5 Tips on Writing Opening Scenes

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When we talk about screenwriting rules, Hollywood legend Frank Capra said it best: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

This is especially true for opening scenes. You get one chance to hook an audience. There are a hundred other things to do and see, so your movie better nail them to their seats immediately or you risk losing them.

Because the opening is so important, it’s worth taking some time to craft the scene, so let’s take a look at few ways to up your game.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

No. 1 – Introduce your protagonist with action

Who can forget the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indiana Jones pops off the screen with larger-than-life adventures and thrilling action.

That last word is the operative term: action. Steven Spielberg deliberately sets the opening in the middle of a big-ticket action sequence because he knows that’s what draws audiences in. Would audiences have stayed in their seats if Jones had sat at a table, quietly discussing his prowess with a pal? It’s hard to say. But we know for sure that action is a great way to introduce your protagonist.

Jurassic Park (1993) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 2 — Create a question to be answered

At the start of Jurassic Park, something horrifying eats a heavily-armed gamekeeper alive. How could any creature overpower men with big guns? That’s the central question of this opening action sequence. Whatever this monster is, audience are riveted and want to know what is that thing.

Jaws (1975) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 3 — Set the tone immediately

Jaws isn’t an arthouse French film. It’s not a romantic comedy, a quirky drama, or a space opera. It’s a horror film—and the audience knows it from the opening sequence. The movie begins with a woman swimming alone getting eaten alive by an oversized shark, and it only gets scarier from there. Audiences want you to set the tone in the opening scene. They want you to toss them into the deep end…so to speak.

The Inglorious Bastards (2009) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 4 — Do something unexpected

Quentin Tarantino’s The Inglorious Bastards is nothing if not surprising, and we know it after watching the first scene. In it, Col. Landa visits a dairy farmer and pleasantly asks if the farmer is hiding Jews. The scene takes an unexpected turn when Landa threatens the farmer and the farmer gives up the location of the hidden Jews. A bloodbath ensues. The pleasantness of the Landa character throws audiences for a loop, which makes us wonder what other surprises Tarantino has in store for us—and that kind of curiosity is what makes audiences stay.

The Hunger Games (2012) Photo courtesy: Lionsgate Films

No. 5 — Above all, give us conflict

Not many audiences want to watch uninteresting characters kindly agree about unimportant stuff. We want conflict. We want pain. The Hunger Games gives us all that in the first sequence, when we learn Katniss and her beloved sister Primrose might both end up in a horrendous “game” that requires children to kill each other. Will they survive? The conflict is bone-deep and horrifying beyond belief, which is what makes this opening sequence captivating—and that bone-deep thrill is exactly what you want to incorporate in your own scripts.

What are your favorite opening sequences in movies? Sound off in the comments!

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of "Shakespeare for Screenwriters" (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming "Storytelling Secrets of the Masters." As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

9 Replies to "5 Tips on Writing Opening Scenes"

  • comment-avatar
    Michael Johnson April 30, 2019 (2:55 am)

    Thank you so so much for the 5 writing tips ,these tips will definitely take my screen plays to the next level, I plan to include them in my films moving forward ..Mike Johnson

  • comment-avatar
    Les Bowser April 30, 2019 (7:57 am)

    One of my favorite movies is Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987).
    With a slow opening sequence (one could say boring), no conflict and nothing
    unexpected, why does it work? And why did the movie work well enough
    to win an Academy award?

    Another favorite is Lawrence of Arabia. Like Babette’s Feast, the
    opening scene is rather mundane: a man, unknown to the audience,
    fusses with a motorcycle. No conflict, no action, and only the
    dramatic music contrasting with the ordinariness of the scene. After
    several “wasted” minutes of this, the mystery man drives away to die
    in a road accident. These days, even that part would be considered
    unexciting. The scene does create a puzzle, as Paul Joseph Gulino
    notes (Screenwriting: the sequence approach), allowing the audience to
    wonder who the man is, where he’s going and why. But a director today
    would likely skip both the opening sequence and the funeral scene and
    immediately open with action in Cairo.

    I think the 5 Tips on writing opening sequences could be applied more
    directly to action or fantasy movies. But there are other ways to open
    a movie and Laura Schellhardt offers one. (Screenwriting for Dummies)
    “The eye picks up details more quickly than the ear, and nothing’s
    more disconcerting than staring at talking heads. In a way, you
    haven’t earned the right to open verbally. As someone in the audience,
    I don’t yet know the people speaking. I haven’t decided whether
    they’re interesting enough to pursue. Let me watch them for a bit,
    assess their actions, and make some initial assumptions. Doing so
    keeps me actively involved in guessing what your story will be.”

    And Robert Towne reinforces Schellhardt’s advice. (in Joseph McBride,
    Writing in Pictures)
    “I believe in soft openings for movies… I think it’s almost impossible
    to lose an audience in the first ten minutes but almost inevitable in
    the last if you haven’t laid the groundwork of the film at the
    beginning. It’s not television. You don’t have to grab them. In a
    movie with a very fast opening, you end up paying for it somewhere
    along the way — usually by having to explain what happened in the fast
    and furious action. I almost like it when a movie’s a little boring in
    the beginning because it establishes a kind of credibility that you
    can build on.”

    It’s worth keeping the 5 Tips in mind, but if your script begins with
    excessive action and conflict, you could spend the next 110 pages
    trying to make the story catch up with itself.

  • comment-avatar
    Paddy April 30, 2019 (8:53 am)

    I agree with Les. We got problems but opening our movies isn’t one of them. I have been pondering the opening sequences of Shakespeare In Love, Roma, Four Weddings and A Funereal, Ground Hogs Day and Scent of A Women. All very different films with intriguing and fresh openings as indicted above but they also celebrated with a nod to the genre first.

  • comment-avatar
    Gerald Chong April 30, 2019 (10:53 am)

    Thank you so much for sharing some very helpful tips that every screenwriter should consider…

  • comment-avatar
    Gerald Chong April 30, 2019 (11:43 am)

    The opening scene In “Lawrence of Arabia” definitely “created a question to be answered.” It was so mundane that it caused audience frustration and led to questions of “Who is this guy, what’s so important about him, and why should we even care?” The movie then goes on to answer those questions, and we learn that he was a man of daring and action the likes of which most of us will never achieve in our lifetimes…

  • comment-avatar
    Valerie Hill May 4, 2019 (8:12 am)

    I believe that the beginning of “Lawrence of Arabia”, was superb, the audience is on edge because they know something is going to happen on that motorbike ride around the country lanes, anticipation is a great introduction. The same type of sequence in “Out of Africa”, a train journey, with VO and the fantastic, “English Patient”, low flying aircraft over Africa with the wonderful romantic soundtrack, leaving the audience wanting more.

  • comment-avatar
    rohit aggarwal July 24, 2019 (12:17 am)

    thanks for the information

  • comment-avatar
    kshitij July 24, 2019 (12:18 am)

    good one keep it up

  • comment-avatar
    varun gupta July 24, 2019 (12:19 am)

    thanks for sharing this tips

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