. These opening scenes are popular in war movies and political dramas because the screenwriter needs to take time to explain the circumstances of the war/political event and remind the audience of the major players.
The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds plays like a master class in creating tension. Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Nazi, patiently drinks his milk and smokes his pipe while we see Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), presumably a Jew, hiding beneath the floorboards. The sublime acting only adds to the drama and suspense. From this scene we learn the film will be violent, the antagonist malevolent but the fact that Shosanna escapes shows us there is hope.
No. 4 – Purely visual with no dialogue
Sometimes, the best way to open a film is through purely visual storytelling. These sequences are often set to specific music that evokes a particular mood and show a life-changing event.
In the opening of Antichrist, we see a perfectly normal married couple making love to the point of ecstasy while Handel’s “Lascia Ch’io Pianga Prologue” plays in the background. We also see their young child stirring in his crib then curiously heading toward an open window. The tragic fate of all three individuals is quickly sealed as the child falls to his death. Sometimes, life is so cruel, there just are no words.
No. 5 — The blindside
Many movies open with scenes that make you think you’re settling in for one kind of story but within a few minutes, we realize this is a something else entirely. As screenwriters, we’re taught to include the story’s “inciting incident” by page 17 – the event that calls the protagonist to their journey, but some movies include it right away. This immediately gives the audience the feeling that the normal world has been disrupted or that the protagonist was severely deluded.
The opening scene of Legally Blonde makes us all think Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is about to be proposed to by her college boyfriend. But when he breaks up with her instead, the rug is pulled out from under her feet. She is blindsided and must reevaluate her entire life, sending her on an adventure that includes law school.
What is the opening scene of your current screenplay? Let us know in the comments section.