Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tips For Tuesday - Save the Pet Shop

In this post, I want to talk a bit about your opening scene.

Beginning screenwriters are often under the mistaken impression that they can or should open their screenplay in some leisurely fashion. When asked about it, they often claim they want to “build up to” their character or the plot or both.


Here’s the thing. This is a movie. Time is of the essence. We don’t want to waste time.  Or film. In a novel, it’s just words on a page. We can ease our way into the story. Not in a movie. Never.

Your goal should be to bring your reader (and hopefully the viewer) immediately into the story. If possible, you also want to give them more than a glimpse of your main character. No pussyfooting around. Drop them right smack dab into the story.

For example, in the opening scene of Rocky, our main character is fighting in a smoky, dingy athletic club against some lowly opponent. They clutch and grab and box inartfully for awhile, until Rocky gets headbutted and unleashes a furious barrage of blows on the poor guy, knocking him halfway out of the ring. After Rock climbs out of the ropes, he bums a cigarette from a spectator. Then, as he walks away with his smoke, another spectator we don’t see calls him a “bum”. Scene over.

Now think of what this does. We know immediately what the movie is about – boxing – and we get a real picture of what Rocky is like at the beginning of the story. Let’s just say he’s not at the top of the boxing ranks. He shows very little in the way of technique, but at the same time he can really punch. Oh, and he's hardly at the peak of his conditioning either, as evidenced by that cigarette. Perfect scene choice to start the film.

Soon after the opening scene we see Rocky at the pet store trying to flirt with Adrian. It’s a nice scene. More leisurely. Also character revealing. They could have opened the film with that scene. But how would that have played? Think they made the right choice?

As I often advise, readers are jaded. They read tons of scripts. They’re just looking for reasons to give your script a “pass”. In fact, they’re often told by their superiors to stop reading as soon as they’re bored or have determined that they don’t think the writer can write or that the screenplay is any good. So why start your script with a slow boring scene? It’s the same as when you go to the theater to watch a movie isn’t it? You’re looking to be grabbed. Taken into the story. You wait through all those previews for it to start. I doubt you’re looking for some la-di-dah scene when it does finally open.

And it doesn’t have to mean you have to start with an action sequence either.

A great example of a non-action opening scene is in Little Miss Sunshine. Before introducing us to all those great characters in the family, Michael Arndt chooses to open on eight year old Olive. She’s wearing over-sized eyeglasses and watching a tape of the Miss America Pageant, mimicing the reaction of the winner, playing it over and over again. Something about the contrast between the adult beauty contest winner on the TV and the little girl who is hardly beauty pageant material is intriguing. And it both draws us in and lets us know what this movie is going to be about. No need to show Olive at school or on the playground. Instead - boom – right into story.

So remember: when it comes to your opening scene, write something compelling, something that “takes us into the story”, something that “grabs” the reader. There’s still room in your first act for that “pet shop” scene. Just don’t open with it.

(Reminder: all of the Tips For Tuesday columns are available as podcasts at the iTunes store.  Just search under my name or "screenwriting".)

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