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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Opening Image

We all know by now that screenwriters have very little time to grab the attention of a reader. Some say 10 pages, some say five - I'm going to blow your mind and say one page. Most experienced readers and consultants will often say privately to one another that they can tell if your script is good somewhere on the first page. Sometimes we sort of joke around with each other after a couple of cocktails - I can tell within two sentences. I can tell by halfway down the first page. I can tell by the first line of dialogue. I personally can tell by the first page. Can tell what? Whether you're a good writer and whether this script is going anywhere.

And how can I (we) tell? Your use of language, the pacing on that first page, succinct but compelling action lines, and a great opening image.

Now, the screenwriting world is divided into roughly two camps: The Film School Academics, who spout Eisenstein, and the Populists who spout just-effing-entertain-me. Then you have your subgroups: The Hero's Journey-ers, the Save-the-Cat-ers, the McKee-ers, the Syd Field-ers, the UCLA-ers, the USC-ers, the NYU-ers and the I-Never-Took-One-Class-ers.

What I try to do on the Rouge Wave is to synthesize those various points of view into actionable simplicity. Stuff that's easy to understand and to do. It doesn't have to be rocket science, in other words. Because if you want to talk Eisenstein, I can go there too but honestly, you don't have to go to film school to grok this stuff.

The opening image - it's right in the name - is literally the first thing we "see" when we read your script (or watch the movie, should you be so lucky). So, given that we all understand that your very first page better be provocative, compelling and totally engaging - what should you choose as your opening image?

The opening image could be a landscape, a home, a person, an event - but whatever it is, it should set the tone, genre and theme of your script up immediately, pleasingly and artfully.

This is the opening image from BLADE RUNNER:

We are MOVING TOWARD the Tyrell Corporation across a vast
plain of industrialization, menacing shapes on the horizon,
stacks belching flames five hundred feet into the sky the
color of cigar ash.

This is the opening image from LA CONFIDENTIAL:

Over the opening strains of "I love you, California," a MONTAGE: a mixture of headlines, newsreel footage and live action. Economy Booming! Postwar Optimism! L.A.: City of the Future! But most prominent among them: GANGLAND! Police photographers document crime scenes. The meat wagon hauls ex-button men to the morgue. Where will it end?

This is the opening image from LOST IN TRANSLATION:


We hear the sound of a plane landing over black.


The back of a GIRL in pink underwear, she leans at a big window, looking out over Tokyo.

You see how each example is setting up the story to come with tone, visual theme and a compelling, interesting opening that describes, on a micro level, the story to come? So when it comes to your script - do that. Go to your page one right now - seriously, minimize The Rouge Wave and go to page one. I'll wait right here.

[muzak version of: You Light Up My Life]

Okay. What was your opening image? How does it speak to the story to come in a cinematic, thematic, tone-establishing way? Or does it do that at all? The opening image is fun. It is a creative opportunity to set the tone and to grab your reader. The opening image should grab YOU.

You know how you flip the channels on the TV and you take about 3 seconds (and guys, for you, that's 1 second for some weird reason) to decide whether to stay or keep flipping? That's how your script is read. You have one page, guys, to make me believe that you are a good writer and that I should turn the page and keep reading. Not for readers - you have one page to get them liking you enough to not be jaded and cranky as hell, since they HAVE to read the whole thing. But execs, agents and managers? One page. Maybe less. They have the luxury of the circular file. Don't tempt them into playing yet one more game of Script-In-The-Can.

Now get back to work.

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meg said...

And it seems to me that if I begin with such a great opening then I better damn well follow through the rest of the script with a equally compelling story.

incidently, I have a script I'm working on that I think has a terrific opening. A few days later I wrote the ending scene. I wanted the ending to mirror back to that opening. I took part of the opening and used it in the end in a quietly powerful way that reflects the changes in the hero but leaves one with hope for him.

Now I just got to get from the opening to The End. But I hope with those signposts i will not get lost.

Joshua James said...

Lots of "We see / move" in those descriptions ... what's your take on "we see?" ... I hear many readers dislike it ...

Anthony Peterson said...

Yes great stories tend to have endings that mirror their beginnings. Its a long way from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, but hey, thats the wonder of story telling!

I just watched the Kite Runner on the weekend. Totally loved it. Same deal - great opening sequence that was mirrored in the closing sequence. Its beautiful. Its redemptive. Its everything I love about writing.

Julie Gray said...

@Meg - yes, a closing image that mirrors the opening image is the perfect bookend :)

@Anthony - I LOVED The Kite Runner. What a lovely movie.

@Joshua - "we see" is something that know-it-all-yet-would-be screenwriters argue about on message boards but readers just don't care. It's so minor, even the pros sometimes do it. I don't know who propagated the myth that "we see" matters but when I find that person I'm going to cover them with honey and put them on an ant hill for eternity.

meg said...

Re: "we see"
Seems to me that's where reading a lot of produced scripts comes in. I've read that admonishment in several books but have come across it in enough scripts to realize it's not a crime. Readility and simplicity seems to be the goal in writing so sometimes I would think "we see" is better than some convoluted attempt to avoid it.

Luzid said...

@ Meg: I admire your consistent insights into story. If you're here in L.A., we simply must have coffee sometime! (Julie can testify that I don't bite.)

@ Julie: Agreed, but personally I don't care for the use of "we see", because it pulls me out of the story. I enjoy implied shots far more -- if the description is vivid enough, there's no need to tell me what I'm seeing.

Julie Gray said...

@meg - damn straight. you said it perfectly.

E.C. Henry said...

I hope someday you get to read a script I wrote entittled, "Indians of the Ancient Plains," Julie. Got an opening scene I'm quite proud of.

Getting someone's attenton on only 1 page is quite the challenge. I think TOO MUCH emphasis on that may lead many weak minded writers to start off with outlanding beginnings...
Your point does register with me though. Thanks.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

meg said...

@ Luzid- you made my day. keep the invite open, ok? I must finish up some serious obligations here before I beat it to L.A. Since I have family in the L.A. area I'm looking forward to some rent-free accomodations so the coffee will be on me. :)

Anonymous said...


Best Opening Image for 2008 --

Hands down,

"The Low Dweller" by Brad Ingelsby

Do you agree?

Would your Readers and non-readers agree?

Joshua James said...

Julie, I agree with you, I don't there's anything wrong with "we see" (John August uses it a lot) but I've certainly heard from a number of readers / bloggers who hate it (Mystery Man hates it hates it) ... I happen to think it's perfectly acceptable, like you (and it's actually pretty common in television writing) ... but I have to say, I'm leery of it now ...