The First Image in Your Screenplay 3


Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

I am sure that by now you have heard how important the first ten pages of a screenplay are in capturing the interest of the reader. I would take it a step further. The opening, the set up, the first image or sequence of images are crucial to capturing the interest and curiosity of the reader. If your opening is weak, what happens on page 8, 9 and 10 won’t help you. Your opening needs to begin with a mind-blowing hook, a hair-raising shock, a compelling question, and/or an atmosphere of immense intrigue. This is crucial on a several levels. Not only does this kind of opening nail your reader to the front door, it always combats laziness on the part of the writer. It forces him/her to dig deeper into their story and within their own writing skills.

Lazy shallow writing is in my mind is the number one reason why a great idea turns into a yawn. If you skate along the surface of your story it just won’t do. Here comes one of Boyle’s truisms. Ready.

“If you have what it takes to be a screenwriter it will take everything you got.”

That is the truth. No debate.

I have spent weeks and even longer searching, defining and refining my openings. I have been forced to dig deep into my storytelling skills, and it has paid off well for me. This often means that your script may not begin at the beginning. Perhaps you need to seek a moment within your story that has a greater impact on the visceral experience of the reader. Many of the greatest movie openings have used this device - Citizen Kane, Sunset Blvd, The Usual Suspects, to name three of the great ones.

Here is another example of what I mean. Let’s say your protagonist is a chemistry teacher who lives a very boring existence. He gets very little respect. His students don’t give a damn about chemistry. His home life is no better, a dull rut that he will never climb out of. Though this is really where your character's story begins, this is not an opening that will intrigue your reader. But this will:

INT. WINNEBAGO – DAY

Inside, the DRIVER’s knuckles cling white to the wheel. He’s got the pedal flat. Scared, breathing fast. His eyes bug wide behind the faceplate of his gasmask.

Oh, by the way, he’s wearing a GAS MASK. That, and white jockey UNDERPANTS. Nothing else.

Buckled in the seat beside him lolls a clothed PASSENGER, also wearing a gas mask. Blood streaks down from his ear, blotting his T-shirt. He’s passed out cold.

Behind them, the interior is a wreck. Beakers and buckets and flasks – some kind of ad-hoc CHEMICAL LAB -- spill their noxious contents with every bump we hit. Yellow-brown liquid washes up and down the floor. It forms into a scum around ...

… Two DEAD BODIES. Two freshly deceased Mexican guys tumble like rag dolls, bumping into each other.

Does this have your attention? Damn right it does. Of course, this is the opening of the pilot episode of the brilliant AMC series, ‘Breaking Bad’. Vince Gilligan is to screenplay narrative what Aaron Sorkin is to screenplay dialogue.

Stepping out of chronological order so as to create a powerful opening scene is a very effective option. If for whatever reason this is not something that works for your script, then another choice is to establish an opening atmosphere that draws the writer into the world of your screenplay. This has been used in such films as Citizen Kane, Jaws, Contact, The Godfather, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and many others.

Another choice is attach a hook scene that really has nothing to do with the story, but does set the tone. This is most effective in action films, and is used in almost every James Bond movie. Still another way to go is establish a question by creating a "foreshadow" of what is to come. How will the story end, what will happen to the protagonist? You don’t come right out and tell us, but you give a hint such as the scorpions being attacked by the red ants in the opening of ‘The Wild Bunch’. Other films that have opened with a foreshadowing include Jurassic Park, The Prestige, and The Wizard of Oz. Whatever you choose, dig deep to find something that really captures the imagination of the reader.


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