By: Laura Huie
Crafting a compelling script is a delicate balance of art and technique. A captivating opening sets the stage for the entire narrative, grabbing the audience’s attention from the first moment.
Whether you’re an aspiring screenwriter or a seasoned pro, mastering the art of creating a fantastic first ten pages can make all the difference.
With our Script Development Fund opening in September, now is the time to start ideating on your next TV/film concept! We’re looking for submissions in the form of short treatments or the first 10 pages of a feature, TV show, or short film. The Grand Prize Winner will get a $2,000 cash grant and one year of script development with our team.
With that said, let’s dive into ten essential tips to help you craft an unforgettable opening to your script that keeps readers hooked.
1. Start with a Bang
The opening moments of your script are like a handshake with your audience—you want it to be firm and memorable. Dive right into the heart of the story with an intriguing situation, a powerful visual, or a piece of captivating dialogue. This immediate engagement will pique the audience’s curiosity and make them eager to explore the rest of your script.
For example, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is a masterclass in immersive storytelling. The film thrusts the audience into the chaos of the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach during World War II. The visceral and intense depiction of warfare is so realistic that viewers feel like they’re right there on the battlefield. This harrowing sequence not only grabs attention but also serves as a visceral introduction to the sacrifices and horrors of war, grounding the audience in the film’s setting and themes.
2. Establish the Tone
Within the first ten pages, it’s crucial to establish the tone of your script. Whether it’s a light-hearted comedy, a gripping thriller, or a heartfelt drama, your opening should reflect the emotional atmosphere you intend to convey throughout the story. Use language, setting, and character interactions to set the stage for what’s to come.
A prime example of setting the tone early on is La La Land with an exuberant opening musical number set in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. The vibrant colors, energetic choreography, and catchy song establish the film’s dreamy and nostalgic tone. This opening sets the stage for a story that celebrates the magic of pursuing one’s dreams while acknowledging the challenges that come with it.
3. Introduce the Protagonist
Your protagonist is the driving force behind your script, and introducing them within the first ten pages is essential. Provide a glimpse into their life, desires, and struggles to create an instant connection between the audience and the character. This emotional bond will make the viewers invest in their journey.
The animated film Up opens with a powerful sequence that tells the life story of the main character, Carl Fredricksen, and his wife Ellie. In a matter of minutes, the audience is taken on an emotional roller coaster through their joys, dreams, and sorrows. By the end of this poignant montage, viewers are emotionally invested in Carl’s journey, setting the stage for the adventure that follows.
4. Create Conflict
Conflict is the engine that propels your story forward, and it should be introduced early on. Within the first ten pages, present a challenge or dilemma that the protagonist must face. This conflict serves as the initial hook, keeping the audience engaged and eager to see how the protagonist will navigate the obstacles ahead.
For instance, Jurassic Park wastes no time in establishing conflict. The opening scenes introduce workers on Isla Nublar as they grapple with a dangerous situation—a Velociraptor attacking a worker while trying to transfer it to its enclosure. This conflict not only sets the tone for the film’s theme of humans vs. nature but also immediately engages the audience’s attention with suspense and danger.
5. Offer Intrigue and Questions
Leave breadcrumbs of curiosity within the opening scenes. Pose questions that beg for answers, enticing the audience to continue reading or watching. These unresolved mysteries will create a sense of anticipation and keep the audience invested in uncovering the truth.
The Matrix opens with a gripping sequence in which Trinity, a mysterious hacker, is pursued by agents in a gripping rooftop chase. The scene is a whirlwind of action, but it’s the cryptic dialogue and Trinity’s extraordinary abilities that provoke intrigue. The audience is left with numerous questions: Who are these agents? What is the Matrix? What makes Trinity so unique? This web of curiosity propels viewers into a world of mystery and philosophical exploration.
6. Show, Don’t Tell
Visual storytelling is a hallmark of screenwriting. Instead of relying on exposition to convey information, use actions, expressions, and settings to reveal character traits, relationships, and backstories. This not only engages the audience visually but also encourages them to interpret the story through their own lens.
One example of this is the visually stimulating opening sequence of Drive. The protagonist, known only as the Driver, is shown evading the police in a thrilling chase. The sequence establishes his skills, resourcefulness, and stoic demeanor without needing any dialogue to explain it. The audience forms a quick understanding of who he is through his actions alone.
Craft a sense of continuity by introducing elements that will become significant later in the story. Foreshadowing events or themes and planting narrative seeds within the first ten pages adds layers of depth to your script. It rewards attentive viewers and readers while encouraging them to delve deeper into the narrative.
In the opening scene of The Departed, a young Colin Sullivan meets crime boss Frank Costello. This brief encounter not only establishes Sullivan’s connection to Costello but also plants the seed of an undercover operation. The subsequent scenes weave these early seeds into a web of deceit and tension, as the characters’ loyalties and identities are explored.
8. Establish the World
Whether your story is set in a fantastical realm or a familiar urban landscape, immerse the audience in the world you’ve created. Provide vivid descriptions of the surroundings, culture, and atmosphere to transport viewers into the heart of the story. A richly established world enhances the overall storytelling experience.
The opening of Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterclass in world-building through action. The high-octane chase sequence immediately thrusts audiences into the post-apocalyptic wasteland, where unique vehicles, factions, and a lawless society are on full display. The kinetic energy and chaotic visuals paint a vivid picture of a world teetering on the edge of madness.
9. Use Dialogue with Purpose
Every line of dialogue should serve a purpose, particularly in the opening pages. Use conversations to reveal character dynamics, convey essential information, or add a touch of humor. Snappy and meaningful dialogue can effectively captivate the audience’s attention while advancing the plot.
The Social Network opens with a dialogue-heavy scene between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, Erica. The conversation takes a sharp turn as Erica confronts Mark about his obsession with social status and his dismissive attitude toward others. This intense exchange sets the stage for the film’s exploration of ambition, betrayal, and the creation of Facebook.
10. End with a Hook
Just as the opening draws the audience in, the first ten pages should close with a hook that leaves them craving more. This could be a surprising twist, a dramatic revelation, or a pressing question that lingers in their minds. An enticing conclusion to the opening sets the stage for a story that promises excitement and satisfaction.
For example, Jaws begins with a young woman swimming in the ocean at night. As she is suddenly pulled underwater, the scene cuts to her frantic screams. The closing shot of her lifeless buoy sets the stage for the film’s suspenseful exploration of the shark attacks that terrorize the town. The abrupt ending leaves viewers with a sense of dread and curiosity about the impending danger.
Mastering the art of crafting a fantastic opening to your script is a skill that can elevate your storytelling. Remember that the opening of your script is your opportunity to seize the audience’s attention and immerse them in a world of captivating storytelling. So, pick up your pen, fire up your keyboard, and let the magic of those first ten pages unfold.
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Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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