5 Hacks for Writing a Killer Opening Scene

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Lawrence of Arabia. Photo courtesy: Columbia Pictures

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.

Other films with opening scenes that start in the present before flashing back in time include Pulp Fiction, The King’s Speech, Citizen Kane and Lost Highway.

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!

Other movies that open with a “mini-movie” include the new Tomb Raider, Baby Driver, Skyfall, and The Matrix.

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.

Other movies that open with a slow burn are The Godfather, It Follows and A Clockwork Orange.

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.

Other films that have all-visual opening scenes are There Will Be Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now.

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.

Other opening scenes with blindsides include Up, Birdman and Waterworld.

What is the opening scene of your current screenplay? Let us know in the comments section.

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

5 Replies to "5 Hacks for Writing a Killer Opening Scene"

  • comment-avatar
    Edward Ybarra February 28, 2018 (9:17 am)

    In my current screenplay, ‘Chair 4’, angry voices scream at a barely conscience, gravely injured man urging him to fight through his mental fog. When he finally awakens enough, he discovers the voices are from two other injured men who, like himself, are tied to chairs in an abandoned warehouse. The two men tell the third not to try and get out of his chair as an explosive is under one of the chairs and if the wrong one gets up, all will die.

  • comment-avatar
    Catherine February 28, 2018 (9:29 am)

    Very helpful article, thanks Shanee. It definitely helps boost the ideas for an adventure story I have and its opening setup. Love the Indiana Jones movies. Congratulations on the new series development! – Catherine

  • comment-avatar
    Vonnie February 28, 2018 (2:04 pm)

    Vonnie – February 28, 2018

    Nice article. Let me take a break from work and give an opening a try:

    In the context of a lavish celebration, a young woman is introduced as new chairman of the board following her successful hostile takeover of an international food company. But she is in for an unexpected crisis when a heckler asks a question and his echoing voice triggers her memory of a fiery car crash. Her answer to the question is incomplete, but not for long as she comes face to face with the heckler whose completion of her answer tells her that she and America are in imminent danger because of a chemical formula she invented. Cut to a lab where her assistant is being forced to eat cake by a mask men while another seizes a bottle of clear liquid identified as MA 1793.

  • comment-avatar
    Phillip Nawa February 28, 2018 (6:01 pm)

    The teaser for the Breaking Bad pilot is my favorite example of 1 and 2 as well as just visual storytelling to some extent. We see Walt in over his head driving the RV in his underwear. A knocked out passenger lays beside him and two bodies are floating back and forth in a sea of broken chemicals and glass. How could that not grab anyone’s attention?

  • comment-avatar
    Raymond Kenneth Petry March 9, 2018 (4:18 pm)

    In my “The StarTrails Game” -Never say, simulator, again!-
    (a contemporary space sciences adventure, PG-13 Sci³fi feature) <>
    The story opens on a fully-dimensional 3D aural grab, caricatured comic starship captain up-against his own computer-gone-dreaming, and they have to figure-out what’s-real from what’s-its-dream…

    But short-to-conclusion they’re stuck for 2 hours (that’s what it is, a 2.5 min. comicbook short scene)

    And we immediately learn that we are in a live movie, reading a comicbook—and it’s lunchtime….

    We’ll return several times to this sidebar comicbook motif, many short-shorts pumping our-story, but very quickly we find the comicbook is as a schoolbook leading the child into the future-NASA:

    [TOP OF PAGE#17]

    FREEZE-PAGE-FLIP TO:

    COMIC LIEUTENANT
    Gentlemen, It’s simple: You recall, Freshman Complex Calculus Theory:– There’s matter… And there’s anti’ … Which have opposite-charge for each corresponding nucleon and wavicle…

    COMIC PAUL
    Clear enough, But why so much Boom-Power? If you’ll pardon the slight…

    COMIC LIEUTENANT
    Okay… How do you get from positive-one to negative-one conservatively?

    COMIC PAUL
    We rotate, the unit-vector, through the complex-imaginary-plane, pass-I or minus-I, to the negative-unit….

    COMIC LIEUTENANT
    Very good.

    COMIC PAUL
    But… Why–?

    COMIC LIEUTENANT
    That should be obvious, gentlemen: You can’t get from matter to anti-matter without an unconservatively big, bang, Unless you phase-rotate through imaginary-mass….

    FREEZE-PAGE-FLIP TO:

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