Monday, March 30, 2015

First and 10: How to open your screenplay like a pro

How do you begin a screenplay that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice?

The first consideration is what will be your opening image. The very first thing the audience sees is important in helping to set the tone and in setting expectations. If possible, the first image should be the opposite of the final image. These don't have to be literally opposite images, but if it can be delivered literally, all the better.

Quick example: If your opening image is of an abandoned run-down, old estate, your closing image, after your story develops to deliver the necessary changes, might be of a fixed-up estate which looks brand new, with the protagonist and his/her family bringing life to the old place. Alternately, you may just open with a dark tone and dark imagery and end with an optimistic tone and lively imagery.

If possible, you should have your protagonist appear on page one. There are some instances when you wouldn't want this, such as when you depict a murder or some catastrophe that the protagonist is going to respond to in the script, but if you can open with your protagonist front and center, that is the best way to instantly convey some very important things to the reader/audience.

First, you can use you opening to introduce the protagonist to the reader/audience. This is the character whose viewpoint they will be experiencing most of this story through, so it helps to get to know this person right away. Second, you can show his/her skill and possibly the threat he/she will be tasked with stopping, or crime to solve. You can also show us their cleverness and humanity. You can give us a reason to like or sympathize with the protagonist. A reason to root for him/her to succeed.

There is a method to achieving this. The best formula includes opening by thrusting the protagonist immediately into a crisis. This provides the opportunity to put your hero in danger and illustrate his/her intelligence and skill in getting out of it. You can also throw the reader/audience a curveball. Just when we think we know what's going to happen, you throw us a twist that grabs our attention.

The first ten pages should tell us:

Who is the main character? Where is the story set? What kind of movie is this -- Is it a blockbuster or a small indie? Whose story is it? Do we like the protagonist or hero of this story?

Who is the main character? If you can't have your protagonist appear on page one, then you must have him/her appear shortly after this opening scene. If your story opens with a murder, for example, you might cut to the protagonist police detective at the crime scene immediately following.

Where is the story set? The opening scene might not tell us the physical location where the movie will take place, but it usually sets up the time period and the tone. For instance, the opening scene might be the discovery of man murdered in his own home, but the majority of the script might take place in the Florida Everglades.

What kind of movie is this? Pretty self-explanatory. If we see a starship warp into hyper-space to escape from a fleet of attacking spaceships, we know this is some kind of sci-fi movie, and almost certainly an action-oriented one complete with battles in space. We would also know this is a big-budget, studio film, not a low-budget indie film and that it takes place in the future.

Whose story is it? It's the protagonist's story, of course, but who is the protagonist? Is it the detective who appears at the crime scene immediately following the opening murder? Or is it the wife of the murder victim? Perhaps the wife comes home to find the police flooding her yard and must fight to overcome an indifferent detective who decides the murder is a simple robbery gone bad, when the widow knows there is more to it.

Do we like the protagonist/hero of this story? This is vital. Your protagonist doesn't have to be a wonderful human being, altruistic and selfless, but there must be a reason for the audience/reader to identify with or sympathize with him/her. Do we empathize with the widow's fight against a system that has rendered our lives merely something to be categorized as quickly and neatly as possible? Perhaps she is pushy and vulgar, but we sympathize with her because she demands justice and respect for her murdered husband. We know what it's like to be made to feel unimportant, as if every interaction with the “system” is taxing for the powers-that-be, who wish we would just accept their decrees like good little automatons and mind our place.

The first ten pages or ten minutes of your script are critical, because most Hollywood readers won't go beyond those ten if you don't hook them. You must make the person reading your script eager to turn the pages. Immerse them in your story world with a tantalizing opening scene, a quick surprise that turns expectations upside-down, a worthy protagonist and a compelling story.

Think of your favorite films and how they handled the opening ten minutes. See if you can track down these elements in those films. Remember, not all films follow these rules, but it's usually only those who are already inside the system who can get away with breaking these rules. Before you can break them, you must first break in.

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